Tuesday, 14 October 2014

How to prepare a good PhD application

The next round of Doctoral Training Partnership funding is coming up, and it's made me think about what makes a good PhD application. Over the years I have seen a lot of PhD enquiries and applications, and it might be helpful to outline what my expectations of a competitive application in my field are. These are just my personal opinions, and are not representative of any institution or organisation, but I hope they may be helpful for readers out there considering applying for PhD funding in Translation Studies.

The thing I can't emphasise enough is groundwork. The PhD application is not the place to submit your initial idea; once you have an idea, you should get appropriate academic feedback on it and begin approaching your chosen institution(s) to scope out supervision possibilities. This should be done well in advance of any application, particularly where funding deadlines are at issue. A good literature review takes time to develop; for archival projects, you might find yourself visiting archives to establish the availability of appropriate primary material - and so on. A competitive funding application is about showing that the project is worth doing and that you are the right person to do it.

Turning your topic into a proposal
What's going to be new about your project? The literature review is an important step in pinning this down. What's been written about the topic? Where is the gap in knowledge that this work can address? What theoretical framework/methodology will you use/draw on/develop? Why is this an appropriate framework/methodology? Your prospective supervisor will look with interest at the bibliography following your research proposal - do you mention the key scholars in this field? Are you familiar with the relevant debates? Where's the evidence of critical thinking in your proposal?

Where are you going to get your data from? Sometimes, a PhD project comes not from the research question, but the other way around, from the discovery of a source of data which invites analysis - the research question might then be a function of what you can usefully ask about that data. If you're looking at a body of texts, what texts are you going to look at, and why?

Your own preparation for doctoral work
Your application will include details about your academic and professional background. A good PhD application explains how this project proposal builds on your existing strengths. It should show that you have enough familiarity with the general field to be reasonably confident about the claims or hypotheses outlined in your proposal. Is there appropriate evidence of the language competence, if any, needed to do the research?

You don't have to have all the research training in advance; good PhD programmes will make training available to you, but you need to have an appropriate background in the subject. And you don't have to answer your research question(s) before you've even begun the PhD, but you do need to be able to show in the proposal that the questions are worth asking, and can be answered within the scheme of work that you propose.

Managing your application(s)
One of the things which helps to make a good narrative for a PhD application is choice of institution. Have you selected an appropriate institution? Do they have the right research strengths? Are they able to supervise in your language pair(s)? Can you tell a good story, not just about how you are the right person to do this project, but about how this is the right place for you to do it?
Have you checked the requirements for the application at your chosen institution(s)? Don't be afraid to ask questions.

Attention to detail
Have you formatted and proofread your application carefully, using clear headers and consistent referencing conventions? Check that you've done all this, then proofread it again.

Be aware that a lot of funding for PhDs in the UK has deadlines in December or January for the following autumn; for the 2015 round I'd start approaching institutions as soon as possible.

Useful Links
There are lots of more or less helpful webpages out there with advice about applying for PhDs. I thought this one and this one had pretty useful guidance.

UPDATED 23 September 2016 with some style edits and a new title.

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