Applying for a PhD: 
My experiences and tips

Applying for a PhD: 
My experiences and tips

This article was written by Maria Tomlinson, published on 20th June 2014 and has been read 8096 times.

Maria did both an undergraduate degree in French and Modern Greek and an MA in French Literature and Culture, followed by work as a lectrice at Nanterre University on exchange from King's College London. During that time she successfully applied to do a PhD in Contemporary Women's Writing back in the UK. Here is her advice for other potential PhD applicants, based on her experiences.

Applying for a PhD, but in particular applying for studentships on top of the places, is time consuming, stressful and testing. I worked consistently very hard on my PhD application from October 2013 until my interview in March 2014. I remained positive and driven throughout the application process thanks to my enthusiasm for my research, an extremely supportive potential supervisor and my empathetic colleagues at Nanterre. Fortunately, my application for a place and funding came to a very happy conclusion; I will be starting my AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded PhD at Reading in September. With my successful application in mind, I would like to share some advice and tips with those of you who are facing this very daunting application...

Ask yourself what you hope to get out of a PhD

As the application process is lengthy and taxing, it is important that you are 100% sure that you want to spend the next 3-4 years doing a PhD. Furthermore, it is vital that you are very passionate about your research. Otherwise, it is very easy to lose heart with the endless confusing forms and having to pester your referee to email references to six different places. Before applying, make a list of what you would like to get out of a PhD and why your chosen research idea is worthy of three-four years of your time. This will not only help you keep motivated and focussed throughout the application procedure, but it will also help you write your research proposal. For me, I really wanted to do a PhD because my subject fascinates me and a PhD combines my love of reading, writing, presenting, and teaching. I really cannot imagine myself pursuing anything other than an academic career.

Start early

It is really important to start thinking about your application around the October before the January deadline, particularly if you are applying to more than one university. This may sound excessive, but you need to factor in that if you are making more than one application you will have to adapt your research proposal and personal statement to suit each application. Your potential supervisors may ask you to make two or three drafts of your proposal and you need to be aware that academics are extremely busy people and may not be able to respond to you very quickly. In addition, if you are applying for funding you may have to fill in a separate application form and adapt your proposal and/or personal statement. Starting early will make your life a lot less stressful as you will not be as taken aback by unexpected changes and additions to your applications. Plus, your potential supervisors will be impressed with your keenness and organisation.

Ask advice

This seems pretty obvious but it can often come from unexpected places. Of course, you should ask people about their experiences of the application process, but also it can even be helpful to talk to people on your MA course who have come from a different university. For example, a girl I met on my MA course who did her undergraduate degree at Reading University strongly recommended their French department to me. She knew of a lecturer who may be interested in my research and contacted the university on my behalf thus opening up a dialogue with the university. I am really grateful to her for the recommendation as it led me to a wonderful opportunity. If it was not for her, I may have been unable to start a PhD is September as I could never afford to do a PhD unfunded.

Be organised

Being organised is absolutely crucial as otherwise it is easy to become confused with all the different deadlines and documents you must submit along with your application form. Keep a separate check list for each university you are applying to so you remember to submit absolutely everything on time. Make sure on each check list you include word counts for each proposal and personal statement as they can vary. Do not forget that you may need to adapt your research proposal and/or personal statement for each university and each funding application. Below is an example of a check list you could make.

Name of University: Uni no.1

Final Deadline: 15th January

Items needed for application                                                Word count/ other information

Application form for the place                                                 Must be submitted before funding


Application form for the funding

MA and BA academic transcripts                                            Must be ordered over one month

                                                                                            before the deadline to factor in

                                                                                            processing time and postage.

Research proposal for the place 
and funding (same proposal)   1500 words

Personal statement for the place                                             500 words

Personal statement for the funding                                          1000 words

References x 2 (for place) x2 (for funding)                                 Explain to referees that they need to

                                                                                             submit one reference to the

                                                                                             university and another to the funding

                                                                                             body. Ask for references at least one

                                                                                             month before application.

CV                                                                                        Focus on teaching experience

Find a supervisor who is very enthusiastic about your project

I believe this was a crucial part to me having secured the funding. My soon to be PhD supervisor was supportive and helpful from the first time I contacted her, always answering my emails quickly, offering a lot of excellent advice about the application and the interview as well as looking at quite a few drafts of my proposal. She really inspired me with confidence and kept me motivated and prepared throughout the process. It is a good idea to contact a few academics who you think may be interested in your project and qualified to guide you – it goes without saying that you do not have to apply to all of their respective universities. Measure the enthusiasm of their responses, if they seem indifferent then they may not give you as much support as a very keen potential supervisor who is more likely to help keep you motivated and on track.

Don’t apply to too many universities

It is better to submit two excellent applications than six mediocre ones. Funding is extremely scarce and therefore is very competitive. You therefore must tailor each application to each funding body. For example, the funding body which awarded me a scholarship was very keen on interdisciplinary projects so I stressed that I would be analysing literature from two different cultures and researching both religion and politics. They were also looking for people who were keen to become lecturers in the future so I emphasised my experience lecturing at Nanterre and private tutoring.

The Research Proposal

In my opinion, this is the most important part of your application. Most universities and funding bodies will specify what they expect from your proposal and of course you must follow these guidelines very closely. However, every funding body will be looking for originality so you must make it clear why your research is original and how it would make a significant contribution to your field. For example, I highlighted that the Mauritian literature I wanted to study was under-researched compared to other francophone literatures and that the Algerian literature to which I had chosen to compare it, had not yet been looked at in terms of taboo and trauma.

Preparing for the interview

The first step, of course, is asking your potential supervisor for advice as they can give you an idea of the sorts of questions you may be asked and suggest some further reading. For me, asking my colleagues (many of whom had applied for PhDs in the past) to interview me was really helpful. They were able to pinpoint certain areas in my proposal upon which interviewers could ask me to expand and offered me feedback on my responses. Certain questions are bound to come up so make sure you have a clear idea of your methodology, time scale, why your research fits in with what the funding body is looking for and how your ideas are unique. With the advice of my supervisor and colleagues, I felt very prepared and confident during my interview.

Interviewing over Skype

I was fortunate that the funding body who eventually offered me the scholarship were willing to let me do the interview on Skype as I was living in Paris at the time. I think it would have been much more daunting seeing the eight people interview me in person! If you are doing an interview over skype make sure that you have a blank background behind you (I sat in front of a white wall), you are dressed as you would be for an interview, your microphone works, and that you are ready on time. Here are some tips from the Skype blog.

Good luck!

I really hope you have found my advice helpful and wish you the very best of luck with your applications. It is a trying and nerve-wracking process but if successful it is so worth it! I am thrilled to be starting my PhD soon and looking forward to taking advantage of all the wonderful opportunities I hope it brings...

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