How To Apply For a PhD

Sroyon is a PhD candidate in the Law Department at LSE, researching environmental law and economics. He shares his experience of applying for a PhD:
In 2014, as a Masters student at LSE, I attended an LSE Careers seminar for students who were thinking about doing a PhD in Law. My abiding memory from that seminar was the discovery that the LSE Law Department typically accepts only around 5–7 students each year. I still remember the sinking feeling as I looked around the room at the dozens of prospective applicants and tried to calculate my odds, before realising that there must be many more applicants who were not even in the room.
Two years later, I found myself at the same seminar, this time as one of the panellists on stage. As a PhD representative for my department, I had been invited to share my experience of the application process and of life as a second-year PhD student.
That transition, more than anything else, involved a good deal of luck. I was particularly fortunate to have received some excellent advice from many quarters. Last year, in my capacity as PhD rep and also as a peer advisor at the annual PostgraduateStudentships PhD Funding Fair, I spoke with a number of students who want to do a PhD, and I tried to pass forward some of the things I learnt – from other people and, in some cases, from my own mistakes.
The very first professor I spoke to about my goal of doing a PhD told me, first of all, to think carefully about why I wanted to do a PhD, or indeed if I wanted to do it at all. (I still did not have a draft research proposal and only a vague idea of what I wanted to work on; in hindsight, perhaps that is why he chose to make more general comments!) I was already convinced I wanted to do a PhD, but when it came to writing applications, thinking carefully about my motivations helped me draft a more convincing statement of purpose. It also spurred me on during those long nights of filling application forms when I wondered why I was doing this to myself.
Once I was sure I wanted to do a PhD, the next question was what to do it on. Besides the alarming acceptance rate statistic, the other thing I remember from the Masters seminar is a piece of advice from one of the professors on the panel. He said, ‘Don’t do a PhD as a lifestyle choice. Don’t do it on a topic which you’re not prepared to constantly think about for the next four years.’ It stayed with me, perhaps because I had an uneasy feeling that the topic I had in mind was merely interesting to me, not all-consumingly exciting. One month into my PhD, his advice prompted me to re-think and then completely change my research topic, and I now think it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
A PhD application involves two kinds of research. Choosing a topic and writing a research proposal is more of an academic exercise. Then there is research about universities, potential supervisors, PhD programmes and funding, which is a different beast altogether. Like most PhD students, I am more at home with the first kind of research; so I focused on that and,as people tend to do, put off doing the second kind. In the end, I found myself so short on time that I applied to only three universities. Fortunately, I got acceptances from LSE and Cambridge (and a rejection from Oxford, for good measure), but my own would-be supervisor had suggested applying to a few more places to hedge my bets. Other, more organised PhD students have told me their first step was to make a list of places they want to apply to, then marking out all the application and funding deadlines on a calendar. This, I think, is a more sensible way to proceed.
The lack of time also meant that I did not spend as much time as I could have researching external funding options (again, I was lucky enough to receive an LSE Law Department studentship award). It was only later, mostly through conversations with other PhD students, that I fully appreciated the many types of funding sources – and combinations of sources – that students use for their PhD (though of course these, too, can be highly competitive).
The other thing I have realised through these interactions is that the structure and requirements of PhD programmes can be very different indeed. There are disciplinary conventions and institutional conventions. Even within institutions, individual departments have their own cultures and quirks. How long will the PhD take? Is there a teaching requirement? How often will I meet my supervisor? Will I get free coffee? Unfortunately, the short answer to all these questions is: it depends.
On these and other matters, university websites and forum discussions can provide some clues, but there is really no substitute for talking to people. This is not something that comes naturally to me, but most of the professors and PhD students I have approached – at the application stage and afterwards – have been very forthcoming and generous with their time.
Among the many nuggets in Umberto Eco’s classic work How to Write a Thesisis the following piece of advice: ‘Do not play the solitary genius.’ I believe this applies equally well both to those who are doing a PhD, and those who hope to do one in future.
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