By Sarah Thomson |

Despite not being a PhD student (yet) I have been a long-term fan of Pubs and Publications. The blog was a great way to gain insights into the realities of PhD life and to decide if a PhD was really for me. Now that I have finished applying for PhDs and funding, I thought I would share some of the things I wish I had known this time last year, for any other ‘pre-PhD’ readers.


Start thinking about it early

Planning a PhD proposal also allows for copious daydreaming about hypothetical research trips to sunny places. Pictured: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA.

The most important piece of advice I would give is to start thinking about your applications as far in advance as possible. Fraser touched on this in an earlier post, but if you’re a Masters student it’s worth asking yourself whether you want to make PhD applications straight away or take time out between degrees. The latter is becoming increasingly common as deadlines to apply for PhD funding can be as early as October, and making decent applications is time consuming.  Though I already had a topic in mind, the prospect of writing a PhD proposal while I was settling into a busy MLitt and adjusting to living in a new city was a little daunting. Another benefit of a year out is the prospect of applying with your Masters grades and a stronger CV, which will often improve your application. Still, applying during a Masters is completely feasible, as long as you start early! Another option is to wait until the spring and see if any funded projects come up in a field you’re suited to. 


Allow plenty of time to talk to your prospective supervisors

After drafting my PhD proposal I looked for potential supervisors. I sent each one an email a couple of months before the application deadlines asking if they were taking on new students, giving a rough outline of my project, and offering to show them my proposal draft. Luckily, most of them offered to read my proposal and offer feedback. I cannot overstate how helpful this was when it came to refining the proposal, and I’d strongly encourage you to allow time to get this kind of feedback. The application process allowed me to talk to some of the UK’s leading experts in my field and discussing my project with them was the most enjoyable (and nerve-wracking) part of the whole process! Working with potential supervisors at this stage also helped me to gauge whether or not we’d work well together during the PhD.


Edits from potential supervisors may look overwhelming, but they’re extremely helpful (the individual responsible for these comments is now one of my supervisors).


Ask people for their insights

It sounds cliché, but every PhD student or academic has been where you are now.  Ask them for advice about the PhD admissions and funding processes. Reaching out to some of my prospective supervisors’ PhD students was especially helpful, as they gave me a feel for what different supervisors were like to work with. When it came to choosing a programme this was information was invaluable. You will also need at least two academic referees, and mine were both very willing to offer advice on my CV/proposal.


Funding applications are time-consuming (and confusing)

Applying for PhD funding deserves its own blog post (watch this space). The application process is often different for each funding source.  Although I applied to five universities I ended up applying to at least thirteen different types of funding… The length of the applications ranged from ticking a box on the admissions application, to 8,000 words (yes, 8,000 words). If your prospective supervisor(s) are willing to read these then factor in plenty of time for them to do so. Similarly, several departments offered in-house reviews of applications before you submit them, which are well worth taking advantage of. There’s no shame in asking for support during what is a fairly daunting process.  In my experience, most people are more than happy to help if you give them ample notice.


The PhD application process also provides ample opportunity to prepare for a favourite pastime of PhD students: consuming endless cups of coffee.


Funding is a bit of a lottery

It is worth saying that there are lots of people with fantastic projects, and simply not enough funding. The line between who is and isn’t awarded funding is incredibly fine and can be influenced by any number of factors outside of your control. One of my best friends applied for funding this year too, and while we were both lucky enough to receive funding, I was rejected by funding competitions he was successful in and vice versa. To that end, I would strongly advise anyone applying for PhD funding to make more than one application.  Do not rest on any laurels you think you have.  In the interests of full disclosure, I was rejected/waitlisted by six sources of funding before I received an offer. It is really, really competitive. I found that making a lot of applications made me feel less anxious overall, but on the flipside I experienced a fair number of rejection emails!


Think about your priorities

If you get more than one funding offer, or you do not get funding at your first choice, weigh up your options carefully. Would you (or could you) self-fund at your first choice? For me, funding was a deal-breaker, so I withdrew from departments where my funding applications were unsuccessful. After funding, my priority was the suitability of my supervisor, and the size of the American history community at each university, but other people’s priorities may differ.  Once I’d accepted an offer from my chosen department I withdrew from my pending applications. While you don’t necessarily have to, as someone who wound up on multiple reserve lists, I wanted to avoid putting other people in the limbo I had been in.


To any readers about to embark on PhD applications, I wish you the best of luck! Though nerve-wracking and occasionally stressful, it is exciting, so try your best to enjoy it.



Sarah is currently procrastinating on finishing her MLitt in American Studies. In September she’s starting an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Edinburgh, looking at the construction of Ronald Reagan’s political legacy. She’s more than happy to talk to any prospective PhD students, and you can find her on twitter or contact her via Pubs and Pubs.