The highest academic degree a student can achieve is a Doctor of Philosophy, or doctorate (PhD/DPhil). Almost three-quarters of those in postgraduate research (PGR) study full-time with 48% female research students (HESA, 2018). Between 2006-07 and 2015-16 the number of students studying on a part-time basis for a postgraduate research degree increased by 5.3% (Universities UK, 2017).
Studying for a PhD is very demanding and requires at least a 2:1 result in a student’s undergraduate studies. Today it is common practice, although not always required, that a student undertakes a taught postgraduate qualification before applying for a PhD. Moving from a master’s degree to a PhD requires dedication and a significant investment of time. Students must select an appropriate supervisor and develop a high-quality research proposal that will guide the next 3-4 (full-time) or up to 6 years (part-time) of research investigation.
Developing a successful application for a PhD in the UK requires desktop research, an original idea, time and dedication. The process usually starts a full year before the entry to the PhD Programme. It involves several steps that are all interlinked and are fundamentally based on the research proposal.
A good starting point is selecting a University that has expertise in your chosen field of study. The webpages of a school feature academic profiles with information which will assist you in selecting the appropriate supervisor within a University. The next step is to check if the school offers scholarships either directly or through its partnerships. Kent Business School, for example, offers School specific PhD scholarships, and as a member of SeNSS (South-east Network for Social Sciences funded by the ESRC), provides further funding opportunities on a competitive basis. The UK government aims to further support PhD study by providing loans that will become available in the 2020/21 academic year, to those who are eligible.
Communicating with prospective supervisors is a time-consuming process and so you should only approach academics who are directly relevant to your research proposal and ideally those whom you are familiar with their published work. If a supervisor considers the research proposal of interest, applying formally is the next step which will kick start the institutional application process. Make sure that you mention the name of the supervisor you communicated within your application which will assist in moving the formal communication to the direction of your chosen supervisor. Once you receive the offer make sure that you secure your place on the PhD Programme by accepting your offer. Continue your communication with your supervisor and ask for their advice on how to best use the time before the induction day.
PhD Research Proposal
Your previous degree marks, evidence of English language knowledge and references are important elements in being accepted onto a PhD Programme. The single most important document that will not only secure you a place on a PhD Programme but potentially the funding for your studies, is a high-quality research proposal.
Potential supervisors, PhD admissions tutors and/or funders assess annually hundreds of research proposals to evaluate the originality of ideas and the quality of the proposal. Formulating clearly what is original about your research is key. Provide your own interpretation of existing literature, use a particular technique and apply it to a new area, carry out empirical work that hasn’t been done before, or bring to the fore new evidence on an old issue (Phillips and Pugh, 2010). The quality of your proposal should demonstrate your skills in critical thinking and your ability to convincingly put forward a feasible research project. A high-quality research proposal should achieve the following:
Have a clear title: Aim to develop a title that summarises the main idea of the proposal concisely.
Position the study in practice: Include intelligence gathering from the ‘real world’. This could be in the form of reports from public and non-profit sector organisations or think tanks. Newspaper articles and opinion pieces in leading popular press are also important in positioning the focus issue within social reality. Discuss the importance for the particular sector/industry and justify why the particular context is key at this moment in time and hence why it makes sense for resources to be allocated for this study. Explaining the importance of your research in practice aims to also provide an indication of your project’s impact i.e. importance for others.
Position the study in theory: Provide a literature review for your research project’s focus. Avoid developing a generic literature review of the basic texts in your academic field without establishing clear links to your research question. This should involve a critical review of the existing theoretical literature in order to establish the extent to which your proposed thesis makes a contribution – i.e., adds something theoretical, conceptual, methodological and/or empirical which is not already offered in the published literature. This section should position your study explicitly within a theoretical field, justify the study’s focus within the theoretical field and introduce the issues that will be addressed by your research question(s). This section aims to showcase your familiarity with existing research and theoretical/methodological approaches addressing the focal issues. It also aims to establish the rationale for the proposed study and hence it should end by introducing your main research question(s) and research aims.
Empirical research methods: Outline the empirical work you plan to undertake by referring to previous exemplary empirical studies which provided inspiration for your study. Methodological references are required as well as justifications of all your methodological choices. Identify the methods you propose to use and provide details of your proposed sample/context or secondary data sets you are planning to use by justifying all your choices. Providing some indication of access to empirical data is also a good idea.
Conclusions/reflections: Give a brief summary of your main argument and project summarising your main anticipated contributions along with the key challenges should be a good way to conclude by including some reflections regarding the foreseeable challenges of your research project.
References: Avoid listing references that are generic and not relevant to the focus of your proposal. Aim for relevance, quality and not quantity.
Research project timeline: Provide a clear timeline for your research project indicating the stages of your research and the amount of time that each requires (literature review, data collection stages, analysis, writing-up). Including a Gantt chart, for example, can demonstrate your clear understanding of the research time plan requirements.
Doing a PhD is a long-term process that requires patience and creativity. As you develop familiarity with a large body of knowledge, collecting, cataloguing and thought-recording systems will allow you to gradually identify the gaps in the literature and develop new ways of seeing existing issues/problems. Hence, patience with the process and with oneself are key in order to finally reach the moments of creativity and originality that will constitute your contributions to theory and practice and award you a PhD acknowledging you as a world expert in your chosen field. Good luck in pursuing your research goals and we look forward to welcoming your PhD application at Kent Business School.
- HESA, 2018. Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2016/17 – Student numbers and characteristics
- Phillips, E. and Pugh, D. S., 2010. How To Get A PhD: a handbook for students and their supervisors. 5th edition. Open University Press.
- Universities UK, 2017. Patterns and Trends in the UK Higher Education 2017