The PhD application process

Hi there! Thank you for taking a chance on my first ever blog post. I appreciate you.

Are you thinking about doing a PhD? You might be wondering if a PhD is the right move for you. Or perhaps you have already decided to take the plunge, and are now looking into the application process. This post is for you.

As 2020 drew to a close, my goal for the new year was to look for PhD opportunities and, if I found the right one, take the leap. For some context, I completed my undergraduate degree in 2013 and my master’s degree in 2017. I worked in industry between degrees and after my postgraduate studies, and was working full-time in the public service while making plans for my shift into academia. I was also a first-generation PhD applicant, and didn’t really know anyone who had been through the application process who I could reach out to for advice. The result of these factors was that I found the application process to be quite bewildering.

I read all the guidance available on the websites of the universities I was interested in, but I still had so many questions. Frustratingly, my email enquiries to those universities were answered with generic responses repeating what I had already read. I turned to the blogosphere and found some answers in this post and this post from the wonderful Thesis Whisperer. It was the existence of these (very few) articles that compelled me to write my own piece on the topic, having now successfully completed the PhD application process.

This post should not be taken as advice, as my preferences and circumstances undoubtedly differ from yours in many ways — but I hope that by simply describing exactly how I arrived at where I am now, I can help demystify at least some aspects of the process for another Doctor in waiting. 

Please note that this post is written from the perspective of an Australian resident applying for a domestic PhD position and scholarship. Application processes differ internationally as well as for residents and non-residents of Australia.

1. Defined parameters & confirmed my eligibility

In January 2021, I began my search by devising two criteria for my potential PhD. First, it had to be at a university in Brisbane, where I already lived. Second, I wanted to find an advertised project with a general outline of the research questions or applications (as opposed to proposing my own brand new project). I then checked the entry requirements for domestic PhD students on a few different university websites to confirm that I was eligible to apply.

2. Hunted for projects

Finding advertised projects was much easier said than done. I was (naively, it seems) hoping there would be some sort of centralised directory of advertised PhD projects, but I was wrong. Some universities advertised available projects in a single location, while others scattered them throughout their websites under faculty or staff pages. Others had no advertised projects at all. The university I chose to apply to had a dedicated and user-friendly student topics page, where I found a project that inspired me. In hindsight, I would have also perused Twitter as many researchers advertise their available projects there.

3. Contacted the listed supervisors

I emailed the listed supervisors to introduce myself and express my interest in discussing the project with them. In my email I gave a brief overview of my academic background including the topic of my master’s research project, as well as my industry experience. I also attached my CV and my master’s thesis to demonstrate my research potential.

4. Met potential supervisors

A few weeks later I was invited to meet with the project supervisors at the university. Before the meeting I brushed up on my general knowledge of the methods associated with the advertised topic, as well as of my prior research project so that I could describe and justify my approach and reflections in detail. At the meeting I was interviewed informally about my academic and professional background, research interests and goals. My preparation paid off as the supervisors were clearly evaluating my research capabilities and my fit for the project. I was also encouraged to ask questions about the project and the application process. After the meeting I emailed each attendee to thank them for their time and seek their support to proceed with the next step of the application process.

5. Submitted a formal expression of interest

The first formal stage in the university’s application process was preparing an ‘expression of interest’. This required me to prepare a one-page overview of my proposed research activities, including a provisional title and keywords, the objectives and significance of the project, a general description of my proposed methods, details of any potential for industry engagement, and a justification of the project’s alignment with the faculty’s other research programs. I prepared this independently and sought feedback from the project supervisors via email before submitting. This document wasn’t too challenging to write as I selected an advertised project which already specified some broad questions and outcomes, upon which I could elaborate. At this stage I was also required to submit my academic records and CV. The CV needed to be formatted in a specific way, which was very different to my standard industry CV and therefore took some time to put together. (If the university you are applying to doesn’t specify any particular CV format, I would suggest looking at examples of academic (as opposed to industry) CVs online as a guide.)

