Top tips on how to apply for a PhD – from an MMB Alumni Ambassador

By Ella Barclay.

Applying for a PhD in the UK can be an incredible opportunity to connect with scholars, focus your research ideas and challenge yourself along the way, regardless of the outcome. Having gone through the process in the past year I’ve learned that it’s an exciting experience but also a very steep learning curve. So, in an attempt to help the next wave of students, I’ve compiled a list of tips that I wish I’d known at the start of my journey. If you’re particularly interested in doing a PhD on migration and mobilities at Bristol, then these tips build on the advice on the MMB doctoral studies webpage.

Top tip 1: Funding applications are often separate from the PhD course application

To anyone who has anything to do with PhDs this may seem obvious, but it took me a long time to figure it out! Put simply, applying for a PhD at a UK university is only half the battle for most candidates, as this often does not include funding. For example, if you want to apply for a funded PhD at the University of Bristol, you need to complete the university’s online application and then apply separately to one of the relevant funding bodies.

Inevitably, there will be a crossover between the supporting documents for each application, but you should tailor the statements towards the specific institution or funding body. With this in mind, I would recommend not applying to too many universities, as you want to make sure you put enough time into each application and produce your best work. It is also worth noting that you cannot apply twice to some doctoral partnerships, so you may want to avoid applying to multiple universities in the same region.

Importantly, PhD course deadlines may be in July, for an October start, but funding deadlines often fall in January. Work backwards from the funding deadline and ensure that your university application is completed before this, to give you plenty of time to discuss your proposal with your supervisor.

Top tip 2: Contact prospective supervisors whose research interests align with yours

Finding a potential supervisor can seem daunting, but it is typically a requirement for PhD applications. Building a connection with your prospective supervisor allows you to create a focused and persuasive application, so finding someone who shares your research interests is essential. There are a few ways to go about this. First, if any of the core writers on your prospective research topic are PhD supervisors, reach out to them! Second, use contacts you already have, such as lecturers or personal tutors, as they may have recommendations. Finally, think about what is important to your research: if a university has access to useful archives, look through the profiles of available PhD supervisors at that institution and find one whose interests align with yours.

In your first email to a supervisor, briefly introduce yourself and your proposed research; they will appreciate the assertiveness! Remember, you will be working with this supervisor throughout your PhD and therefore these interactions are as much for them to learn about you as they are for you to learn about them.

Top tip 3: Consider the 1+3 PhD, even if you already have a Masters

This was a big question for me when thinking about what kind of PhD to apply for. The main difference between a typical +3 or +4 award, in comparison to a 1+3 award, is that the former consists of just the PhD, whereas the latter includes an associated Masters course.

Many funding bodies have a list of postgraduate degrees that they view as having sufficient emphasis on research skills, thereby preparing students to dive straight into a PhD on a +3 or +4 award. However, if your course is not on this list, then you may be encouraged to do the 1+3 qualification. This should not be viewed as a setback, but rather as a chance to develop your research skills and ease into the PhD life.

Top tip 4: Interviews are a great opportunity to showcase your proposed research

If you have been offered an interview then the institution has faith in both you and your proposal and simply wants to see this in action. As such, the interviewers are not trying to catch you out, but rather are allowing you to outline your research and explain why you are a worthy candidate.

You will often be asked to give a short presentation about your work, your suitability and why you think you will be an asset to the institution. Importantly, the interviewers will have already read your application so don’t just recite your written proposal or go into excessive detail; they will ask for more information if they need it. Additionally, consider not using a PowerPoint presentation. As well as avoiding potential tech issues, not using slides allows the interviewers to see you speak about your research with enthusiasm and confidence. The more you engage with the panel the better.

For the question portion of the interview, it is always worth talking to your prospective supervisor beforehand, as they will have an idea of what questions may come up. But most commonly interviewers want to discuss your contribution to the field. Understanding where your research fits in the landscape of existing literature and its potential influence in both academic and non-academic spheres is essential to any PhD application.

You will also be encouraged to ask questions at the end of the interview, which is a great way to show interest and enthusiasm. Also, if you forgot to mention something in your presentation, then you should add it here. Again, this is welcomed.

Top tip 5: Believe that you can do it!

It wouldn’t be a list of top tips without one clichéd point! That being said, this is an essential part of the process: applying for a PhD is challenging and there is no room for self-doubt. Whether it be in your personal statement or final interview, you need to show the panel that you are more than capable of carrying out your research and creating an impact.

If you’ve got to the stage where you are handing in an application or attending an interview, you have the support of both your supervisors and your referees. All these people believe that you are capable of succeeding in this exciting challenge, and you should feel the same!

Ella Barclay is an MMB Alumni Ambassador and graduated from the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol in 2020. She is currently working at North Bristol Advice Centre before starting her PhD at the University of West England researching the sexual and reproductive rights of undocumented migrants in the UK’s hostile environment.

(Images: Hannah Wei and Ran Berkovich on Unsplash.)

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