By Meg Moodie, Meaghan Dyer and Bobbie Nolan |

The deadline for submitting PhD proposals in time to be eligible for funding is fast approaching. It’s a long, painful process that we’ve all been through, and there are plenty of pitfalls along the way. Fortunately, three of the University of Edinburgh’s first year PhD students have kindly agreed to shared their experiences and offer some top tips to help you craft the perfect application.

Meg Moodie (Classics):

One of the most important aspects of putting together a PhD application is making sure that it can be easily adapted when it comes to funding purposes. Key to this is trying to convey to a somewhat anonymous panel that you are the perfect candidate. I have often needed to defend the value of Classics, over other seemingly more ‘useful’ degrees (their words, not mine). In that sense placing a Classics proposal in the wider scope is always important, especially if applying to a university-wide scholarship. You need to be clear as to how your research will not only benefit your area of study, but what its wider impact is, be it advancing education or developing cultural/historical understanding. This will go a long way to elevating the perceived value of your research. Besides this, it is also important to highlight any courses or work you’ve done outside of academia, such as developing your foreign language skills, becoming involved in heritage work or gaining excavation experience. This will help you present yourself as geared towards the wider industry and not just your specific field of research. Being clear about the proposed outcomes and showing knowledge of pre-existing scholarship is also very important as it shows that you are ‘in tune’ to your field and likely to produce a valuable contribution. Essentially it all comes down to conveying the novelty and importance of your work as well as your ability to achieve what you are setting out to do; if you believe in it, they will.

Meaghan Dyer (Osteoarchaeology):

The number one lesson I learned from my experience applying for the PhD was it takes time! While many of my fellow Master’s students were balancing applications and finishing their degree, I chose to take a few years off and work while I completed my PhD application. I think this decision has really helped me in the long run. The extra time allowed me to fully develop my Masters dissertation, which turned into the basis for my PhD research. I was able to create a well-researched and fully developed proposal and consult with my future supervisor.

Not everyone will need or want to take the time out, but I would strongly recommend having a good grasp of deadlines for the PhD application and scholarship applications prior. These deadlines, particularly any non-university based scholarships, come very early (usually around October/November), knowing when these important dates are in advance will aid in deciding when a reasonable start date for your research would be.

By giving yourself the time you really need while you apply for your PhD gives you a marked advantage in feeling confident about your topic, establishing an initial relationship with your supervisor, and increases the likelihood of being successful with scholarship applications. A PhD is a big commitment and the application process needs that same effort.

Bobbie Nolan (History):

The initial, general advice I would give to anybody putting together a PhD application, in any subject, is pick a topic for which you have a genuine passion, be organised and aware of deadlines, and take your time. For history specifically, here are some brief and (hopefully) helpful pointers.

The research proposal forms the bulk of the application and should be a clearly structured, well-researched piece of work with discernible aims and objectives, while also being accessible to the lay-person.  It is the applicant’s choice on how to structure their proposal but it may prove useful to order it accordingly: title, rationale, research questions, research context, and sources & methodology (I recommend using section headings but not everyone does this).  It is essential to incorporate ‘buzzwords’ into each of these in order to demonstrate your awareness of and familiarity with key themes and arguments, and understand where your project fits in: for example, as I study Irish migration, my proposal was situated among current scholarly advancements in transnationalism and diaspora studies.

Another important tip is to emphasise the ‘so what?’ of your research – why it is important and demonstrate that you have considered the impact it will have, not only within academia.  Again, my proposal suggested that by analysing the position of the Irish language abroad in the nineteenth century, my research could then inform current public policy on the diaspora and draw attention to the significance of language for all migrant groups.

(Photo 1: © ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ by Jorge Cham)

Meg Moodie, Meaghan Dyer and Bobbie Nolan are all first year PhD students at the University of Edinburgh. Meg is researching indigenous pre-Roman North Africa, in particular Numidia and its funeral architecture. Bobbie is looking at the Irish language and identity in the British and North American Diasporas, 1850-1920 whilst Meaghan researches Neolithic blunt force trauma with experimental archaeology.