How to take the first step when applying for PhDs

Applying for a PhD degree is a daunting process that depends on securing funding. For many, this is the key step which often means the difference between starting your degree or not doing it at all. It’s important to start your application early enough and to explore all your options. Amy Kynman offers a few tips which can make this experience less challenging…

While Christmas is, of course, a time to relax and forget about your all-important research for a week or two, for many it is also the season for PhD applications. Around this time of year, there seems to be a mad rush to send in applications and secure funding. I am currently in the middle of PhD applications, and so completely understand that the whole process is more than a little daunting. To be honest, I really didn’t know where to start! But nevertheless, I’ve managed to round up a few top tips to consider when sending off that all-important application.

1. Do your research

There are a plethora of opportunities for PhDs out there that are advertised on useful websites such as FindaPhD, and just as many that aren’t. Because of this, I think the best first step is to read up on the area you think you want to specialise in and work backwards to find academics that are working in that area. Scour PhD websites, but also don’t be afraid to email prospective supervisors on the off chance they’re hiring, or have funding for a new PhD. Personally, I didn’t find many advertised projects in my research area that I was excited by, but my current supervisor and research group gave me a whole list of people to contact whose work they thought I’d be interested in.

2. Be keen and start early

While it’s okay to be daunted by the seemingly mammoth task of applying for PhDs, I think just getting started makes a huge difference. I was terrified of sending my first email to a prospective supervisor – worried that they would think I was stupid and say “no” outright – but I was wrong. For the most part, I’ve found that academics are really receptive to enquiries.

You don’t initially have to send in an essay (unless that’s what a specific application requires of course!), just introduce yourself and your interests and intentions along with a CV and you should be good to go! In my experience, as long as you’re polite, engaged, and have evidently taken an interest in the supervisors’ work, you’re likely to get some sort of response.

Scouting out supervisors and projects early can never be a bad thing – it gives the impression you’re organised and enthusiastic, and supervisors are more likely to consider you if you’re the first person to show interest! And even if supervisors aren’t currently hiring, it’s always good to make your name known – after all, situations may change at a later date.

3. Think about funding

This brings me onto funding, arguably one of the most important points, since without some sort of money, either earned by yourself through work or given to you by a supervisor, you won’t be able to do your PhD! One reason for the surge in PhD applications this time of year is that many academics are currently applying for research grants and are starting to find out whether they will have money to hire a new PhD student and fund them (i.e. pay tuition fees, lab costs and living costs) over the course of their study. Many applicants want to make their names known early on and get the first pick of the funding, hence the reasoning behind starting applications early.

Look into how each PhD you apply for is funded. While some supervisors will have grant money set aside, others will require you to fund yourself. Personally, I couldn’t afford a self-funded PhD, so I narrowed my search accordingly. But there are plenty of options for those who are prepared to pay their own way through their PhD. For example, doctoral loans are an option for some candidates, you may be able to find part-time work nearby, and some universities offer scholarships for prospective students. Basically, do your research!

4. Don’t panic!

As I’ve reiterated before, applying for PhDs can be scary. After all, you’re planning the next four years of your life! But it’s also important to try not to panic. So many people have gone through the same application process, and so there are loads of people out there to offer support and guidance. Talk to your current supervisor and colleagues, and I’m sure you’ll be surprised how much more manageable the whole process feels once you’ve taken the first step and received someone else’s insight.

And just remember, there will be people out there who have been offered more than one PhD (lucky things) but will only be able to actually take one of them. Because of this, you may find an influx of PhDs being advertised again around March/April once supervisors have secured funding, but no longer have a student to make use of it! Now that’s what I call a silver lining.


Have you had been struggling with securing funding? Which part of the PhD application process have you found the most difficult one? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Amy Kynman earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Warwick in 2018. She is currently working towards a Masters by Research in chemistry, also at the University of Warwick. Her research focusses on the chemical reactivity of rhodium complexes, with the aim of utilising them for carbon-carbon bond forming reaction. Alongside her studies, she is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the University of Warwick’s student newspaper The Boar and aims to eventually undertake a PhD in organometallic chemistry.


Cover image: Purple Liquid / Louis ReedCC0 1.0

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