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Finding and Applying for a PhD

The process of applying for a PhD is different to other university courses. In this section you'll find out how to apply and where to find a PhD.

How to apply for a PhD

PhD applications are different to other university degrees. You don't apply in the same way as you do for other courses.

When applying for a PhD there are two main options:

  • you could be the successful candidate for an advertised position
  • you could propose your own research project to a university

Application rules and methods vary for each university. Make sure to check for the institution you are interested in.

You can apply for more than one PhD, but the number you can apply for in a year will vary between different universities.

You'll normally need to submit a tailored research proposal or personal statement for each application.

You can also apply to different universities. This may improve your chances of getting onto to a PhD.

Entry requirements

Each PhD will have specific entry requirements. Applicants should always check the specific entry requirements online before applying.

You will usually need at least an upper second-class undergraduate honours degree (2:1). International students will need an equivalent international qualification. For some PhDs you may need a Master’s qualification, and you may need to attend an interview.

International students may also need proven language ability. This will vary across institutions. Check what level your university expects before applying.

When to apply for a PhD

Application timings will depend on when your term start date is. Many research degrees start in September. Some will begin in January or May. Some PhD positions and funding opportunities are available to apply for year-round.

However, most UK PhD application deadlines are between late December and mid-January.

This is because of deadlines set by UKRI Research Council funding bodies. Most students will begin work on their application in the autumn. Completing an application and/or writing a research proposal will take time. We recommend you don’t leave it until the last minute!

UK applicants will usually need to apply at least one month before the course start date. International applicants will often need to apply at least three months ahead.

External organisations may also have different deadlines for funding applications. You will need time to research your funding options. Make sure you know how long the funding application process takes.

Finding an advertised PhD

Most universities will advertise PhD opportunities in their website. You can check the websites of any universities that have a relevant department.

The following external websites also advertise PhD opportunities:

Writing a research proposal

For an advertised PhD, you won't usually need to submit a research proposal. The broad aims and objectives for your PhD will already be set.

If you're choosing your own research topic within a university's PhD programme, you will need to write a proposal.

Research proposals need be persuasive. Potential supervisors and funders will need to believe your work is worth supporting.

A research proposal usually:

  • is between 1,500 and 3,000 words long
  • needs to have a clear, original, precise, interesting research question
  • explains the relevance and value of your proposed research
  • describes the data or source material your research requires
  • outlines the methods you will use to answer the research question
  • states what you hope to discover at the end of your research

Check any guidelines offered by your chosen institution. These can vary and include word limits, suggested structure etc.

We offer feedback on applications for postgraduate study but can’t do so for research proposals. We advise seeking guidance from a prospective supervisor or other academic related to your chosen field, before submitting your proposal.

Finding a PhD Supervisor

You will need to begin by identifying universities that offer the specialism that you want to research.

What is a PhD Supervisor?

A PhD supervisor is an academic who to uses their expertise to support you with your project. They should have interest in your project and provide regular feedback on your work. Each person's supervision experience depends on their university, department, and personal preferences.

An advertised funded PhD will usually have a supervisor allocated.

If you want to propose your own area of research, you will need to write a research proposal and find a supervisor.

Your supervisor will:

  • play an important role in your PhD. They should support you from starting your research to submission of your thesis
  • have responsibilities towards you and your project. They will meet to discuss your work
  • read drafts of your work
  • respond to emails and other forms of contact, though this might not be immediate
  • be an expert in your academic field. They will have recognised research experience, and relevant publications. They may have supervised other students working on related subjects

Your supervisor won’t be an expert in your exact topic. If they were, you couldn’t research it as an original PhD.

Some universities formalise these commitments in a research degree handbook. Other universities leave the specific details to the student and supervisor to arrange.

How to find a supervisor

Some universities have a database that you can search for supervisors. This can be helpful if you want to propose your own research topic.

Otherwise, your university may match you with a supervisor during your application assessment. Sometimes they will use a summary of your academic interests to match you to a supervisor.

It is possible to request supervision by a particular member of academic staff. Be aware that the university will consider this but may not accept your request.

Carry out research to find a potential supervisor who matches your research area:

  • start by shortlisting of two to three potential supervisors
  • explore their research history
  • find out more by looking in the reference sections of academic text books
  • search for articles in research databases and academic blogs

You can check academics online profiles to find out about their doctoral supervision capacity:

  • If they are open to doctoral applications, you can contact them to see if they will supervise you.
  • when you contact your potential supervisor, explain your research interests.
  • show how you feel your research proposal matches their expertise

It may also be possible to study your PhD by distance learning. This would mean you’d learn online, and your supervisor meetings would be virtual.