Finding a place

Securing a masters or PhD place is a complicated business. There is a bewildering array of options and little in the way of central to help cut through the complexity. Not only do you have to find a topic you will want to spend the next few years of your life investigating and a supervisor who you trust to guide you into the world of academia:  you also have to secure the money to allow you to do this.

However, hundreds of people every year manage to negotiate this process and secure funded masters and PhD places. 

Will you have the necessary qualifications?

Before you start hunting for a place, it is important to be aware that it is becoming increasingly the case that PhD places are awarded to people who have masters degrees or first-class honours Degrees. It is becomingly increasingly rare for people with second-class degrees and below to get a PhD place without a masters degree.

What do you want to do?

For MSc courses in research methods, you are best to look at departmental websites, advertisements on the noticeboards in your current university department and the list of accredited courses on the ESRC website. As these are taught courses it should be a straightforward process to identify a course and its components for this kind of masters degree.

For both MPhil and PhD courses, this is a less well structured process. The first thing to do is to decide on what area you want to study. This will constrain the search space and determine whom you need to talk to get further information. You don’t need a fully formed proposal at this stage, but do try to identify the area that you want to work in.

It is important that you choose an area that you are interested in as two to four years is a long time to live with a project you are not that interested in. Sometimes in the dark hours of your research, it is sometimes only the interest of the project that keeps you going.

You should also bear in mind that a PhD in particular will place your academic career within the area that you have chosen, since you will invest time and effort in building up a knowledge base and publish work in this area. It can be difficult to break away from your PhD into other areas.

Where do you want to do it?

After identifying the topic, the next stage is to identify a university and a supervisor who you will want to work with for the next two to four years. The most common way of getting a PhD place is through unsolicited enquiries to departments and potential supervisors. Only about 15 per cent of people get a PhD post by responding to adverts in the national. Many do Masters Degrees or PhDs at the institution where they have done previous degrees, supervised by people they already know.

However, if you cannot or do not want to do a masters or PhD at your current university, a good strategy is to talk to people who work in your chosen area about departments and supervisors. They often have inside knowledge on where you could start to look for a place and who would be a suitable supervisor. They may provide a letter of introduction for you.

One of the important things to find out about any institution you are considering is the potential for obtaining a funded place and, in particular, whether they are accredited to receive funding from the research councils (ESRC, EPSRC, BBSRC and MRC).

If a department is accredited you will have a much better chance of getting funding, and accredited departments may have higher retention rates as research councils sanction those with poor completion rates. To get research council funding you either put together a research proposal with your potential supervisor or are nominated by the department to receive an award, depending on the Research Council that you are applying for. Overseas students rarely qualify for Research Council awards. See our research councils page for further details.

When contacting a potential supervisor it is essential to do your homework on the research topic, institution, department and the supervisor. This is crucial for helping you decide whether you want to apply for the post in the first place, and is also essential at the interview stage if you are shortlisted.

Do not be afraid to ask questions, such as those outlined in this guide. Remember that you are choosing them as much as they are choosing you. There is nothing wrong with negotiating with more than one department simultaneously and don’t worry too much about hurting people’s feelings. For a department, the decision about who to take on as a Masters or PhD student is important, but for you, the next two or four years of your life depends on it. 

The final piece of advice is to believe in yourself and persevere. Every year hundreds of people are successful in securing a funded masters or PhD place, so if you carefully consider where to apply there is no reason why you shouldn’t be one of them. Good luck!

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