How to Apply for a PhD

Applying for a PhD can be an unfamiliar process, especially if you have limited experience of the postgraduate education system in the UK. However, it needn’t be complicated and with the right guidance, you’ll be able to apply for your dream PhD programme and submit a stand-out application.

This simple step-by-step guide to the PhD application process covers everything you need to know about applying for a PhD. If you’re looking for personalised, tailored advice on your PhD application, you can also get straight in touch with our postgraduate admissions team today.

PhD application process

Step 1: Decide on the type of PhD you want to do

There are several different types of PhDs and postgraduate qualifications of the same level that you should be aware of before beginning your application. You should consider the following factors:

Funded projects vs self-proposed projects

There are two main types of PhD research projects: funded projects and self-proposed projects. Funded projects are PhD programmes that already have funding attached to them and usually have a specific topic or research question that is pre-set. This funding may come from charities, the university themselves, or jointly with other universities. These PhDs are more common in STEM subjects, but they can sometimes be available for pre-defined research projects in the arts, humanities or social sciences.

Self-proposed research projects typically involve coming up with your own research question/topic and applying for funding yourself. There will still typically be opportunities to have your research funded by your chosen university, organisation or employer, and you may be eligible for other grants as well (especially if you are a UK student). However, if you do not secure this funding, self-proposed research projects will need to be self-funded.

PhDs vs Doctorates

A Doctorate is different from a PhD and it’s important that you understand the difference before applying to one or the other. Doctorates tend to focus on the application of knowledge and typically provide practical training as well as research/taught elements. PhDs, on the other hand, focus on research, building new knowledge, and providing advanced research skills.

For example a Doctorate in Psychology (PsyD) is usually tailored towards a particular profession; for example, Doctorates in Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy) train students to become Clinical Psychologists, while Doctorates in Educational and Child Psychology (DEdPsy) train students to become Educational Psychologists. PhD Psychology graduates, on the other hand, study a particular research topic in the field of Psychology and often go on to pursue careers in research or academia, rather than clinical work.

Full-time or part-time

Most universities offer PhD courses on a full-time basis, while some offer programmes on a part-time basis (including distance learning) as well. Whether you want to study full-time or part-time will impact what PhDs you can apply for and what funding is available, so it’s important to consider this early. Note that many top universities do not offer part-time study as an option.

Course start dates

Many universities offer various start dates, and therefore various/rolling application deadlines, for PhD courses. If your chosen course does have multiple start dates, it’s important to know which start date you will be applying for when you submit your application to ensure that you have enough time to make the necessary arrangements, such as applying for funding and planning your move to the university.

Step 2: Choose your research area

If you are applying for a PhD that requires you to propose your own area of research, you need to decide what area that is going to be. Choosing your research area carefully is important because it determines what your research question will be (i.e. what you will spend 3-4 years studying). It may also determine how likely you are to be accepted by your chosen university, as you need to choose an area that you are academically qualified to research (e.g. you have an existing degree in).

Ideally, your research topic should be focussed on an active or currently ‘hot’ area of research (for example, the impacts of COVID or some other significant event in your field). You should also check on university course pages to find out which topics they are open to accepting proposals on, as well as what research is already being undertaken at the university by its faculty. This will help you to tailor your application appropriately and create a focused research proposal (see step 5).

Step 3: Check the entry requirements

Each university has its own entry requirements for PhD programmes. Some universities require PhD applicants to have an undergraduate degree (typically 2:1 or above) and a Master’s (typically Merit or above) in a subject that is relevant to their chosen research topic. Other universities may consider applications from applicants without a Master’s degree, so long as they can demonstrate the necessary skills and subject knowledge needed for study at PhD level.

Some universities also require applicants to sit an admissions test as part of the PhD application process. The most common postgraduate admissions tests are the GMAT and GRE (for Business and Management programmes) and GAMSAT (for Medicine programmes). You should always check on your chosen university’s website for any information about admissions test requirements.

Another test you may be required to sit as part of the PhD application process is an English proficiency test. English language tests assess your ability to read, write, speak and listen in English. You will usually only be required to take one if English is not your first language and/or you have not previously studied in English before. The most common English language tests are the Cambridge Assessment English (CAE), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS).

