Laiqah Osman – Things to consider when applying for a PhD, from a PhD student15 June 2023
Congratulations! You’ve made the monumental decision to apply for a PhD.
As a recipient of the Jameel PhD Scholarship, currently in the fourth year of my PhD at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University, I am closely familiar with the application process. I was also previously awarded an MRes studentship from the Centre of Islamic and West Asian Studies at Royal Holloway University of London, and most recently have secured an internship with the Everyday Muslim Heritage and Archive Initiative, funded by the Aziz Foundation. As part of that role, I have worked on collections that highlight scholarships and fellowships at academic institutions that conduct research on Islam or Muslims, in the United Kingdom and the wider world.
I have put together a (hopefully) non-exhaustive list of things to consider during the application process, based on knowledge accumulated from my personal experience and a survey of the sector. This advice is specific to the humanities but may be applicable for students from other disciplines.
- Before working on your proposal, I highly recommend that your first priority is to familiarise yourself with the various scholarships/ funding that are available and relevant to you. I advise making a simple Excel sheet to keep track of application cycles, deadlines, details for funding and required documents.
- Doing a PhD is a full-time job. Whilst working part time or otherwise paying for it out of your own pocket is suitable for some, it is often not sustainable in the long term. If you are unable to secure external funding immediately, take some time to reflect on your project and think about what next steps are best for your specific circumstances. In some instances, projects can be reframed to better ‘fit’ the interests of funding bodies. Though, make sure that you are still motivated to research the amended project. If possible, seek feedback on why your application was unsuccessful, and implement this in your next submission.
- Depending on your chosen project, there are a few avenues you can pursue during your search for funding. If you are still a postgrad student, I would recommend speaking to the careers department at your university to see what funding streams are available to you. There are different types of scholarships: those that are privately funded (Jameel Scholarship, Alwaleed Scholarship), from research councils (ESRC, AHRC), independent organisations, or scholarships that are specific to a university or department.
- Not all scholarships are the same. They may partially or fully cover tuition fees, and they may or may not include a stipend or research grant. They may also have conditions that you need to fulfil once awarded.
- Not all scholarship applications are tied to your PhD application, so that is often an additional step in the process. Once you have decided where you want to apply, make sure you give yourself enough time to complete each application.
- To hear about funding opportunities, follow departments and centres that align with your research on Twitter or Linkedin, and sign up to their mailing list if they have one!
- Your research proposal is the heart of your application. Make sure you dedicate enough time to writing it.
- Once you have a preliminary idea for your research, spend some time (1-2 weeks) reading around your topic and re-familiarising yourself with the literature. Take detailed notes that can be slotted into your proposal. I would start with clearly outlining your critical/ original research design. Ensure that you are demonstrating wide reading, and (if applicable) don’t forget about theory! You may be able to be led by and build on the conclusions of previous research.
- Give yourself at least a week to write the first draft of your research proposal. Some applications also ask for a CV, so make sure you give yourself enough time to update yours (don’t forget to perfect your formatting!).
- Get others to proofread your proposal draft and give you feedback (and give them enough time to do so before your deadline). Your proposal doesn’t need to be perfect yet, but it does need to demonstrate your capability for conducting the research.
THE SUPERVISORS AND DEPARTMENT
- It is possible that your scholarship may be tied to a specific department. If that is the case, make sure that your application aligns with the research interests of the department or research centre where you are applying. Try to incorporate the language they use in their advert or on their website, and clearly outline where your work fits into the wider field.
- Think hard about who you want to supervise your work. Familiarise yourself with their work and if relevant, check the topics of previous PhD students they have supervised.
- You may want to get in touch with your potential supervisor and introduce yourself; they may want to look at your proposal before you submit your application, and their feedback will help ensure it is most tailored to the research interests of the department. Set aside enough time for this before the deadline.
- Note: Be mindful that those you are contacting during this process will likely have busy schedules and are not required to respond to you. Keep your email polite and concise.
- Do research on anything and everything related to PhD interviews and create a master document of preparation and advice. I compiled a list of potential questions and drafted answers to practice when preparing for my interview.
- You may be asked to give a presentation on your project during the interview. You do not need to use visual aids unless specified. Make sure you absolutely stay within the time limit, and that your script is clear and concise. I would also leave some room to show your personality and would emphasise how your experience, background and skills demonstrate why you are the right person to do this research.
Laiqah Osman is a Jameel PhD Scholar with the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK and an Aziz Foundation-supported intern with Everyday Muslim.