Applying for a PhD in the UK in 387 easy steps

ID-10071734You cannot get enough of all the research and had such a blast writing your bachelor or master thesis? You want to join the scientific side of things (although they don’t have many cookies), and pursue a PhD? You also want to enjoy cricket, tea and Kate Middleton? 

Step 1: Plan ahead

Having finished my studies in Psychology at a German university, it was quite a surprise for me to realize how much time it takes to apply for a PhD in the UK. In the beautiful home country of mine, most PhD students work for a professor on a certain, mostly predefined project, and get roughly a 50 to 70% payment for a being a “research assistant” where they work for the department or lab. The amount of time they spend working on their PhD and for their professor varies. Some also have a scholarship, for which you can apply all year round.

This is not the case in the UK.

Sometimes, rarely, it is possible to apply for a studentship attached to a certain project. These sorts of opportunities open up occasionally throughout the academic year, and hopefully you will stumble across one of them (for instances here or or on Twitter, following scholars whose work interests you!). But in most cases you, and your supervisor, will need to apply for funding. And this is why everything is so highly complicated and tedious.

Step 2: Find a supervisor

First, you need to find someone who works in your field of interest and is willing to take on PhD students. Sounds easy – and certainly can be. I found that my dream supervisor is also the guy whose papers I enjoyed boring all my friends with. But it would be handy if you, on top of that, also get along with the guy (or the lady). So get in touch and talk to them about what you plan to work on and how. At this stage you don’t have to have specific experiment in mind – but it helps to distinguish you from all the other students applying with that supervisor.

Of course, there are pre-defined projects that already have funding and where the supervisor already has a pretty good idea on what to do and how.

Technically, you can apply to the University first, but a) you might want to know who you go through all that trouble for and b) when someone has an application from a random guy on their desk, they might not take too much time with it.

Step 3: Applying to the University – The Process

When the first contact is established, you will need to apply with the university. Of course, if the supervisor wants to work with you, this is a good start, but the faculty will at least in theory want to give their two cents, which also implies that you might have to be interviewed by more than one faculty member.

For most universities, the deadline for a PhD program in psychology is in May/June (but of course you need to check) in the same year that you want to start your PhD. But be careful! Think of your funding. To apply for funding you might need a confirmed offer and the deadlines for this might be way earlier. Take Cambridge – the deadline for starting your PhD in October is not until 1 May. But here comes the trick – depending on which funding you are applying for, you will have to do so in early December or January. Yes, almost one year before you even start. It might be also the case that the funding institution needs your confirmation that you have been offered a place, so you need to get cracking.

1) What you’ll need – a checklist

  • References. Most of the time at least two. The higher the academic status of the referee, the better. Obviously. Your referees will probably have to submit the reference letter within a certain time period and might directly be contacted by the University you are applying to.
  • A TOEFL / IELTS or some other proof that you are capable of communicating in English. It might be possible that you will only need to show proof of proficiency in English after you have been made an offer. Jipi, you have more time for the other stuff!
  • A PhD Proposal. That is one of the hardest parts, so don’t underestimate it. You might get help from your potential supervisor with that, and you certainly will have to check with him or her, a process that takes time. A detailed proposal might not be needed for the university application, but for funding it will be. Therefore, by now you should have a good idea on how you will change the way we think about psychology – which kind of methods and procedures you would like to use and also whether your potential supervisor can actually provide you with them.
  •  A Statement of Purpose. Why do you apply to this university, with this supervisor and why should they consider you? A nice guide on how to write a statement of purpose can be found here
  •  A (preferably official) translation of your transcripts, if applicable. Translation will probably cost a fee and takes a few days.

2) Don’t get discouraged. You are almost there

3) Applying for funding

There are several opportunities to get money – for instance the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC), funding specifically for your university, or from the college you apply for, or other foundations such as the Wellcome Trust[1]. For clarity reasons I will mostly refer to the ESRC.

In the UK, you will have to pay a fee for pursuing a PhD. Also, you need money for your actual research, your food and other mundane things[2]. This will be covered by your fund. If you are lucky, the application for funding is “included” in your application to the university (for instance, if you apply before a certain deadline you will be automatically considered for funding). If not (or additionally, see below), you will need to apply separately. This also means you have to send all your documents again and your references might be asked once more to provide their evaluation of your academic abilities and potential. You might also have to write another statement of purpose as to why you are applying for this scholarship or why the project you are intending to undertake is feasible, and why the lab of your supervisor and this university is the perfect place for it.

4) Apply for more funding.

You should not put all your eggs in one basket. You can check out what opportunities are available for students a) from your country or b) with your subject / topic. There are many small funds available, and it really depends on the University you are applying for. It is also possible to attain funding from your home country, for instance a scholarship that pays your maintenance. And if all your efforts are not successful, it is also possible to pay for your PhD yourself – study part time while working or getting a loan.

5) Wait.

Good luck!


Helpful links

[2] If you are not a UK resident, the ESRC will not cover your living expenses (it is a so called “fees only award”) – you need other ways of saving yourself from sleeping under a bridge.

Katharina Brecht

Katharina Brecht

After finishing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, Katharina is currently a Postdoc in the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. Her research interests revolve around the mechanisms of social and causal cognition in animals.

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