Letter to a prospective phd student

Dear Student,

I write in anticipation of your imminent email asking me to be your phd supervisor. Firstly, I am flattered that you have chosen to approach me out of the blue, I look forward to hearing more about your proposed research. However, I receive many approaches each year as my institution – sensibly – asks that each applicant have agreed a supervisor prior to formally applying. Many of these approaches make similar mistakes that I would like you to avoid. So, before you do fatefully press send, I’d like to caution you first against making some common mistakes mistakes:

1. Don’t think of applying for a phd as the same as applying for any other academic course

A phd is a very different beast to a masters or a bachelors. The structured taught element of a phd is minimal. A phd is essentially your project. You get guidance, but in the main, this is just guidance and you decide how you want to progress. This means you should have a very clear idea about what it is you want to do, why, and who you want to work with before you approach potential supervisors.

2. Choose where to apply based on the people you want to work with

Fundamentally, a phd is about you working with individuals – in a departmental setting, rather than you working at a specific university. Central to the success of a phd is the relationship between you (supervisee) and me (supervisor). I and other potential supervisors are making a 3+ year commitment to work with you to develop your ideas, skills, thinking and research. It is a close relationship over a long period of time. For a supervisor, this is a big commitment – with clear potential rewards. There may be a good research group in the field you’re interested in, but really it comes down to you and your supervisors. A basic rule is that you should be applying to work with people who are cited in your research proposal. If you’re not doing that, you need a good reason why not.

3. Study the stated research interests of the chosen supervisor

Without clear alignment between your and their research interests, supervisors are unlikely to agree to supervise your phd. Supervisors are paid no more or less depending on how many phd students they have. Most supervisors supervise because they care about the research project the phd student is doing. Therefore the proposed research should closely fit the research interests of the potential supervisor. Sometimes these can be quite broad, some supervisors might be happy to support any work on a country they specialise in, but there has to be clear overlap. If not, then the supervisor may not be able to support your work well and your phd will suffer as a result.

4. Pay attention to the funding application timelines of your chosen department

I would not recommend you do a phd without funding. This makes securing funding central to the application process. Here is the process for my department. In order to be considered for most funding my department administers you need to apply in early February. Sure, occasionally there is some flexibility but we are beholden to the administrators that need to process your application along with hundreds of others. Applying in March and later really will not cut it, if you want funding. If you don’t want funding then you can apply much later in the academic year. Supervisors rarely have access to funding they can allocate to a phd student they find interesting, instead you must enter a competitive process and secure funding. Which means applying in good time with a strong proposal. You can find more details about funding available through my university and search for other funders here.

5. Approach your supervisor in good time

Quality in academic work is based on critical feedback and iterative improvement. Expect that your potential supervisor will provide critical feedback on your proposal and you will therefore need to do more work on it. If you’re applying for funding, this is doubly important. Your proposal needs to be very sharp and may need substantial work to make it competitive. This will take time, particularly if you can only work on it evenings and weekends. I would recommend you approach supervisors before October of the academic year before you wish to start – nearly 12 months in advance of your proposed start date.

6. Focus on your ideas and research questions

Many students spend much of their time talking about personal motivation for the phd. While this is the most important thing for you, your job is convince others to support your project rather than you as an individual. Academics are, first and foremost, interested in ideas. Your motivation is secondary to the ideas. It is the ideas that will attract most potential supervisors so focus on this and explaining how these relate to work the potential supervisor has done and is interested in.

7. Include a research proposal

A proposal shows you are serious and allows the potential supervisor to get a more complete picture of your proposed project and abilities. Again, a phd is your project, it is up to you to define it’s focus and limits. At a bare minimum, you need to include an abstract, along with a ‘if you’re interested I can send you full proposal’ line.

8. Make sure your proposal follows basic academic norms

My institution provides some generic guidance on this here. The patter blog is good for general guidance on academic writing. You need to show that you understand what is required to when proposing research. Ironically, in a phd proposal you are not committing to doing a specific research project. Most phd projects change in the course of their first year and a more complete proposal is required to graduate the first year. Instead, you are showing that you know how to do a research project. Supervisors are looking to see that you understand academic norms and will be a strong student. Committing to supervising a phd student presents risk for supervisors too. A weak student can consume an enormous amount of time for support over the 3+ years they take to complete their project. So, potential supervisors are looking to see that you have what it takes – the proposal is the main way we judge this. (On this – a bit of a flashing warning light for me on this is if the student does not actually improve the proposal using feedback provided – This will basically be the basis of our relationship for 3+ years. Get into the habit of responding to feedback now. )

9. Keep your proposal short

Concision is key. The generic guidance from my department above says 1–1500 words. I’d say around 2000 words is closer to the mark. You have lots to cover in a proposal so you’ll need to boil the literature down to it’s essentials, covering only what is relevant to your project (while showing you are aware that the rest is there). For a 2000 word proposal I’d recommend a structure that is something the like this:

  • Abstract (150w)
  • Literature review (1200w – which usually means 3 paragraphs on the main elements of your conceptual framework and 1 on the proposed case)
  • Research questions (100w)
  • Methods (500w)
  • Work plan (100w table – I don’t see the point of these myself but it’s a requirement in my department)
  • References (not included in word count)

10. Make your proposal sharp

In order to secure funding your proposal needs to be sharp. The competition is strong and you need to stand out. If I am interested in in your proposal I will help you improve it, but we can speed things along by avoiding some of the more common mistakes such as:

  • Abstract – not including one, not summarising your research in the first sentence, not summarising your main concepts, questions and methods, not making a case for why your research is important (why it should be funded) in the abstract.
  • Literature review – not narrowing down quickly on the most relevant ideas and literature and spending lots of time on broad basic points, not highlighting gaps in the literature, not defining key concepts, not following a clear structure (easiest is broad to narrow), not using topic sentences, separating the ‘literature review’ and your ‘conceptual framework’ (you don’t have the time/space for this), detailing the case more than you detail the conceptual framework used to analyse it.
  • Research questions – not including them (these are the pivot on which the whole proposal turns), not making sure they are focussed and specific (basically, the narrower, the better), not using analytical language developed in the literature review, not clearly linking to the problems and concepts laid out in the literature review.
  • Methods – not citing the academic literature on your chosen methods, not linking the methods to the research questions, spending lots of time on questions of ontology and epistemology, not providing detail on what data will be collected – how it will be collected and how it will be analysed, thinking that you have to include a quantitative element to be ‘rigourous’,
  • General – not writing in full sentences, not using proper english, not having someone proof read your proposal, not keeping the proposal short, not making sure there are clear links between the literature – questions – methods, not citing clearly and fully.

Please do not be discouraged. I offer this peremptory advice in the hope that you do approach me (or someone else having decided they are a better fit and less condescending) with a strong proposal and we (or you) have a great time working together. I see the above steps as the best way to make the best start towards succeeding in your phd. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours,
Tomas

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