All tests, including English language tests and other external admissions tests (such as the GMAT/GRE) need to be registered for and completed before you apply for your chosen PhD programme, so make sure you check in advance.

Step 4: Find a supervisor

If you are applying for a funded project at a university (i.e. one that has a research topic already set), you will likely already have a supervisor allocated to you. If this is the case, you do not need to find your own supervisor.

However, if you are proposing your own research topic, you may need to find a supervisor to advise you throughout your PhD. It is important that your supervisor is an expert in the field you wish to conduct your research in, and ideally has done previous research (or is currently doing their own research) of a very similar nature previously.

To find a suitable supervisor, you can research members of the relevant faculty at your chosen university and get in contact with them to ask if they are available. However, note that although you can ask to be supervised by a particular person, this not necessarily be possible and your chosen university could allocate a different supervisor if they feel there is one more suitable or more available for your particular research project and timeline.

Step 5: Check fees and funding

Unless you are applying for a pre-funded PhD project, you will need to research the fees and survey your funding options when considering universities. It’s important to check your funding options relatively early in the application process, as it will be important to your chosen university that you can financially afford to undertake a 3-4 year PhD and are unlikely to drop out.

Most PhD applicants hope to be fully-funded, and there are often a wide range of funding options you can explore. Firstly, universities themselves usually offer their own funding, ranging from fee discounts to full studentships. Make sure you research any financial support your chosen university is offering and check that your particular research project would be eligible (some funding may be subject or faculty-specific). Also note that full studentships are often extremely competitive, so you’ll need to do all that you can to make you and your research proposal stand out in your funding application.

Secondly, you can research funding offered by charities, trusts and societies. Some organisations offer partial (and sometimes full) funding for PhD students if their research aligns or would add benefit to their interests or mission. Support is available for a wide range of subject areas, so make sure to do some research into what is available for your particular project.

Finally, you can look into taking out a PhD loan. The UK government offers loans to English and Welsh PhD students who are unable to secure a full studentship. Although this will not usually cover the full cost of a PhD, it may be enough to cover some or most of your fees so that you can work part-time or use savings to fund the remaining fees and/or living costs.

Step 6: Write your research proposal

If you’re applying for a PhD research programme, you will usually be required to submit a research proposal. A research proposal is a document that details what you plan to research, and how you plan to do it, throughout your 3-4 year PhD programme.

Crafting an excellent research proposal is more than simply choosing a compelling topic – it involves careful planning and putting thought into your research aims, methodology, ethics, and more. It’s absolutely vital that your research proposal is well thought out and convincing, as PhD programmes are competitive and your chosen university will be looking for candidates who stand out.

For detailed information and expert tips on how to write a research proposal, see the guide below.

How to write a PhD research proposal

Step 7: Submit the rest of your application

As well as a research proposal, your chosen university will likely also require other written elements and information as part of your PhD application. These may include:

  • Statement of academic purpose: This document should detail your relevant academic interests, strengths and background, your areas of specific interest relating to your chosen research topic, your academic preparedness, your motivation for undertaking a PhD, any academic or professional aspirations, and how you and your research will contribute to your chosen university faculty and the wider discipline.
  • Personal statement/Cover letter: This document should detail your previous academic experience (or other relevant experience), as well as why you wish to undertake this research at your chosen university, what additional support you will need to complete a PhD, and an overview of your planned research methods and any ethical issues you will need to consider in undertaking your research.
  • CV: This should not be a standard job CV, but a CV that is tailored to your PhD application. It should detail all of your relevant experience and show how you are qualified to undertake research in your chosen field.
  • Degree certificates and transcripts: You may need to provide evidence of your previous qualifications, including transcripts showing your performance in particular modules, dissertations, and past research projects.
  • English language qualification: You may need to provide evidence of your English language proficiency through a qualification such as the TOEFL, IELTS, or CAE.
  • Academic references: You may be required to submit one or multiple references from past academic tutors, university staff, and/or employers. This will help your chosen university to gauge your suitability for a PhD from a fellow academic professional.

Step 8: Attend any interviews

Some PhD courses require applicants to attend an interview. Postgraduate interviews vary depending on the type of PhD you are applying for and the field of study you are interested in researching. They can be as informal as a chat with a previous alumni, but may also be a more formal interview, such as an online interview via a platform such as Kira Talent.

