How To Apply for PhDs in the UK

With how much PhD students contribute to their fields of study via their research and creative knowledge, universities make the application process as undaunting and easy as possible. However, in some universities and for some funded PhDs, applying for a PhD is a highly competitive process. To give yourself the best possible chance of being accepted as a PhD candidate at your preferred university, prospective students are advised to allow as much time as possible for application preparation, which will involve finding a research match and becoming familiar with the application process and the important deadlines. 

This article will cover all you need to know about the PhD application process, including how to find a PhD supervisor, when you should start applying, how to write a research proposal, and how long the process typically takes from start to finish.

How to Apply for PhDs in the UK

Each university sets its own application methods and rules that you will want to familiarise yourselves with well in advance of the deadlines. At UWS London, you will need to submit an enquiry form, which will be picked up by one of the admission officers. Once your application has been reviewed, an admission officer will contact you to book an initial interview, which will assess your suitability for the course. If you are not short-listed for the initial interview, you will typically be informed via email. Whichever university you are applying to, there are a few steps that all PhD candidates must follow.

Find a research match and supervisor (if necessary) who can support your research project. It is also vital that the university has the resources to facilitate your research and study.

Review the entry requirements. Many universities require a 2:1 undergraduate degree and a Master’s degree with merit as a minimum.

Have a viable funding plan. For full-time PhD students, PhDs will take three to four years; for part-time students, PhDs can take up to six years to complete, including the writing-up process.

Write a research proposal before you contact your potential supervisor. If the supervisor is happy to work with you, they may help you to hone your proposal, but you will still want it to be as clear and compelling as possible.

Gather any necessary documents for your PhD application. Along with the completed application form, you must also submit your research proposal and transcripts. International students must also submit proof of English language ability.

When to Apply For PhD

You can apply all year round for PhD degrees and usually, they start in September, January and May. At UWS London there are two intakes of PhD students per year, January and October. 

Making Multiple PhD Applications in the UK

Many students ask if they can apply for multiple PhDs. Yes, you can. To improve your chances of being accepted as a PhD candidate, you can make multiple applications to several universities where you find a research match, and there is little preventing you from making multiple applications to the same university. Just ensure that you don’t come across as unsure of which research you want to undertake, as this can damage your chances of being accepted as a candidate. 

Some universities allow you to apply for up to three PhD courses, while others limit the number of applications per year to one or two. If you are making multiple applications to the same university, bear in mind that it is likely that it will be the same admission team reviewing your proposals; ensure your proposals and statements are relevant to each area of study.

Qualifications and Requirements for PhD Candidates

Typically, universities will post the entry requirements for PhD candidates; if the details are not readily available, the admission team will be happy to provide this information and inform you of any exemptions to the entry requirements. 

For most universities, a 2:1 undergraduate honours degree and a PhD is required to get you through to the interview stage, where you will be expected to prove your project is suitable for PhD research, that you possess the academic merit and strength to finish your study, and the research can be completed in the required timeframe. Extensions to periods of study can be granted, but you must make a strong case for your extension requests to be considered.

Application Timeframes and Deadlines

At UWS London, there are two intakes of PhD students each year, January, and October. When you should start applying depends on the entry points; whichever entry point you opt for, you can apply all year round; just ensure that you submit your application one month prior to the start date of the course if you are a domestic student; for international students, it is advisable to complete the application three months ahead of the deadline. 

You will also want to make sure that you take note of the deadlines set by any external organisation providing funding for your research, as these don’t always align with the deadlines set by universities. A mistake many PhD students make is focusing too heavily on the PhD application and leaving funding applications too late.

How to Search for a Supervisor

If you have been accepted as a PhD candidate as part of a funded project after submitting a statement which explains your suitability for that area of research, the university will allocate a PhD supervisor. Alternatively, if you have proposed your own research idea, you will be matched to a supervisor suitable for your academic interests, or you will need to search for and request a supervisor.

When finding a PhD supervisor, the best way to do so is by using the university research database. Your request will always be considered; however, they cannot always be accommodated, as not all potential supervisors are open to doctoral applications at any given time.

If you find more than one potential supervisor, draw up a shortlist of two – three and do thorough research into their academic history. When reaching out to potential supervisors, always be keen to make a strong first impression by revealing something relevant and interesting about yourself, explaining how your idea for a PhD thesis will benefit the wider field of knowledge, and clarifying how your proposal correlates with their expertise. While you shouldn’t go overboard and bombard potential supervisors with information, remember that undertaking a new doctoral application is a task not to be taken lightly, you should always make the multi-year commitment seem worth their while.

How to Write and Prepare a PhD Research Proposal

In short, an effective research proposal should demonstrate that the research you are keen to undertake is worthwhile, clarify why you should be the PhD candidate to do it, and that it can be completed within the constraints set by the university. Don’t get carried away with the details or lose sight of the purpose of a research proposal. PhD students are required to be self-critical and selective; your research proposal or statement is the perfect time to establish that you have the potential to be a successful PhD candidate. 

Being too ambitious is also a research proposal faux pas; as long as you have proven that you have stated your ability to contribute original and creative knowledge to your field, your research proposal is likely to be received with enthusiasm by the admissions team. If you are making multiple PhD applications, always ensure your proposals are different by explaining why your potential supervisors are a good fit for you, acknowledging the university facilities and resources and outlining how your research ties into the broader research culture at the university. 

Finally, you should also reference the source material you will be using, outline practical and clear methodology and mention what new knowledge areas your research may open.

What's Next?

A PhD application is never something that should be rushed or left to the last minute. Finding the appropriate course, PhD supervisor, and funding options requires extensive research; that is before you start to write your research proposals and complete your application. Always give yourself as much time as possible, as there is never a definitive answer to how long the application should take before you are short-listed for your initial interview. 

How long it takes for a university to accept PhD candidates often depends on the nature of the research topic, and it can vary between universities and how great the impression you made with your research proposal is. Sometimes, you can be accepted within days; however, you could expect to wait weeks; 90% of applicants receive their response within 12 weeks.

Good luck! And remember to thoroughly prepare for the PhD interview!

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