Tips for writing a successful PhD application

Contents

Tips for writing a successful PhD Application

You’ve decided to apply for a PhD, but places are scarce and the application forms seem intimidating. The way you present your experiences and qualifications can make a tremendous difference. The tips in this post will help you write a PhD application that highlights your most impressive achievements and captures your potential advisor’s interest, increasing your chance of acceptance. 

What do I need to write?

The application process for PhDs differs between programs and (especially) countries: check the specific requirements for each of the programs you’re applying for before you start writing. 

You may need to write:

  • A research proposal
  • A statement of purpose or personal statement 
  • A CV 
 

PhD applications may also require some other materials that you won’t write yourself, for example letters of recommendation from professors you’ve worked with, and (for US PhDs) GRE scores.

As you compose these documents, you should think not only about what the university will do for you, but what you can offer the university. During your PhD,  you will receive guidance and training, but you will also contribute to your university as an educator and researcher. Therefore, make sure to highlight your best attributes and present yourself as the potential asset to the university that you are. 

Writing a research proposal

You’ll need to write a research proposal unless: 

  • you’re applying for a PhD project that has already been outlined by a senior researcher (e.g. you’re applying for an advertised project).
  • you’re applying for a PhD program where you’re expected to develop your proposal during the degree (this is more common in the US).


In your research proposal, you may want to: 

  • Outline the goals and key questions of your project.
  • Describe the problem your research would address: explain why it matters and why you want to work on it.
  • Lay out the intellectual framework and background for your project. What work has already been done in this area? Include references to existing literature.
  • Describe your research plan: what methodologies will you use, and how do you plan to evaluate your results? 
  • Explain how your research will contribute to the field.
  • Say what resources you’ll need to use at the university or affiliated institutions.
  • Give a timeline of how you anticipate your research progressing: what are the main milestones and when do you plan to achieve them? Keep in mind how long your program is: you want to ensure that your project is feasible within that time, but also that it constitutes enough work for the timeframe. US PhDs typically take around 6 years, whereas PhDs in the EU, UK, China, and many other countries usually take 3-4 years. 
 

Contact potential supervisors before you apply (unless this is against university guidelines): they may be able to help you refine your research topic or give you advice. Tailor your research proposal for the different universities you apply to – if you can, explain how your research will complement other research being done at that university.

Some examples of research proposals are here and here (bear in mind that these reflect the requirements of specific universities).

Writing a statement of purpose or personal statement

Universities may require a statement of purpose or personal statement. This is an opportunity to explain why you’re a promising PhD candidate and a great match for the university you’re applying to. There are some differences between a personal statement and statement of purpose – e.g. the former tends to be more biographical and the latter is more about your academic experiences and plans. Check the guidelines of the universities you’re applying to for the specifics of what they’re looking for.

General tips

When writing a statement of purpose or personal statement, you should aim to answer the following questions: 

  • What are your academic interests and long-term goals? What motivates you to work on this topic? 
  • Why is this program – or the supervisor you want to work with – especially well-suited to your research interests?
  • How will admission to this program help you reach your long-term career goals?
  • What experiences best highlight your skills and enthusiasm for your subject? For example, you might describe internships, lab experience, field work, or conference presentations. 
  • What are your most impressive or relevant accomplishments? You don’t need to regurgitate your entire CV, but make sure to include anything that you want the admissions committee and your potential supervisor to pay attention to. (You can also ask your letter-writers to include these in their letters of recommendation.) The admissions committee may not spend much time looking at each application, so make sure that they don’t miss your most impressive achievements!
  • What’s your relationship to the people who’ve written you letters of recommendation? For example, have you taken classes with them, or worked on a research project with them? 
 

You should also address and explain any discrepancies in your academic record – for example, leaves of absence, low grades due to extenuating circumstances, delayed graduation due to switching majors, or any standardized test scores that are near or below the admissions requirements. 

Writing a strong conclusion

Make your conclusion striking: you want the admissions committee to remember you. Your conclusion should highlight your passion for the field and your reasons for applying to that specific doctoral program and (if relevant) that specific advisor. Here are some tips for writing a strong conclusion: 

  • End with a sentence or two about the mark you want to make in your field.
  • Avoid clichés like ‘I want to make the world a better place’.
  • Demonstrate your passion for the field.
  • Reiterate why the advisor(s) you picked are a great fit for your project.

Examples and more information

  • For more information about how to structure your statement of purpose, see here and here.
  • For a video on writing a personal statement, see here.
  • For examples of statements of purpose, see here and here (the second examples are for computer science, but they’re likely to be relevant for people in other disciplines).

Writing an academic CV

This advice from Berkeley covers how to structure your CV and what to include.

Writing for your audience

While you’re writing your application, think about who’s going to read it and what they’ll be looking for in a promising PhD candidate. For example, your application might be read by:

People who don’t specialize in your area

Keep in mind that your application will be read by an admissions committee of professors, most of whom won’t be experts in your specific subfield. Think about whether non-experts will be able to understand your application – for example, you might want to define highly technical terms, or avoid including them. If you’re not sure about how technical your application materials should be, you can reach out to your potential PhD advisor or members of the working group you’re applying to join. You can also look up the academic interests of faculty in the department to see what their expertise is.

When describing your research interests in a personal statement or statement of purpose, you should neither be too broad, nor too specific; you should give enough detail to demonstrate mastery of your area and show that you can identify promising research questions, but it may also help your application if you can show that you have broader research interests beyond your specific specialism.

Your potential supervisor

If you want to work with a specific supervisor, you should describe in your research proposal and/or statement of purpose how working with that particular supervisor will advance your career goals. You may want to emphasize any research interests you have in common with them, for example. If you have been asked to pick multiple supervisors, demonstrate how each one is well-placed to advance your career and guide your research. 

Your potential working group 

If you’re applying to join a working group, find out what topics fall under their purview and, if possible, what they’re looking for in new researchers. Emphasise aspects of your research experience that align with the research topics and expectations of the working group. For example, if you’re applying to a research group that uses a mass spectrometer and you have experience using one independently, emphasise how much your project relied on the mass spectrometry data and highlight the fact that you are comfortable using one without supervision. 

Applying to a PhD program can be daunting, but with these tips, you can present your achievements in the most appealing way possible and thus increase your chances of being accepted to a great program.