A PhD is in many ways an ‘individual arrangement’ as you’ll be working on an individual research project. In this post, we tell you about 12 mistakes you should avoid when applying for a PhD programme.
1. You’re Not Ready
A PhD programme in the UK takes a minimum of three years to complete, but usually it takes four years.
During this time, you will have research supervision and will interact with other PhD students, in your department and beyond. However, for the most part, you’ll be working on your own: organising your own work, planning your tasks, and making sure you stay on schedule.
Working independently has as many advantages as it does disadvantages. It’s not unusual for PhD students to feel ‘lonely’ at some point during their PhD programme. Also, working on the same project for a number of years requires discipline and much dedication.
Make sure you’re ready for life as a PhD student. You’ll find it’s very different from your experience of university life as an undergraduate or Masters student.
2. You Don’t Have a Clear Research Question
PhD programmes in the UK are not taught in the classroom. You apply to do a PhD if you have a specific ‘research question’ or ‘research problem’ that you want to investigate. Importantly, your planned research has to be ‘significant’ and has to have the potential to make a difference to what we already know about the subject.
If you have a research question that isn’t yet well-defined, you may find it helpful to get in touch with one or two academic departments that you’re interested in applying to. Discussing your plans with an academic and getting feedback will help you further develop your ideas.
However, if you have no idea what to focus your research on, this probably means you’re not yet ready to apply for a PhD. Or if you do apply, you may not be able to secure an offer.
3. Research Interests Don’t Match
When choosing a university to do your PhD with, the most important thing is that the university covers your research interest. Otherwise your PhD application won’t be successful.
The university’s interest and experience in your research area is also important in terms of the type of support they can offer you during your time with them. For example, if you need access to specific publications or equipment for your research, you’ll need to make sure your chosen university can provide this for you.
Also, when a university is particularly active in a certain subject, it’s more likely to have relevant international research and business links. Both can prove beneficial to you, either during your research, or later in your career.
4. You can’t find a Research Supervisor
When it comes to PhD programmes, finding the right academic supervisor is as important as finding the right university.
Once you’ve come up with a list of universities that are strong in your research area, for each you should find at least one academic who may be able to supervise your research. You could discuss your plans with your current university professors to see if they may be able to recommend some of their colleagues in the UK to you.
It’s quite usual for PhD applicants to choose a university because they’re aware of a specific academic member of staff or research centre that they want to work with.
When looking at the profile of an academic, pay attention to their list of publications, as well as the PhD projects they’re supervising or have supervised in the past. This gives you a good idea about the areas the academic is actively working in, and how interested they may be in your PhD project.
What you mustn’t do is apply without identifying one or more potential supervisors. Remember, if the university cannot offer you supervision for your PhD, they cannot offer you a place.
5. You Don’t Contact the Supervisor
Advice on whether you should contact the department before sending your PhD application can vary.
Many universities will encourage you to contact your potential supervisor before applying. This way, you can tell them about your research plans and see if they would be interested in your PhD application.
Other universities clearly state on their website that they can only consider full applications.
Our advice is to contact your potential supervisor or academic department whenever university policy allows it. You can email your CV and a summary of the research that you plan to do. If you’re unsure who to contact, send your enquiry to the Director of Graduate Studies (or similar) within the department. He or she will then forward it onto the right colleague.
6. You Expect to be ‘Taught’
As mentioned earlier, a PhD degree in the UK isn’t a series of modules that you’re taught in the classroom.
Having said this, many PhD programmes do include some seminars, especially in the first year, to give you additional skills and preparation in specific areas. For example, universities often offer courses in quantitative and qualitative research methods, statistics and other relevant research skills.
Similarly, some PhD programmes might require that you attend seminars or lectures to improve your theoretical knowledge of your subject area. This can especially be the case if neither your undergraduate nor your Masters degree was in a subject related to your PhD.
7. You Don’t Know the Entry Requirements
To enter a PhD programme in the UK, you will usually need to have a qualification that is considered to be the same as or ‘equivalent’ to a UK Masters degree.
However, UK Universities set their own entry requirements, and there can be differences in the admissions qualifications required – even for different subjects within the same university.
If you’re not sure whether you meet the admissions requirements, you can always check with the university by contacting the admissions office.
Although this is not the usual route, you may be able to apply for a PhD without a Masters degree.
If you have a strong undergraduate degree, an excellent PhD application, and a well-thought-out research proposal – you may be able to convince the university to admit you as a research student without a Masters degree.
If English is not your first language, you will, in addition to your academic qualifications, need to meet the university’s English language requirements. Depending on the university and subject, you may also need to sit other exams, such as GMAT.
8. You Don’t Have the Funding
PhD programmes last at least three years, but usually take four. During this time, you will need to cover your international tuition fees and your living expenses. In addition, you won’t have the possibility of earning a full-time salary.
If you need a scholarship, you should say it in your PhD application. Your financial circumstances won’t affect the university’s final decision on your PhD application.
In your PhD application form, you will usually be asked to provide details of how you’re planning to fund your studies. Don’t worry, this information won’t be used when assessing your application. The university simply needs to know whether you have the funding for your PhD studies, or whether your research plans are dependent on a university or external scholarship.
The university may have research scholarships that you can apply for. Or, they might also be able to advise you about suitable external scholarship schemes that you can apply to.
9. You Think It’s too Late to Start
Compared with taught courses, research programmes have more flexible entry dates. You can usually enter at the start of any of the academic terms – January, April and October.
In reality however, many universities will allow you to start at any time – as long as your future supervisor agrees to the start date.
However, if your PhD offer requires that you take additional courses to improve your research or other such skills, your start date will be determined by the university.
10. You Don’t Check Your Application Deadline
Many PhD programmes don’t have an official application deadline, as the majority of universities will take PhD applications throughout the year.
When there is a deadline, this tends to be quite late in the year. Usually around July or later for PhD programmes beginning in October.
However, this flexibility isn’t on offer everywhere. Application deadlines can vary greatly, and some universities do have earlier admissions deadlines for their PhD programmes.
11. Your Research Proposal Is Too Weak
Your research proposal is by far the most important part of your PhD application.
In your research proposal, you are telling the university about your research question, why it matters and how you plan to carry out your research.
Make sure to read our advice on how to successfully write your research proposal.
12. Your Personal Statement Is Too Weak
Your personal statement is different from your research proposal.
The research proposal is about the research project you plan to do, whereas your personal statement is about you.
In your personal statement, you are telling the university about your background, your motivations, your experience, and your future plans. This is also your opportunity to tell them about any support you will need for your PhD degree, for example, if you need training in research skills, if you have any special needs, or you require financial assistance.
Applying for a PhD programme will take some time.
Unless you’re already familiar with some universities, research centres or academics in the UK, you will need to dedicate some time and effort to finding the right university for you to do your research with.
Remember, if you apply to a department that can’t support your research area, they won’t be interested – even if you have an excellent application and research proposal.
We always strongly recommend that you look for a potential supervisor and get in touch with him or her – unless the university’s website clearly states they can only accept full applications.