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The PhD Application Process

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Summary

This article will explain the PhD application process, and outline what should be included in a strong application. 

  • There is no centralised application process 
  • You can either apply formally then attend an interview or meet with supervisors informally first before completing the application process
  • Most students will work on a project pre-defined by the supervisor rather than writing their own research proposal from scratch

What Is the Process?

The process of applying for a PhD in the UK is an interesting one. There’s no single application system in the same way that you’ll find with undergraduate degrees and the process can differ considerably depending on the university, the department and even the supervisor.

Some institutions may expect formal applications to the university, similar to how you would apply for a job (CV and covering letter), followed by an interview with the supervisory team, whilst others may encourage informal meetings with potential supervisors first, after which any paperwork becomes more of a formality (but still important to get right) to ensure you’re officially enrolled with the university.

What Options Are Available to Me?

A key influencing factor in the process of applying to a PhD is funding. It is important to consider:

Is the institution offering a studentship that covers tuition fees and provides a stipend, with a specific research project in mind?

1. Is the institution offering a studentship that covers tuition fees and provides a stipend, with a specific research project in mind?

Is a supervisor looking for a student to work on a specific research project but the funding for this still needs to be sourced?

2. Is a supervisor looking for a student to work on a specific research project but the funding for this still needs to be sourced?

Is the institution accepting applications from potential PhD students with their own research proposals for which funding needs to be source?

3. Is the institution accepting applications from potential PhD students with their own research proposals for which funding needs to be source?

The most common way in which students enter onto PhD programmes is through one of the first two scenarios described above: there is a specific project in mind that may or may not be attached to funding at the time of advertising. If you look at the listings for PhD projects on our site you’ll see that most offer some level of funding (e.g. covering fees only or fees plus living cost stipend).

“Use your CV and covering letter to differentiate yourself in the application process”

What Do I Need to Include in My PhD Application?

The specifics on application forms may vary but the common details to provide will be:

  • Your personal details – This is the usual: name, address, date-of-birth etc.
  • If you require a Tier 4 visa, then you’ll need to include your passport details, usually at least a copy of the front and photo page of the passport.
  • Your proposed start date – some institutions may set a preferred start date, whilst others may have greater flexibility (e.g. those open to applications all year round). Your start date may be dependent on your current commitments, whether they are completing your undergraduate degree or the notice period needed to leave your job if you are working.
  • Your education history: most recent first, which will commonly by either your masters or bachelor’s degree. Most people include their A-level and GCSE results (or the equivalent if applying from outside the UK) which we think is fine to do.
  • If English is not your first language, then proof of your English level which is usually in the form of a certificate awarded by the EF Standard English Test committee.
  • Details of the project you are applying to and the supervisors for this. This is either the project being advertised (most common) or your own research proposal.
  • Details of at least two academic (ideally) referees.
  • Your supporting documents: Copies of your degree certificates, references etc.
  • The CV and covering letter.

Whatever the specific route that you end up going down in your application process, the two aspects to get right to really sell yourself as a suitable candidate are your academic CV and covering letter

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