Applying for a PhD in the UK?
The process of applying for a PhD in British academia requires a lot of research and legwork by the applicant. The first step involves identifying top research departments, as these can often differ from the usual list of ‘top universities’. At the postgraduate level, the UK doesn’t seem to have any comparable set of rankings to those in the US, like those from US News or, for international relations, Foreign Policy. The basic steps for applying for a PhD would appear to be as follows:
- Write up a cover letter (including motivations for pursuing a PhD), PhD proposal, and update the CV.
- Identify the best (and realistic) departments for your field. Faculty you’ve worked with before should be useful in this step. In IR, pay careful attention to paradigmatic/methodological differences between departments (such as LSE’s Government and IR departments).
- Look at faculty lists and see whose research closely aligns with your proposal topic.
- Contact potential supervisors to see who is interested in working with you, if the departments to which you intend to apply encourage/allow this.
- If/when you get responses to your queries, respond promptly. Apply for those programs that seem to be a good fit.
- Identify and apply for funding sources (or look to the US, where any good program will provide funding, usually through a combination of grants and teaching).
The worst possible approaches are to send emails to everyone under the sun and hope that they’ll be your supervisor in spite of lacking a demonstrated research interest in your topic, or to simply apply to a department without first contacting potential supervisors.(1)
Preparing the PhD Proposal
The question I deal with most frequently from students seeking to pursue a PhD is some variation of, “How do I prepare a proposal?” If you’ve completed a MSc or similar degree involving a thesis/dissertation, then some of the steps will be familiar.(2) However, unlike an earlier thesis, there are no hard-and-fast rules for length or style when it comes to proposing your PhD research project.
- Choose a topic that interests you. You’ll be working on it for 3-4 years.(3) Chat with faculty, supervisors, mentors, etc. about your topic. Solicit all the input you can, but deciding what to implement and what to ignore will be up to you.
- From your topic, create a clear research question. Think about how you’ll pitch it to people who work on completely different subjects. For example, if you’re interested in the relationship between varieties of capitalism and attitudes toward climate change, how will you capture the attention of a political theorist who cares primarily about representation of the self in government?
- Consider different approaches to providing evidence. Think about this from both a broad theoretical research-design perspective and from a more applied point of view. Identify data sources; describe those that you will need to compile yourself. If you’ll need funding, what options are available?
Once you have an idea of your topic, research question, and some ideas relating to your theory and evidence, it is time to begin putting all of this to paper in your proposal. Here’s a sample outline:
Provide a very brief description of your project, from broad implications to your research question, thesis, and sources of evidence.
Start by addressing a broader body of research. Where does your topic fit? How will it feed back to this bigger debate? This section shouldn’t be particularly long, but your research question and thesis should be clearly stated.
Briefly discuss the current literature and any ongoing debates in a synthesized manner. Point out gaps in the literature and be clear about how your project will build upon the status quo.
You won’t be expected to have fully fleshed out your theory, but describe what you can. How do you get from the state of the literature to your thesis?
Here you’ll need to do a few things. Provide the rationale behind your overarching research design. Why do you want to employ the methodology/methodologies you intend to use? How do your proposed empirical studies fit into this framework and complement each other? Describe each in turn, and be careful to describe both the data you will require and how each empirical component will provide evidence for your argument.
Version: 16 January 2020
(1) In the case of the former, I delete the emails without wasting the time to read them if the proposal is clearly outside my interests (most of my colleagues do this as well). In the latter case, I simply decline to act as supervisor because I know nothing about the applicant or their proposed project (and ditto). Some schools and departments prefer that potential PhD students not contact faculty, as this matching process occurs after applicants have been vetted by the admissions committee.
(2) An American program will typically require 2-3 years of coursework and a comprehensive exam (written and verbal) before you are required to think about your dissertation topic. It’s still a good idea to at least have some sense of what sort of research you’d like to do.
(3) Maybe longer. One of my mentors, David Lake, mentioned the lifetime of a ‘large project’ like a PhD dissertation being roughly ten years from inception to the last book/paper getting published.