How to Apply for a PhD – Application Process Explained


This guide explains the PhD application process and outlines the steps you will need to follow, and information you will need to provide when applying to a PhD programme.

How to Apply for a PhD – Application Process

There is no single guide that can cover the entire application process for applying to PhDs, as it differs not only between universities, but also between programmes. In the same sense, what a supervisor might consider a strong application for one of their programmes, they may consider a weak application for another of their programmes.

Furthermore, the process of applying for a PhD in the UK can be slightly challenging to navigate as there is no centralised application system, as is the case with undergraduate degrees, and the process can vary from university to university.

Regardless of this, the below outlines the most common steps you will need to follow when applying for a PhD. Pay particular attention to each stage, as slipping on a single one of them can significantly affect your chances of securing the PhD you want.

1. Find Research Projects you like

Identify research areas that align with your research interest.

This should be done by thinking about all topics, courses, projects, recent publications, recurring questions or experiences that have caught your curiosity over the past year.

Note: If you have difficulty finding a research topic that interests you, read our guide to choosing a research topic.

Once you have a better understanding of your preferred research area, browse through our PhD listings or the ‘postgraduate research degree’ and ‘research centre’ sections of a university’s website if you already have a particular one in mind.

This is probably the most important thing to consider before you apply to PhD programmes given you will be working on your project for the next three to eight years – make sure not to rush it.

Note: If you intend to study part time or via distance learning, make sure to check the university offers this option as not all do.

2. Contact Potential PhD Supervisors

If you are proposing your own research project, which is usually the case with a self-funded postgraduate programme, you will need to find your own potential supervisor.

The best way to find a suitable PhD supervisor is to review the staff profiles on the department’s webpage and examine the topics they have published on in the past two years, as well as the research projects of the students they have supervised in the past. This will help you decide whether their research interests coincide with yours. Outside of research interests, there are other aspects you will want to look for, such as their level of support and patience, and how successful their former students have been. For further information on this, you can learn how to find a good PhD supervisor here.

If you are applying to a pre-determined research project, which is usually the case with funded programmes, you do not need to find a supervisor, as they already have a supervisor assigned to them.

Before you formally apply to funded PhD projects, most PhD supervisors will prefer you to apply informally by sending them an email with your CV. This is so they can better understand your motives for applying and where your academic strengths lie before you start the formal application process.

3. Online Application Form

Once you have found a research programme you are interested in, most universities will require you to make a formal application via their online application portal. The below outlines the supporting documentation you will likely require when completing your online application form.

Academic Qualifications and Transcripts

If you have completed your studies, you will be asked to provide original or certified copies of your academic qualifications.

If you are still studying, you will need to provide an interim transcript of the grades you have received to date and details of any previous qualifications you have acquired.

Academic CV

An academic CV outlines your contact details, academic background and relevant experience. You can read our guide on how to prepare an effective academic CV here.

Cover Letter

An academic cover letter can be requested alongside your CV. An academic cover letter explains why you are applying for the particular PhD project, why you are a strong candidate for the position and what you can offer the department as a research student. You can read our guide on how to prepare a strong cover letter here.

Personal Statement

Instead of a cover letter, you may be asked to submit a personal statement. A personal statement is a short document describing your interest in the research programme and explaining why you believe you are suitable for it.

Research Proposal

Most universities will require you to submit a research proposal, especially if you are not applying to a pre-determined research project.

A research proposal is a short document describing your proposed research project. It outlines your research question, which topic it concerns and why you consider it valuable. It is used to show you have the potential for postgraduate-level research by showing that you can communicate complex ideas and evaluate them at their fundamental level. A research proposal also allows the academic department to match you with a suitable PhD supervisor with the expertise to support you if needed.


To support your application, you will be asked for an academic reference, ideally from one or more academic referees.

This is so the university has evidence from another academic source that you are a person who is capable of undertaking PhD study, not only in terms of your credentials and academic abilities but also in terms of your character, as someone who demonstrates commitment, perseverance, independence and the ability to communicate effectively.

To ensure the legitimacy of your references, universities often have strict requirements for how they are to be provided, such as requiring the use of official letterheads and original signatures from the reference provider. Therefore, you must check the specific requirements of each institution and forward them to your referee to minimise the risk of any rejections.

Other Supporting Information

Most online forms also have sections where you can upload any additional supporting information. This can include example evidence, such as previous papers you have published or conferences you have participated in.

Note that example evidence, especially of scientific research, is rarely required for STEM subjects

4. Entry Requirements

Academic Qualifications

The entry requirement for most UK universities is a 2:1 (Upper Second Class Honours) undergraduate degree, or equivalent qualification, in a relevant subject.

Note that while many universities require a Masters degree, not all do; it’s possible to enrol in a PhD programme with just a Bachelors degree, as many students have successfully done so in the past.

In both cases, you will be asked to submit a copy of your degree certificate if you have completed your undergraduate study.

English Language Requirement

If you are an international student from a non-native English speaking country, most universities will require you to either meet their English language requirements or complete an English course with them before starting your PhD.

The two most common tests used to examine English language proficiencies for postgraduate study are the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

Although the score requirements will vary depending on the course and institution, the typical requirements are:

  • IELTS – Overall score of 6.5, and no less than 6.0 in each test category.
  • TOELF – Overall score of 88.

International Applicant

If you’re an international student, you may need a Tier 4 (General) Student Visa to study in the UK. If this is the case, the university will require your passport details or a copy of your first page and photo page.

Find Your PhD, Fast

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5. Other Things to Keep in Mind

Start Date

In most countries, including the UK, a PhD studentship starts in September or October of each academic year. However, it’s worth noting that most PhD projects are flexible and can therefore start at any time throughout the year.

Application Deadline

The deadline for a PhD position will be indicated in its advert description, however, you should apply to them as early as possible as a PhD position can sometimes be filled before its official closing date.

As well as monitoring the course deadline, also be aware of the closing dates of associated doctoral research funding opportunities. This is because some funded PhD projects require you to apply individually to both the course and the funding opportunity.

Standardised Tests

Depending on the type of doctorate you are applying for, you may need to take examinations as part of the application process.

While this is uncommon in the UK, most graduate schools in the US and Canada integrate standardised tests into their doctoral course admissions process, with minimum test scores set as an entry requirement for their PhD programs.

MPhil Registration First

In the UK, most PhD students first have to register for an MPhil (Master of Philosophy) for the first year of their studies, and only if they pass it, which usually requires the production of a report and an informal interview, will their course be upgraded to a PhD.

Making Several Applications

Unfortunately, for various reasons, you may not always get your preferred supervisor or research project, so it is best to apply for several projects on one or more research topics you interest you.

Note: Unlike other parts of the world, such as the United States, most UK universities don’t require application fees for applying to PhD projects. Therefore, we encourage you to apply for as many as possible, while still keeping them relevant to your interests and the applications tailored to each individual project.

Please note that the application process for a professional doctorate, such as a DBA or EngD, is slightly different from the one mentioned in this guide. Therefore, please consult the guidelines of the university you wish to apply to before applying.


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