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How do I apply for a PhD?

Education: Heslington Hall from the air

What does a PhD involve?

A full-time PhD with us involves a three year research project. Research students embarking on a PhD programme will normally be enrolled provisionally for that degree. Confirmation of PhD enrolment will be considered within 18 months (for full-time students) or within three years (for part-time students) once evidence of good progress is established. Students have one, sometimes two, supervisors, plus a small Thesis Advisory Panel.

Some UK doctorates have adopted the USA pattern of a taught course plus a shorter thesis; these are mostly called EdDs not PhDs. York does not at the moment offer an EdD in Education.

Applying for a PhD

What are the starting dates for PhD programmes in the Department of Education?

The normal starting month is September (start of semester 1). In exceptional cases, you may start in January. To explore this option, please talk about it with your prospective supervisor and the PhD administrator during the application process.

When should I apply for the PhD programmes in the Department of Education?

You can apply at any time during the academic year up until mid-June, but please note that the application is competitive and there are three sessions of selection panels, late January, late March and late June. You will need to have applied and have been interviewed ahead of one of those panels in order to be accepted onto the PhD programmes.

  • Applicants interviewed before 31 December will be considered in the January panel. This is also the departmental deadline for ESRC White Rose scholarships.
  • Applicants interviewed before 15 March will be considered in the March panel. This is also the deadline for Departmental Scholarships (subject to availability).
  • Applicants interviewed before 15 June will be considered in the June panel. 

If you apply after mid-June, you may not be offered a place until the next admissions year. Please consult with your prospective supervisor and the administrator during the application process if you are in this situation.

Is there an application fee?


Are there any grants?

Yes. There are government funded ORS grants, university scholarships and sometimes department scholarships. All have deadlines and all are highly competitive. Look at Scholarships for further details on funding opportunities.

What does the admissions process look like?

 The selection process is made up of 4 formal steps:

  1. Central preselection 
  2. Departmental preselection
  3. Interview with supervisor
  4. PhD committee final decision

Below is a more detailed description of the application and selection process, broken down into more steps. If you have any questions, or if your specific circumstances mean that it is impossible for you to follow these steps, please email

Given you fulfill basic requirements, your research idea is what matters most. What are you interested in? Why? Have you identified a gap in a research area? Has this intuition come from practice? Once you have a clear idea of what you would like to research, here's what your application process is likely to look like:

1) Try to identify a supervisor in our department who could supervise your project

You might want to look at our Research Centre pages, staff pages and the Education Department PURE page. This should help you get a sense of whether your research interests would be a good fit for our department or not.  

Before applying, you may email prospective supervisors in the department directly. Please note that they are not obliged to reply to you until you have formally applied for the PhD programme.

2) Apply formally for the PhD programme, with a full proposal and required documentation

You will find plenty of information about what a research proposal should look like on our FAQ page.

3) Your application will now be reviewed by central admissions

At this stage, if it fails, it is because basic entry requirements are not fulfilled. 
If your application is accepted at this stage, then...

4) Your application will then be reviewed by PhD programme leaders

At this stage, the most common reasons for an application being rejected are:

  • your project is not aligned with anyone's research expertise here. It does not necessarily mean your proposal is not of good quality! It is not in your interest to be supervised by someone who does not have the expertise, so do look for a better fit elsewhere.
  • there is someone in the department who could supervise your research project, but they are currently at maximum capacity for PhD supervisees. Supervisors cannot take too many PhD supervisees at one time, so they sometimes have to regretfully decline good applications.

If your application is accepted at this stage, then...

5) Your prospective supervisor will contact you to arrange an interview

At the interview (which is likely to be online), there will be your prospective supervisor and another researcher, who may or may not be in your research area.

The interview will be conversational and relaxed, but it is a formal part of the selection process. You will doubtlessly be asked to talk about your proposal, to give an idea of your familiarity with the field, to justify your planned methodology, etc. It is perfectly normal at this stage to be unsure about what your PhD will look like exactly, so don't worry about emitting doubts or asking for your interviewers' opinion about your planned methods.

The two interviewers will also use this opportunity to evaluate your overall profile as a potential researcher with us, including personal and contextual characteristics. You should feel absolutely free to ask them questions about the Department and what it would be like to work with us.

At the end of the interview, it is quite common for interviewers to ask candidates to revise and resubmit their proposal. This helps them assess the candidate's receptiveness to feedback and should not be taken as a sign that your proposal isn't good.

Following the interview, your prospective supervisor will let you know whether or not you have passed this stage of the selection process. 
If your prospective supervisor supports your application after the interview, then...

6) Your application will be considered at the next PhD committee

  • Applicants interviewed before 31 December will be considered in the January panel. This is also the departmental deadline for ESRC White Rose scholarships.
  • Applicants interviewed before15 March will be considered in the March panel. This is also the deadline for Departmental Scholarships (subject to availability).
  • Applicants interviewed before 15 June will be considered in the June panel.

The committee reviews all applications supported by supervisors, and makes a final decision acceptances. You will be notified after the panel whether or not an offer is made to you.

If you accept our offer, then...

7) Thank you, and congratulations!

We will be very pleased to welcome you among our research community when you join us! 

Should I mention a potential supervisor in my application?

Yes, please - it is very helpful to you and to us if you can mention a member of the academic staff in the Department whom you've identified as having relevant expertise and interests. Your application has far greater chances of being considered if you mention a potential supervisor among our staff and if your proposed research project fits their area of expertise.

Should I approach this potential supervisor before applying?