6. Prepared my application

In April 2021 my expression of interest was approved and I was invited to proceed with the next stage of the application: preparing a 1500-word research proposal. A template was provided which set out the necessary components, which were similar to those of the expression of interest but requiring more detail, plus a reference list and a proposed timeline of activities. This demanded a good amount of background reading on the topic — all up I’d estimate it took me about 20 hours to complete. I was lucky that I had access to academic journals through my government job; otherwise, I’m not sure how I would have pulled it off. Once again I had the benefit of receiving some feedback from the project supervisors before submitting.

7. Met potential supervisors (again)

My back-and-forth conversations with the project supervisors while writing the research proposal led to a second in-person meeting to discuss some of the logistical aspects of my application, such as scholarships and commencement dates. In case you are unaware (as I was), it is important to note that being offered a place in a PhD program and being offered a scholarship are two separate things. An applicant may be accepted as a PhD student but not awarded a scholarship, which could obviously put that person in a difficult spot financially. I had a lot of questions and concerns about this process, which I was keen to quiz the project supervisors about.

I found out that admission can be offered at any time during the year, but most scholarships are awarded in the university’s annual scholarship round, with payments commencing at the start of each calendar year. Although it was now May 2021 and I was almost ready to apply for entry into the PhD program, this meant I was expecting to have to wait until 2022 to (hopefully) receive a scholarship and commence my studies. Starting a PhD without funding is an option, though this wasn’t feasible for me. However, as the supervisors were keen to get the project off the ground and knew I was interested and available to start in 2021, the lead supervisor offered to look into alternative funding arrangements to support my early entry. This was encouraging, but I tried not to get my hopes up as there was no guarantee any such funding would be available, let alone offered to me.

8. Submitted PhD application

May 2021 rolled around and I finally submitted my formal PhD application and proposal. Yay! At this stage I also nominated my preferred commencement date. The waiting begun…

9. Received an offer!

At the end of June, I received a formal offer of a place in the PhD program, commencing on my nominated date. To my delight, I was also offered a bridging scholarship from the lead supervisor that would allow me to commence with funding in August 2021, under the condition that I must apply for the university’s annual scholarship round for 2022.

10. Commenced PhD studies

I made it! I resigned from my industry position to commence my full-time studies in August 2021.

11. Applied for annual scholarship round

As per the conditions of my bridging scholarship, I applied for a scholarship in the university’s annual round. These are competitive and based on things like academic record, publication history, and sometimes professional experience. I was automatically included in the candidate pool on the back of my previous application, so I didn’t need to do anything else at this stage.

12. Wrote a really detailed research proposal

My first PhD milestone was to write a 3600-word research proposal for my project, which included a literature review, proposed thesis title and type (i.e., monograph or published papers — I chose the latter), a description of the theoretical framework underpinning the research, detailed methods for each of my four proposed papers, and a few other bits and pieces. This was due within three months of commencement and was considered to be the final stage of the admission process, with the quality of my proposal determining whether I could proceed with my PhD studies (as decided by my supervisors, an independent reviewer, and the university’s research committee).

It was a whopper! My proposal ended up taking a totally different direction than what I had originally proposed because my ideas and interests changed as I learnt more and more about the topic. I found this process to be incredibly challenging, as I was navigating an unfamiliar subject while simultaneously trying to craft a research proposal that not only constituted a significant and original contribution to knowledge, but would also allow me to demonstrate the specific skills I sought to develop and, importantly, sustain my interest for the next three or four years. These were an emotionally turbulent three months, but completing the proposal and having it formally approved was gratifying, and it feels good to have a detailed yet flexible plan to guide the years ahead.

13. Scholarship offered

In November 2021 I received news that I was successful in receiving a scholarship from the university’s annual offer round. This is an Australian Government Research Training Program Stipend (Domestic), equivalent to $28,854 per year (in 2022), tax-free. It is available to me for three years, with the possibility of extension for up to six months.

So that’s it! It feels so great to be embarking on this exciting, albeit daunting, journey. Upon reflection I consider myself very lucky and privileged to have been successful in securing a PhD offer and scholarship after one application attempt, as I know this is not the reality for many. 

If you have any questions about my experience, please leave a comment below — I would love to hear from you!

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