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A Complete Guide on How to Prepare an Effective Application for a PhD Programme

The decision to enter a PhD programme is a huge decision anyone can make. It may give a great boost to a professional career or open the doors to the academic world. What can be said for sure is that your life won’t be the same after making such a decision.

A PhD gives you opportunities to conduct research in a field that is interesting for you and you can typically choose a topic of your own. Along with that, PhD programmes are heavily formalised, and there are clear and strict requirements to be met at each step of the way to a PhD degree.

The following step-by-step guide will help you prepare an excellent PhD application as well as be prepared for any possible ‘surprises’ that might arise.

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1. Define the field

First of all, you need to determine in which field you are going to apply. While many smaller universities offer only one common PhD programme regardless of what field you choose, larger universities do make a distinction. So, the requirements for applying for a PhD in Arts, Economics, or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines will be different.

The differences will capture not only the field but also the format of a PhD project. In many technical and engineering disciplines, you may be offered a predesigned project on a topic that will be an essential part of a larger topic explored by a university. Another option may be an offer to join a project team where you will have your own area of responsibility. These formats imply that you will have less freedom in determining the area of research and its goals as they may be determined by the Administration or Heads of research. On the flip side, these options will provide you with a clear understanding of what you will have to do in your PhD research.

Meanwhile, if you apply for a PhD programme in spheres such as Economics or Arts, you will have less certainty on what your research should be focused on. In other words, you get to determine the field of research and suggest the topic. The Commission will consider whether the suggested topic is worth being explored within a PhD programme.

2. Choose an appropriate university

The choice of an appropriate university is also very important. If you merely want to attain a PhD degree, but do not know the topic of your research, your choice should be based on points such as affordability of a PhD programme and its specifics, location, reputation and common requirements to PhD applicants.

Some universities often have specific directions of research and offer PhD students and applicants ready-to-explore research topics in line with that common direction. This can be quite convenient for those who do not wish to suggest or face difficulties with formulating their own topics for research. On the one hand, this makes the first step easier for PhD applicants as they are built into the existing research framework. On the other hand, the requirements in this format will be stricter as you will have less freedom for independent suggestions in the research.

For social and art-connected disciplines, more freedom will be available for a researcher. You’ll be able to suggest your own topic, develop a research design to explore it and choose particular methods to attain your study goals.

Anyway, you should take the choice of university seriously, after all, you’ll be working with this university and supervisors for the next 3-5 years during your project. If you choose to change university during your project, this can mean you’ll have to start your project again.

3. Make the first draft of a PhD proposal

A PhD proposal is a document where you outline the ideas of your future PhD research. It is worth noting that at this stage this will only be the first draft that may be amended several times or rewritten in the future. The aim of preparing a proposal before submitting documents to particular PhD programmes is to demonstrate that you are aware of what a PhD study is and what your research will look like during the programme. If you do not have such a draft, it will be difficult for you to show the universities and tutors that you are worth becoming a PhD student.

In this draft, you do not need to demonstrate any research done so far. However, it should contain your preliminary topic of future research where you have identified a previously unexamined gap in the field. Your PhD proposal should also include a brief literature review that demonstrates the current state of affairs in the field and a description of methods you are going to use to solve your scientific problem. In a nutshell, you need to explain how you are going to conduct your future research and why.

4. Find and contact a suitable supervisor

It is equally important not only to choose an appropriate university but also a suitable tutor as well. A tutor or PhD supervisor is a person with whom you will communicate very often in the coming years and on whom the success of your training depends to a large extent. All tutors are qualified and experienced, but personal contact and compatibility between you and them will also play a role. Two main criteria should be key when choosing a tutor, namely their sphere of interests and personal traits.

In terms of personality, it is feasible to look for a tutor who would enhance your strong skills and mitigate weak points. If you are self-organised, you will likely need a punctual tutor as well. If you are gushing with ideas, you need a tutor who would not shut up this fountain but would rather channel them appropriately.

The tutor’s professional interests are also important. A tutor who can be very attractive as a person may not be qualified enough in the narrow field you wish to choose. Accordingly, their help may be less productive.

For predesigned PhD projects, available tutors will be listed. In most cases, this will be the head of the entire research programme within which your PhD dissertation will be written. If you do not participate in a predesigned project but suggest a research topic on your own, then you will also have to look for the most appropriate tutor. To make a list of potential candidates, check the research fields and research interests on the websites of universities. This will be a good starting point. Contact several potential tutors to inquire about details before submitting the documents. You need to gain their consent to work with you and make sure that student vacancies are available. 