You may, although there is no guarantee they will reply. But if your project truly is aligned with their interests, and they have capacity to take on new PhD supervisees, they will probably reply encouragingly. Not getting a reply is not a sign that you would not obtain a place if you applied, so feel free to apply anyway and mention their name.

What are the main reasons for rejecting applicants outright in your department?

Provided you meet the basic requirements, the main reason for outright rejections is lack of supervisor capacity. This means either that there is no one in the department who has the expertise and interests to support you through your PhD journey, or that there is someone, but they can't currently take on a new supervisee because of other commitments.

Being rejected is disappointing, but the most important thing for you as a PhD researcher is to find a supervisor somewhere who has the expertise and capacity to help you. We would not be able to offer the same quality of supervision if we admitted all candidates, even self-funded, and even excellent, who want to do projects we cannot support them with.

Writing a research proposal

Whose job is it to find a research topic?

Yours. Occasionally, researchers advertise PhD studentships to investigate specific topics, but these are rare. In 99% of cases, you have to find a topic. We have a page of Research Project Ideas, aligned with staff members' interests; but you can also come up with your own research project and apply with us - if there is expertise and interest in our department for the type of study you're projecting to do, you have a chance to get in. 

Can I develop my MA dissertation or an assignment?

Yes. And you can reference your MA dissertation in your PhD thesis, just like any journal article or book. However, the PhD must be a genuine development with fresh data; you cannot submit the same data or the same words for two degrees.

Do I need to write a proposal before I apply?

Yes. We cannot consider your application without a research proposal. Your proposal is a key part of your application; the better it is, the more likely you are to be accepted and the better your research will be. Although you will continue to develop it and work on it for several months after you start the PhD, you still need to prepare a good proposal at the application stage.

Most proposals are about 1,500 words in length. Format it like an MA assignment: word processed, double spaced on A4, a footer with your name and the page number, subheadings in bold, all references in a consistent style. Make certain that your English is accurate. Remember, your proposal is your major vehicle for demonstrating to us or other universities that you are intelligent, can think in a research-oriented way, are able to read critically and are likely to complete a thesis successfully in 3-4 years (full-time).

What does a research proposal look like?

Your research proposal is a key part of your application; the better it is, the more likely you are to be accepted and the better your research will be. Although you will continue to develop it and work on it for several months after you start the PhD, you still need to prepare a good proposal at the application stage. We will not hold you to doing exactly what you say in your proposal. However, your proposal needs to give us a clear idea of your thinking about the research topic: in particular, when, where and how you plan to collect your data; and what relevant reading and research you are aware of. A research proposal should be about 1,500 words in length.

Please make every effort to match your proposal to the research expertise of our staff closely. Familiarize yourself with the areas that our staff are willing to supervise. See

Your proposal is more likely to succeed if you name a preferred supervisor on your application.  Your proposal must strongly align with their research interests.  The Department will only consider applications for ESRC or Departmental studentships if they align closely with staff interests. See

Your proposal should address these questions:

Our questions


Does your topic fit the PhD Programme?

  • Make sure you apply for the right PhD programme.
  • Read the guidance on the different PhD programmes offered by the Department carefully.

What do you want to research?

  • A working title
  • A general topic area and main aim of the study


  • Is there a serious problem or gap?
  • You need to demonstrate that there is a genuine gap in the literature. A PhD needs to be a genuine original contribution to the area.
  • What benefit would your research bring? 
  • How does the problem relate to relevant theories (of education, language or psychology)?

What are your research questions?

  • One or more answerable research questions.

What aspects are new, different, innovative?

  • Give an overview of the literature in the specific area you want to contribute to.
  • This section is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you have immersed yourself well in the relevant literature, and that you have identified a gap that your research would address.

How do you plan to carry it out?

  • Give a brief research design
  • Explain your proposed methods: sample, data collection methods, methods of analysis, location for the study.

How will you plan your time?

  • Give an outline timetable of the work.

Can you do it?

  • Indicate what relevant experience you already have in key areas.
  • State what training needs you might have.
  • Consider whether your plans for data collection and your timetable are feasible.

Please make sure that your proposal is of the highest possible standard of academic English writing. The process of selecting PhD applicants is very competitive.

You can find samples of successful PhDs at

You can find guidance on how to write a proposal here:

  • Dunleavy, Patrick. Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Verschuren, Piet, Hans Doorewaard, and Michelle Mellion. Designing a research project. Vol. 2. The Hague: Eleven International Publishing, 2010.

Do my BA/BSc or MA/MSc grades matter?

Yes. A PhD is exciting work, but it is also hard work. You have to work independently and you have to read difficult books and articles, as you have to be able to work seriously with the details of theories and research methods. Your MA/MSc assignment grades are one piece of hard evidence, as is your dissertation grade. Grades are by no means everything, but you do need to show us that you have learned during your previous degrees to cope reasonably easily with high-level academic work.

Does my English matter?

Yes. A normal UK PhD is about 80,000 words long; about four to six times the length of a Masters dissertation. It is also on open access internationally. All the chapters have to be very detailed, closely argued and cross-referenced. The thesis therefore needs to be in good and correct English. It will be hard to write even if English is your first language. If English is a second language, you need to show us when you apply that you can write academic texts in reasonable English, and your English level will be one of the criteria we use to make a decision on whether to accept you.

Who should I use as referees?

Two people who have known you in different ways. Assuming you have an MA, one should be your supervisor, or a module tutor who is familiar with your assessed written work. If you have worked in education, commerce or industry, then the other could be an employer. The aim of the second referee should be to tell us how reliable, hard-working, honest you are, plus whether you have the drive to work independently.