Applying for a PhD and writing a research proposal

Education: Heslington Hall from the air

What does a PhD involve?

In the UK a full-time PhD involves a 3-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 3 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.

Is there a deadline date for registration?

No. You can register and start at any time of year at York and most other UK universities. You may, however, find that you need to attend certain training courses, or that campus accommodation has a deadline, so read the PhD documentation carefully.

If I apply to York, when should I apply?

Basically, you can apply at any time during the academic year. If you want to start in October, then you might want to apply in January/February, but there is no deadline. Please do not apply in mid or late September for an October start, though, as we often need time to think about and process applications.

I'm currently doing my MA at York - when should I apply?

We advise current MA students to apply mid-way through the academic year (around April or May) when you can provide marks from your term 1 assessed MA modules to enhance the strength of your application, and will also have had time to develop a strong research proposal. However, leaving your application until then may mean that you will miss deadlines for scholarships. If you want to be considered for a scholarship, you will need to apply sooner, but there is no point making an early application unless you have a strong first degree and you are confident that your research proposal is strong.

Is there an application fee?

No.

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.

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.

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 https://www.york.ac.uk/education/our-staff/academic/

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 https://www.york.ac.uk/education/postgraduate/phd/research-projects

Your proposal should address these questions:

Our questions

Comments

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

Why?

  • 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 https://www.york.ac.uk/library/

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.