For more information on postgraduate interviews, read our helpful guides below:

How to prepare for a postgraduate interview
Common postgraduate interview questions

Step 9: Confirm your place

Applicants typically receive confirmation of their place via the same process they used to apply (such as a university’s online application portal or via email). If you receive an unconditional offer, this means that you are guaranteed a place on your chosen PhD programme. However, your chosen university may still need to verify your qualifications, so make sure you provide any information they request as soon as it is available.

If your offer is conditional, you will need to send in any pending qualification results (e.g. the final result of your undergraduate or Master’s degree) as soon as they are available, so that your place can be confirmed.

If your application is unsuccessful, there are many steps you can take. Firstly, if you are unsure why your application has been unsuccessful, you can usually request feedback from your chosen university. This can ensure any errors are flagged, but most importantly it can help you to understand where you went wrong and how to improve your PhD application in future.

You can also reapply to the same university and other universities, either with an improved version of your current proposal and application, or with a new research topic. If you’re looking for guidance on improving your PhD application or taking next steps, speak to one of our experienced postgraduate admissions experts today.

How can we help?

The Profs’ PhD admissions consultants are true experts in helping students prepare for study at PhD level, submit stand-out PhD applications, and get into their first choice universities. Our network contains current researchers, lecturers, and ex-admissions staff who have reviewed hundreds of postgraduate applications, so they know just what universities are looking for in PhD applicants.

More than 90% of students who work with our team secure places at their first or second choice university. These universities often include Oxbridge, Imperial, London Business School, LSE, and more.

For professional, one-to-one guidance on your PhD application, get in touch with our team today.

FAQs

How long does the PhD application process take?

Completing a PhD application and writing a research proposal takes some time and should not be left until the last minute. The exact amount of time it takes to complete a PhD application depends on many factors, including whether you are required to take any admissions tests, what stages are included in the application process, how developed your academic profile currently is, and more. Typically, we find that it takes students up to one year to develop and write a top-class PhD application.

How much does it cost to apply for a PhD?

Usually, there won’t be an application fee for applying for a PhD. However, there may be a fee for any required admissions tests or English language tests you are required to take. These costs will vary depending on which test/s you’re required to take, so always check directly with the university and with any relevant organisations before applying.

PhD acceptance rates

Acceptance rates for PhD programmes can vary significantly depending on the subject area, the university you apply for, and other factors. For top university PhD programmes, you can expect acceptance rates of less than 30%. For example, Oxford’s DPhil (PhD) Economics had a 28% acceptance rate and DPhil (PhD) Mathematics had a 16% acceptance rate in 2019/2020, while Cambridge’s PhD Politics and International Studies has an 11% acceptance rate (2021/2022).

What are the best universities for a PhD in the UK?

When looking to study a PhD, it’s most important to look at how research-intensive a university is. In the UK, Russell Group universities are known for being particularly research-focused, with a high proportion of research conducted rated as outstanding.

According to the Times Higher Education 2023 rankings, the best universities for a PhD in the UK are: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, UCL, Edinburgh, King’s College London, and LSE.

How long does it take to write a research proposal?

The amount of time you need to write a research proposal will depend on many factors, including the word count, when your application deadline is, and how developed your research plan is. On average, it takes applicants about 2-3 months to research, write, rewrite, edit, and submit a strong proposal.

How do I find a research proposal topic?

Choosing a research topic is one of the most important stages of submitting a PhD research proposal. Primarily, you should look to choose a topic that you are interested in/that you care about; you will be researching this topic for 3-4 years at least, so it’s important that you are invested in it. Secondly, your research topic needs to be narrow enough that it is manageable. If your topic is too broad, there will be too much information to consider and you will not be able to draw concise conclusions or focus deeply enough.

In order to find a research proposal topic, first look to the areas that you have previously studied. Reviewing past lecture notes and assignments can be a helpful way of finding inspiration. Background reading can also help you to explore topics in more depth and limit the scope of your research question. You can also discuss your ideas/areas of interest with a lecturer or professor, potential dissertation supervisor, or specialist tutor to get an academic perspective.