Applying for a PhD studentship? Here are some tips from the ‘other side’

So you want to apply for a PhD and you see an advert for a funded studentship that sounds great! In this post, I want to walk you through what you should do from this point through to submitting your application.

Contacting your potential supervisors

Does the advert say something like get in touch with supervisors or contact to express interest?  Perhaps it doesn’t but you still want to submit an email to alert the academic supervisors to your interest in the PhD studentship.  My advice is please do not email busy academic staff with what we read as a simple ‘hiya’ email.  Please only get in touch to ask a pertinent question.  Be very sure that your question cannot be answered somewhere else, such as in the application pack information.  It does not look good for a potential doctoral student to ask for information on something that is easily found from the most basic research!

Of course, you may want to ‘test’ us, by emailing and seeing how quickly you get a response!  Smart.  But to reiterate:  have an insightful question for us.

Your application

Read ALL instructions well ahead of time so that you can prepare everything you need in good time.  For example, do you need to submit a reference or two WITH your application or AFTER?  Again, you are applying to undertake advanced research training, so to not do even some basic research at this stage does not look good to us your potential supervisors.

As to the information you provide in your application – please, please frame it towards research.  You’re applying for a doctorate, so tell us in detail about your research training and experience, across every bit of your application. Put your education upfront:  degree title, classification, dates, institution.  If you did a dissertation then tell us not just the title but which methods you employed and what software packages you used (e.g., SPSS, NVivo).  Summarise the key information for us, in a cover letter for example, so we don’t miss it.  I’ve read so many PhD applications that tell me very little about the type and level of research training the applicant has had, what methods they are experienced in from their own research at undergraduate and Masters-level degrees.  How can I possibly invite such a candidate to interview for an advanced research degree when I have no idea of their research knowledge and skills?

But isn’t my employment important for other reasons?  Yes of course it can be.  If you are applying for a social science doctorate on a sensitive topic, for example, then of course it is important to tell us that you have experience of working with vulnerable groups.  But do more than simply bullet point a job, as this is leaving us to connect the dots.  Tell us where you worked, with whom and when, and then be explicit why this experience is invaluable for this PhD.

In any application it is not enough to simply state the qualities you think you have, you need to EVIDENCE them.  Are you a self-starter?  Then say that and then back it up with an example.  Do you have good time management skills, then tell us of a time this was vital.  Prioritise the skills you think are most relevant to the doctoral research you are applying to do.

In short, tailor every application and do not submit a generic CV, cover letter etc.  We.  Will.  Know.


You are invited to an interview?  Well done!  You’re likely among 3-6 interviewees.

Be prepared to talk research.  You are applying for an advanced degree in research so it will be research focused.  Brush up on your methodology and methods knowledge, and be prepared to talk through your own research training and experience.  Be prepared to answer why you want to do a PhD, why THIS PhD, and why this institution.  What are your career goals?  Use your question time to probe our approach to supervision and gauge whether you want to be supervised by us! It is important to try to get to know your potential supervisors as 3-4 years is a long time to spend with people you might not get along with.  I recognise that it’s become difficult for candidates to feel they have choice on such matters, given the competition for fully funded studentships.  Nevertheless, it is worth doing a bit of research into your supervisors and institution so that you are prepared for what you will embark upon for at least 3 years of your life as a full-time PhD student (longer if part-time).  Search for advice on these matters on other sites, as there is some really good information out there on this.

Finally, good luck!