5. Explore the PhD programme requirements in a particular university

The next two points are the key ones in the entire process of applying for a PhD programme. The previous points connected with determining the field of the research and a topic, and the choice of a university and a tutor are preliminary although they are also important. The following three points reveal the formal details to check when applying for a PhD programme.

An important thing is to decide whether you apply for a full-time or a part-time programme. A full-time option implies that your main occupation for the period of the programme will be your university. In this case, do not think that the PhD study is for free time while you may spend your most of your time on other activities. It is fraught with a severe failure in a PhD programme as it will require you to spend a lot of time on it. Typically, a programme will consist of coursework which is similar to the study at a bachelor’s or master’s level but with a deeper immersion into taught disciplines and a research part when you conduct an independent PhD research. In addition, some universities require PhD students to read lectures for undergraduate students. The length of such study is between 3 and 6 years in different universities.

A part-time option implies that you will have to spend about half of your working time in a university or dedicate it to equivalent activities. A drawback of this variant is that it lasts twice as long as the full-time study and may take up to 8 years.

Depending on the country, university requirements may differ significantly. In particular, PhD study in UK universities often does not imply coursework but is mostly focused on conducting your research and writing your PhD thesis. Meanwhile, US universities, especially the largest and most prestigious ones, are stricter in terms of requirements for coursework and dissertation writing. You will spend the first 2-3 years on the coursework, and only after finishing it and passing all exams may you be granted permission to start the PhD research. However, the dissertation requirements are more lenient than in the UK. Australian universities are something in between US and UK universities. In most cases, you will have to both undertake the coursework and write a dissertation, but the coursework requirements are less strict than in the US whereas dissertation requirements are less strict than in the UK.

6. Form a pack of documents

The PhD application implies that you prepare a set of documents. The exact list of required documents depends on the university you are applying to, but the most common documents include:

– PhD proposal

Remember that you’ve already prepared a PhD proposal? Not only you will send it to potential tutors, but it will be a part of your official allocation package as well. This document will explain what you are going to explore and how you will do it. It is a good idea to check what exactly you should include in the proposal for applying to UK and US universities as requirements may differ. In UK universities you will likely need a more detailed proposal as it will already be an initial plan of working on the dissertation, and amendments will be insignificant. Meanwhile, US universities will require a shorter proposal as you will attend the coursework and the initial proposal will change significantly and will turn into a prospectus after passing the coursework exams and by the time you start working on the dissertation itself.

– Transcript

This document reveals in detail what courses you attended at the bachelor’s and master’s levels and what marks you had in the corresponding disciplines. If the language of the transcript differs from the language of the university you are applying to, you will need an official translation as well.

– CV

A CV (curriculum vitae – Latin) is a document that reflects the main events in your life from the viewpoint of education and professional experience. What CV readers want to know is your educational background – level of education (bachelor’s or master’s degree), exact universities or colleges you studied in and the sphere of education; relevant working experience; non-educational study activities such as charity, participation in social projects etc.; knowledge of languages; technical skills such as programming skills, ability to work with specific analytical software, ability to work with complex equipment, design skills etc.

– Statement of purpose

This document is sometimes thought to be the same as the research proposal, but this is not the case. The statement of purpose is a kind of cover letter that describes why you are applying to a particular PhD programme and why you should be admitted. You can also explain some key points of your CV which you think will present you beneficially in the eyes of the commission. The size of the statement of purpose should be 1 sheet maximum (about 400-500 words).

– Language exam certificates

If you apply for a PhD programme in a foreign university, you may be required to provide language exam certificates that would ensure that you can understand the language of future education at a decent level. These are international exam certificates such as ILETS, TOEFL and others. The required level of language skills will vary across universities.

– Personal statement

This document is not always required by universities. Accordingly, the requirements for what has to be written in this statement also vary across universities substantially. The purpose of this statement is to disclose some sides of your life that were not disclosed in other documents.

Additionally, you can provide other documents that would represent you beneficially. These may include academic awards such as certificates of specialised scientific Olympiads, documents confirming your participation in conferences and other public events, or a list of relevant publications etc. Such documents may provide you with additional advantages for admission other things being equal. 

7. Check funding opportunities

Another important thing to check is the payment conditions, namely the cost of PHD study and the terms of payment. The cost of a PhD programme will also vary significantly across countries and universities.

What you should also check is the availability of options that would provide you with an education grant. The cost of a PhD programme is quite high and you may lack the finance to pay for this education. However, you should check whether you meet the requirements and can apply for an educational grant. This would make the PhD education more affordable for you.

Hopefully this guide has helped you prepare a complete and thorough PhD application for your future education. Don’t forget to contact Original PhD if you need any PhD assignment writing help or assistance with your application for PhD research!