Writing a successful PhD application: tips, pitfalls and things to think about

by Dr Yvette Russell, The Law School, University of Bristol

Thinking of applying to Bristol for admission to our PhD programme in law? To help prospective applicants navigate what can be quite a lengthy and involved process we here explain what you will need to do to be admitted, as well as compiling some top tips that will hopefully make the process a bit easier. Below you can find information on what we look for in a good PhD application as well as how to put yourself in the best position to secure competitive funding.

Do you know what you want to research and why?

The first questions to ask yourself are why and what? Why do I want to study for a PhD in law and what do I want to research? A PhD is a huge commitment (more about this below), so you need to know why you want to do it. You will want to do a PhD if you want a career as an academic, and/or you are committed to making a difference, for example, in your chosen field and generating new knowledge to that end. You will also need to know what you want to research. Knowing that you want to research in corporate law, for example, will not be enough. You will need to have a good idea, even before starting to write your proposal, of the specific area that you want to intervene in as well as having a good grasp of the existing state of the field.

 Do you know where you want to go and why?

 Once you know why you want to do a PhD and what you want to study you can set about deciding where you want to do your research. There are obviously many factors that will be relevant here, including any personal circumstances that might limit where you can go, as well, of course, where you might be admitted. Outside of these matters you need to ask yourself, is this school and university the right place for me to do this work? Things to look for:

  • Is there a supervisor who is available who you want to work with?
  • What is the research environment like at this school?
  • Is there a well-developed PhD programme and will you have good opportunities to develop your work and to be part of a vibrant research culture?

Your application for admission to the programme

When you have decided that you want to apply you will want to spend some time reviewing the available information to help you plan your application. You need to be acutely aware of different deadlines; you will likely need to be offered admission to the programme before you apply for funding, for example. You should check that you are eligible for admission first: do your grades meet the minimum entry criteria and do you meet the English language requirements?

It’s then time to get writing. When you’re writing keep your reader in mind; we get many more applications than we have supervisors or funding for, so you need to ensure that you stand out and make it easy for the person assessing your application. To this end, keep it focused and concise – a short two-page CV and a personal statement of no more than 1-1.5 pages (around 800 words) is all you need. Your research proposal should usually be no more than 1500-2000 words, and comprehensively referenced.[1]

You will also need to supply the names of several referees who will write references for you. These references will be very important and carefully scrutinised. You will need at least one academic referee, usually two (if you have been in practice, for example, you might provide a professional reference). Your referees should be familiar with your work and able to speak directly to your capacity for postgraduate research. It is always a good idea to share your application with your referees before you apply.

When reviewing your application, we are looking for two main things:

  1. Do you have good ideas that have the potential to make an original contribution to knowledge?

Your ideas are crucial, and you need to demonstrate that you have sufficient knowledge of your proposed research area that you can explain how and what your research will contribute.

  1. Are you someone who has the capacity and capability to complete this degree to the standard required in the time given?

A lot of different factors will be relevant to this question. You will need to demonstrate that you have the skill-level required to do advanced research, to be developed over the programme, alongside the resilience, passion and determination that will be essential to complete a PhD thesis.

Writing the research proposal

 The research proposal is the most important part of your application. It will be closely scrutinised by admissions officers and your prospective supervisors. A good research proposal cannot be drafted a few hours, it needs to be crafted thoughtfully and it should be workshopped before it is submitted, ideally with your prospective supervisors.[2] Academics make a significant commitment to students they take on to supervise. It is a multi-year commitment, and we want to know that we are investing our time wisely. We will be looking for a project that has the potential to meet the requirements for an award of the degree: it will need to identify a gap in the literature and be potentially innovative; it should explain why the proposed area of research is important; it will need to demonstrate an awareness of relevant methodological and ethical issues and; it will need to be sufficiently manageable that it can be completed within the time of the degree.

Your proposal does not need to be perfect, and we do not expect you to demonstrate mastery over the literature at this stage or to have figured out the ‘answers’ to your research questions. What you must demonstrate is that you are someone who can achieve these things over the course of your degree.

