It is that time of year again. The leaves are turning golden, red, and orange (or just brown), the nights are drawing in, and there is a chill in the air. Also, potential PhD students are emailing faculty members about applying for PhD positions.
The application and funding system in the UK is varied and complex. After going through the centralised UCAS system when applying for undergraduate courses, many students are left bewildered at exactly how to apply for a PhD and how to secure funding. Here is a brief guide for those applying in the UK.
Broadly, there are three (well, four if you include self-funding, but I would try to avoid that if you can) ways to get funded in the UK: (1) an advertised funded PhD supported by a grant to the supervisor, (2) a centralised departmental/university studentship, and (3) a doctoral training programme (DTP) funded by one of the major UK funding bodies. Sometimes overseas tuition fees are covered, but often they are not. The lack of studentships available to international students, coupled with EU students now paying international fees, is depressing but a topic for another day.
The way you apply for each of these options will vary, and even if you are applying solely to DTPs, the application process will vary across DTPs. Faced with all this variety it is easy to get overwhelmed, trying to read different websites across different universities, some seemingly contradicting each other. What is a potential PhD student to do?
The first approach
The best way to avoid all this confusion is to take a step back from the funding mechanisms and think about what you want to study, where you want to study, and who you want to study with. You don’t need a clear proposal, but you should have a good idea of the general area, which departments are strong in this area, and who specifically does research in this area. Try to get to the point where you can identify an area and several potential researchers who could potentially supervise you. Once you have this information, you are ready to approach individual people.
I would start with emailing a select few people you really want to work with, preferably in October (now!) so there is plenty of time to apply. 2-4 potential supervisors should be sufficient at first, and if you don’t hear back from some you can always email others. You should try to research the people you approach – know exactly what research they do and preferably read a couple of recent papers. Make sure your research interests overlap with theirs. They don’t have to exactly, but they should overlap enough, and you should be able to clearly state where this overlap lies.
Your email doesn’t want to be a long essay, but nor should be it a couple of sentences. I would start with a few sentences about your academic record (what you have studied, grades etc.), then a short statement about what your research interests are and what (general) topic you would like to pursue during your PhD. You should then make it clear how they fit with this – make it clear you know what they research and how your potential topics fits with this research. If you are relatively open to topic, I would still try to say what you would like to do (to show you have some ideas) but state you are also open to other projects. Finally, one or two sentences making it clear why you have emailed them (basically why you want to do a PhD at that department and with that supervisor) would be good. Attach your CV to this email.
The first meeting and beyond
Hopefully they will respond to you. It might be a simple “sorry, I’m not looking for new PhD students this year”, but it might be more positive. If it is, I would try to organise a Zoom meeting (or Teams meeting if you are a masochist) so you can meet them and vice versa. At this point you should be thinking about how well you connect with them – were you able to have an interesting conversation about potential projects, do they seem supportive, are they providing you with appropriate information and advice? The more you get a sense of whether you will be able to work with them for the next three years the better.
If all goes well, and you are both excited to apply for funding, this is the point when you need to think about the logistics of applying and potential funding mechanisms. Your potential supervisor should have a good idea of the funding landscape at their institution. There may be a single application, or you might have to apply for different funding programmes. If the latter, you should hopefully be able to write a single project proposal and then make small edits dependent on the specific application. Some DTPs don’t require a clear project proposal, and you don’t apply with the potential supervisor. This doesn’t negate approaching your potential supervisor first though. They should be able to offer support and advice on how to apply, increasing your chances of getting funded. In my opinion it is better to put more effort into fewer applications than applying for as many things as possible. This is particularly the case if you are writing different project proposals with different potential supervisors. If you have a strong CV, then it is the proposal and the input and feedback you get from your potential supervisor that will likely make the difference between getting funded and missing out.
Deciding what to study and who to pick as a supervisor is difficult. At some point it is a risk and you have to take a chance. However, two things are critical: (1) you have to like and be interested in the research topic and (2) you have to connect with your potential supervisor. In relation to the latter, this doesn’t mean you can joke around with them (if you can that is fine). It means you can talk openly with them about research and about your career. It means that you feel they would support you during your PhD and help you do the best science you can do. This might mean they challenge you and ask difficult questions at times. However, they should create an atmosphere where you feel you want to rise to those challenges and also feel comfortable simply saying "I don't know (yet...)". Having seen different models of supervision, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, I have learned to value a professional but supportive atmosphere over a purely “friendly” one. The latter can sometimes, though not always, cover over more toxic behaviour that isn’t immediately obvious. Think carefully about whether you think you as an individual will be provided with the support you need to become the best researcher you have the potential to be by the time you finish your PhD.
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