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Four key factors to consider when applying for a PhD

There are many aspects that make up a good PhD programme. In many cases, relying only on the reputation of the university or institution is not going to be enough to guarantee a successful and fulfilling doctoral experience. This article outlines four key factors to consider as you start to apply for doctoral study. For further details and pragmatic tips for starting your search for a PhD, also read our other articles on selecting the right supervisor, and the best place for your research.

Your research proposal

Every PhD application should begin with a proposed research topic – what do you want to research? While there are certainly new, creative methods for doing a PhD, the traditional focus of a PhD is upon research, mostly conducted independently by the student. 

You will therefore need to have a good idea of exactly what you intend to research. Every PhD thesis should aim to contribute original knowledge to a particular field of study – this means that you will investigate some aspect of your chosen subject area that has not yet been studied, or work to answer specific research questions that have not been addressed.

It is a good idea to read as much as you can around your chosen area as you think about your research proposal. Find out what research has already been done and written about; understand the prominent debates in your field, and think about how you can expand or add to existing work. Begin to ask questions about what you’re reading and identify gaps in the knowledge – these strands of thought will form the basis for creating your own research proposal.

Your PhD supervisor

Your supervisor (sometimes called an advisor) is the person you will work most closely and frequently with throughout your PhD. Most PhDs require that you work independently, so the supervisor is the only main point of contact to help guide your research and offer advice.

Thinking about who you will work with is just as important as where you will do your research and what your research is on. Look for someone who is not only knowledgeable in their field but who will be able and willing to support your academic and research goals. 

Remember too that the PhD is carried out over a long period of time, and can sometimes feel quite lonely as so much of the work is done independently. When searching for a supervisor, pay attention to their people skills too – are they approachable and easy to work with? Will they be able to support your mental and social wellbeing as well as your academic progress? Do not overlook qualities like kindness and empathy – a caring supervisor will make a big difference to the success – or difficulty – of your PhD.

The right department and university

Do not rely only upon the rankings and reputation of a university to determine where you decide to do your PhD. Some universities may rank very highly on league tables, but the specific department you wish to work with may not be strong in research; conversely, some departments may rank very highly for the strength of their research but be located within universities that are not prestigious or widely known. 

It is more important to look for departments that specialise in your area of research and are able to provide the academic support, resources, training and guidance for you to excel in your chosen research topic. 

If there are certain academics whose work you admire and you want to pursue PhD research in a similar area, look up the departments and institutions they are in or have been affiliated with. These departments should often be better-equipped to support that kind of research and have a good community of both research students and full-time researchers in that field.


Last, but certainly not least, it is important to begin thinking as early as possible about how you will fund your research. 

If you have private funding support, this is certainly one less factor to worry about. However, whether you are self-funded or you are applying for grants/loans, be aware that a PhD can sometimes stretch for a longer period than what is officially stated. PhD programmes are not conducted within a fixed term like taught degrees, but can vary considerably in length, depending on the progress and outcomes of each individual project. It is good to plan for some back-up funding should you need more time.

Be clear about what exactly your funding covers. Some bodies will only fund the official length of the PhD programme (e.g. commonly three years in the U.K.) and individuals will have to find their own financial support for any additional time they take (what is often known as the writing-up year). Some funding institutions will only pay for tuition and not include living expenses. Often, students work part-time alongside their PhDs in order to supplement their income; consider if that is an option you might be able and willing to take. 

It is also helpful to find out whether the funding you obtain will help to cover any additional activity that you will undertake during your research, such as travelling for fieldwork or attendance at conferences. In many cases, participation in these events and activities is just as important for your career and personal development as the thesis itself, so it is very useful to have the funding to support these endeavours.


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