Writing the personal statement

Your application will also require you to write a personal statement, telling us why you want to do the degree and how and why you are likely to be successful. Your personal statement should be focused and concise. Related to point 2. above, you want to show that you are going to be able to meet the demands of the programme. We will also want to know why you want to come to Bristol and what you can contribute to our research environment. The personal statement, therefore, needs to be tailored to the programme and school you are applying for; you should avoid drafting a generic statement and simply sending this to every programme you apply for.

 Preparing for the interview

Everyone considered for an offer of admission will have to first be interviewed by their prospective supervisors. There is no standard format for these interviews, but supervisors will be keenly looking for certain things before they agree that you should be issued with an offer of admission. Remember, research supervision is a significant commitment, and your prospective supervisor wants to know that if they make this commitment that you will be able to complete the work that is required. Supervisors will likely want to hear more about your ideas for your research and will want to ask you questions about your proposal to test the extent of your sense of the field of scholarship you are seeking to work within. They will want to see how you think, as well as how you respond to different questions. They will want to know that you understand what a PhD involves and that you are someone who knows how to listen to feedback and to assimilate and action it. They will also want to get to know you as a person; if they agree to supervise you, you will be spending quite a bit of time together over a very long period, so they will want to know that a collaboration between you and them will be possible and fruitful.

You should also take the opportunity of the interview to decide whether these are the people you want to work with, and this university is where you want to go. You should ask any questions of your prospective supervisors that will help you decide whether to accept an offer of admission should it be issued, and whether Bristol is the right place for you.

Putting yourself in the best position to secure funding

Once you have applied for admission and been offered a place you will also want to apply for funding. Funding is extremely competitive, so you need to put yourself in the best possible position to secure it. The first step is to inform yourself: what funding is available and from which funders, what are the application requirements, and what are the relevant deadlines? Different funders are looking for different things, including which topics of research they will fund. Does your proposed topic ‘fit’ within the remit of the particular funder? You may need to rework your research proposal for your funding application to address all of these matters carefully. In addition, different funders have different word limits for research proposals so you will need to make sure you carefully adhere to these requirements. Your prospective supervisor will usually be required to write a reference to go with your application, which will hopefully attest to the promise they see in your proposed programme of work.

 Finally, do you really want to do this?…

Deciding to undertake a PhD is a big decision and it is important that we’re honest about what that decision involves. You should take some time to ensure that you understand what you’re signing up for when you make the decision to commence a PhD. It can be beneficial to chat to someone who is in a PhD programme so you can get an idea of what it is like and how they are managing the different facets of their lives alongside their study. The nature of your study will be different from what most applicants have experience with; writing an 80,000-word thesis is not the same as writing an LLM dissertation, for example. You will develop many of the skills you need during your programme, but you will need to come in with the desire and ability to listen to your supervisors and follow their guidance. Personal characteristics like flexibility, patience and resilience will be important.

PhD study requires a significant commitment that, even as academics who have themselves completed a PhD, we don’t often talk about. There is the opportunity cost of time in the workforce – most law PhDs will take four years and often longer – as well as the ups and downs in the degree, which can sometimes be difficult to navigate. In addition, in the current HE environment in the UK there is not always a guarantee of academic work afterwards. Notwithstanding these very real considerations a PhD can also be the most rewarding and fulfilling commitment you can make, providing you with the opportunity to make a genuine contribution to knowledge and to form the connections and relationships that will sustain you if you are committed to going on to an academic career.

For now, good luck with your application! We hope to see many of you join our community in years to come.

Helpful links and resources:

Find information on the application process and entry requirements here. Find further information on the law school and our PGR programmes here and available supervision here. You can find guidance on your proposal here, and on your personal statement here. Find funding information here.

[1] Your bibliography will not usually be included in word count. Note that funders will require you submit a research proposal, and these will often have specific word limits, so you may need to have several versions of your research proposal.

[2] This may not always be possible – academic staff have a lot of competing demands on their time and while most will try and provide you with comments before you submit, some may not be able to do this. This doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t seek other sources of feedback on your draft proposal.

Dr Yvette Russell is Director of Postgraduate Research, University of Bristol Law School.

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