How to write a PhD application?

The first step to writing a PhD application is to read the guidelines carefully. You need to be completely certain that you understand when the application is due, the required format, and that you have completed all of the required sections. Most departments receive many applicants, and scholarships are highly competitive. You do not want your proposal rejected because you exceeded the word limit or handed it in late.

Research proposal

The most important part of your PhD application is your research proposal. This will most likely have several sections:


You need to include enough background information so that your proposal makes sense to someone who may be unfamiliar to the topic. Although you will not be expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of the previous literature before you even start the PhD, your background section should at least give a short summary of what other main work has been done on the topic. This helps to demonstrate how your research will be significant, and shows that you are motivated and prepared to commence a PhD. Your overall research proposal, as well as every sub-section needs to be well-structured. The lack of structure is often a problem with background statements.


Ultimately, the aim of a PhD is to make a significant contribution to knowledge. Therefore it is important that your thesis will address an important question. It is not enough that your research will be “interesting”, you also need to think about how it will be significant.

Questions not even 5+ years of grad School willhelp you answer

One way in which to demonstrate the potential significance of your ideas is to locate your proposed research within the previous literature. Are you intending to address an important gap, taking a different approach than traditionally used, resolving an outstanding debate.


Possibly the largest weakness in PhD applications is in the methods sections. Proposals often have very detailed background sections and clear aims, but their methods sections are weak. The methods section needs to explain how you propose going about your research. Some useful tips:

  • Include as much detail as possible. Eg if you want to do interviews, who are you going to interview, how many interviews do you want to conduct, where will the interviews take place, will they be recorded, what format of questions will you use, what topics will you cover, are you going to transcribe the interviews, how will they be analysed.
  • Show how your overall methodological approach is appropriate to answer your research questions.
  • Justify your methods. Eg why structured interviews and not semi- or unstructured?
  • Make sure that your proposed methods are feasible. Discuss how you intend to overcome any potential barriers (eg problems with access)
  • Does your research raise any ethical issues, and if yes, how do you intend to deal with them?


Including a timetable is a useful means of showing that you have thought about the feasibility of your research, and also helps demonstrate that you are mindful that you need to complete within time. Previously, the need to complete on time wasn’t emphasised so strongly, however most universities now set a maximum time limit in which the thesis must be submitted. Students who go overtime risk being removed from a programme.

Useful advice for writing a proposal is available at:


Previously, have a solid undergraduate academic record and possibly a good Masters degree were enough to get a position on a PhD programme. This is no longer the case, and even students with an outstanding academic record may miss out on a position, especially if you are also applying for a scholarship.

Most applicants will have similar academic records, and so you need to include anything else that may make you stand out. What you most strongly what to emphasis in your CV is your capacity as a researcher, and so include anything that highlights your research skills. This could include:

  • Research related employment. Even if your experience doesn’t directly relate to your proposed work, include anything that shows that you have an understanding of the research process eg administrative work on a research project, transcription typing, data entry, data cleaning, teaching assistance.
  • Research publications. Include everything regardless of how minor your role (eg 4th author), as well as non-refereed publications (eg a report for a NGO) and conference presentations.
  • Research training. If you have done an undergraduate or postgraduate dissertation, then give some details such as the title and a short summary. Highlight the content of any research courses that you have attended.
  • Awards, prizes, fellowships. These all show that you have some outstanding qualities.
  • Involvement in your research community. This may include activities such as organising a seminar, being a student representative, being a member of a professional organisation. Some programmes also like to see that you are a good team member.
  • If you have had other jobs, you may want to emphasis the relevant skills that these posts have given you (eg time management).

You CV must be formatting consistently and clearly. You need to carefully proof read and make sure that it is faultlessly presented.

An example of a CV for a PhD is available at:


Finding the right referee is important. Most applicants will have glowing references, and you cannot take the chance that you will have a reference that is indifferent or negative. A poor reference can really harm your chances of acceptance. In addition, a reference can be useful in order to explain a problem with your CV. For instance, if there was a problem with your undergraduate study, eg your grades for one year were low due to serious unforeseen circumstances, your referee may be able to explain this.

Find a referee who can give specific examples about your skills, for instance, someone who has taught you previously or an employer if the job is relevant to doing a PhD (eg a research post). Try to find someone who you feel will be generous.

You may want to send your referees a copy of your research proposal and a link to the programme that you are applying to. This can help a referee tailor their reference. Your referee has to be relevant to the type of programme that you are applying for. If you are applying for a sociology of law programme, it may not necessarily be the best choice to have a ‘blackletter’ lawyer as a referee.

Make sure that you have asked your potential referees if they are happy to provide a reference beforehand. Academics can get asked to write a lot of references, and so you may also need to send a tactful reminder.

Further useful links:

Personal statement

Not all applications require a personal statement, but they are almost always required for US applications. Your personal statement needs to show that you are motivated to do further research, and also that you want to study in that particular department. If you are applying to multiple programmes, make sure that you tailor each application rather than send the same application to each place.

Jorge Cham

Your personal statement should do more than just “sell yourself.” Of course you are dedicated, enthusiastic, hardworking and intelligent. Instead, focus on: 

  • Why do you want to do a PhD
  • What it is about the topic that you find so interesting
  • How you became interested in the topic, and research more generally
  • Do you have any experience in research, or relevant research skills
  • Why you are attracted to the department
  • What aspects of research conducted in the department you find interesting

Examples of personal statements can be found at: