When I first started applying, I was quite confused. I had already finished my Masters in my home country, moved to the UK and started working. I only knew that full time PhD lasts 3 years and part time PhD takes approximately 6 years.
I had no idea where to start, how to apply for scholarships and what’s a research proposal? Now that I look at it, it’s all quite simple. So relax, take a deep breath and go one step at a time.
Technical or Natural Sciences
Applying to a PhD programme highly depends on what science are you interested in.
If you’re interested in technical or natural sciences, there’s a big chance you will find an existing project that wants to employ doctoral students as researchers. In that case, the application looks more or less as any other job application. You send your CV, motivational letter and wait to be called for an interview. The projects can be held by university itself, or in collaboration with a private company. The only thing is, your application needs to be more oriented towards academia which means your CV will need to have more detail about academic achievements, some specific modules you passed, papers you published.
In that case, as you are employed within a research group, your tuition fees are covered and you receive a monthly payment or stipend.
Humanities or Social Sciences
If your choice are humanities and social sciences, it’s likely that you have to apply with your research proposal to the university and search for scholarships separately.
When applying for a PhD in humanities and social sciences, the first thing you have to do is write your research proposal. You have an idea, do the initial research, and write why this project is important and how you plan to realise your idea. Then you have to find supervisors that are willing to mentor you during your studies.
All of this happens before you officially apply for a programme. That means that you have to look for professors who accept new students and most importantly, are experts in your area of research. You have to send dozens of emails, together with your CV and Research proposal, looking for a perfect match.
Once you’ve done that, apply at the university.
Sometimes the school you are applying to offers a scholarship for doctoral students but the competition is very high and usually only one student gets the scholarship per year.
Other possibilities are finding a sponsor, applying for a student loan, or applying to other types of scholarship at university level. You can also be a self-funded student.
What is a Research Proposal?
The research proposal is a document that represents your scientific skills, writing skills, logic and argumentation. It is no longer than 1500–2000 words and usually universities or schools assign the upper word limit.
It consists of several sections: Abstract, Research Context/State of Art, Research Questions and Aims, Methodology, Potential Challenges and Ethics, Provisional Time-frame and List of References.
It looks like an essay. But an essay that explains its purpose. You have to explain why you think your research is important and could contribute to existing literature.
You can find many examples of research proposals online, but be careful that it fits into your area of research.
If you want to apply to a PhD that is not automatically funded, there are several options.
Many universities offer scholarships for postgraduate students, based both on your national origin and your area of research.
For example, University of Nottingham offers China Scholarship Council research Excellence Scholarship for Chinese nationals. It also offers Doctoral scholarships for international students and for EU students. University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering also offers another excellence scholarship for doctoral students.
There are plenty of choices, you just have to be persistent.
There are also many Research Councils in the UK that offer both paid tuition fees and a monthly stipend to students with exceptional research proposals. Economic and Social Research Council offers various funding opportunities for students interested in social sciences and Arts and Humanities Research Council is its equivalent for arts and humanities.
Some students decide to study part time (6 years) in order to be able to work and pay for their expenses.
How does it work?
In most cases, there are no compulsory modules you have to take. In some courses, there are 20 credits you have to pass, but you can choose at what stage of your research you want to take a module of your choice.
If you are admitted into a full time course, you’re expected to spend full time (40 hours per week) working hours in the office or in the laboratory or wherever your research takes place. Of course, it’s more flexible than having a full time job in a private company and you can decide you want to work from home sometimes. The important thing is that you get the job done.
Your mentors, or supervisors, are the ones who keep an eye on your progress. You meet with them on a regular basis. That might be once a week, twice a month or once a month depending on your chosen university and faculty. Some of them ask for you to enclose a document prior to the meeting of your monthly progress.
The most important thing is to start with your application on time. I started mine in November for an October intake. That’s maybe a bit too early. But keep in mind that it takes a lot of time to write a decent research proposal, to find your future supervisors and to get confirmation from the university. Scholarships results are usually published in late May or June.
There are usually two intakes at the university, October one and January one, while scholarship applications are mostly once per year. In some cases, if you get the place at university and don’t get a scholarship you can defer your offer until you find appropriate funding. That way you don’t have to write the proposal again and go through the whole process of application to the university.
Take one step at a time and if you don’t succeed at your first attempt, you can always try again next year.
If you have any further questions regarding applying to a PhD programme, feel free to send us an email!