Updated: Jun 26
By Sara Estevez Cores, LaCaixa
Fellow and PhD Candidate at the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, London School of Economics & Political Science
If you’re thinking of pursuing a PhD, the internet has an abundance of advice for you. Googling “pursuing a PhD” yields about 72,200,000 results while the terms “how to get into a PhD program” result in 645,000,000 hits. Yet despite all that content, when I talk to potential PhD applicants, the process still seems a bit murky to them. I get it. The process is different in each country and discipline, so figuring out what applies and what doesn’t is an arduous process. But if you’re applying to a social sciences PhD program in the UK or the US, here are some things that I think will set you up for success.
1) Figure out why.
You’ll be sharing your why over and over throughout the process. In your personal statement, in informal and formal interviews, in funding applications, etc. It is important to have a coherent story with a clear reason as to why you want to pursue a PhD. Having spent 5 years in industry before starting my PhD, I am a strong believer that pursuing a PhD is only “worthy” if you’re aiming for a career in academia. For everything else, you can get to where you want to go without it.
2) Closely tied to why is what you want to research.
Notice I say research, not study, because you’ll spend the majority of your time independently researching a particular topic. You might not have a fully developed proposal, in fact you do not need to - I’ll get to this later – but you need to have an understanding of the types of questions you want to ask and the literature you’ll be trying to contribute to. Pursuing a PhD is about conducting original research in a specific topic area. How do you figure this out? You read the academic literature! Find out who are the “big names” in the field, who is doing the type of research you’re interested in and what are the latest and greatest developments in that area. I think Google Scholar and ResearchGate are great support resources for this. Oddly enough, Twitter helps too. Most professors tweet and discuss their research on the platform and through features like “Lists” and hashtags, so you may find the community of scholars you’d want to be a part of here.
3) Once you’ve figured out what you want to study, reflect on where you’d want to do it.
This is not just about picking the universities, but also considering which department will be a better fit. Some topics can be multidisciplinary but choosing a department matters because application processes and funding vary by department. But the location of the university is also important. No matter how passionate you are about a research topic, if the local conditions are not supportive, the road ahead will only burden your journey to the finish line. What do I mean? Well, if you consider yourself a city lover, rural or suburban universities are out of the question. Or if you’re like me and cannot handle the snow, any place with below freezing temperatures is a no-go. Remember, you’ll be there for 3 to 6 years of your life depending on the program, so it’s worth taking the time to evaluate your location needs.
4) Now that you have the why and the what, comes the most important question.
With whom? Some people falsely believe that the most important thing is the university name or rank. Yet the most important thing is and will always be the SUPERVISOR! But just because someone is a prolific researcher doesn’t mean they will make a good supervisor. To understand whether you’ll be a good fit with a potential supervisor, you need to contact them and meet them (whether in person or online). Before you do so, take some time to reflect on what the ideal supervisor would look like for you: what’s your working style? What do you need? What can you live without? I knew I’d need someone supportive who would be willing to set me hard deadlines. Yet one of my PhD classmates works really well alone and rarely meets with his supervisor. There’s no straight-forward template to contacting a potential supervisor, but I do have some tips.
Firstly, only contact one supervisor in each department you’re thinking of applying to. You do not want to give the impression that you’re “shopping around”. Also, it is always best to have 2 people whose research you’d be a good fit for, but that would be something to discuss with the 1st supervisor. Secondly, before contacting any potential supervisor, research them and their work. Pursuing a PhD involves being an independent researcher and you need to demonstrate this competency from the get-go. Once you’ve met with a few supervisors who you think would be a good fit, ask to meet with their current or former PhD students. Find out what it is like to work with that particular individual, what do they enjoy, what do they find challenging, etc. This is critical to get a diverse perspective of what working with that person is like (they’re doing the same with you through your references by the way!).
5) Once you have the why, the what and with whom, the only thing left to do is apply! But how?
Create a spreadsheet where you keep track of everything. Whom you’ve contacted, when, your impressions, what you have discussed, any follow-up actions you still need to do, application deadlines, program requirements, funding opportunities, etc. The earlier you apply, the better, but make sure you involve others in reviewing your application materials. I had multiple people read through my application documents including friends already enrolled in PhD programs, former supervisors and even a former admissions counsellor. You’ll need to write and re-write your materials to get them right and that takes time.
There are two schools of thoughts regarding the research proposal. Some believe you put it together on your own and present it to the supervisor before submission. Others believe that you need to work with your potential supervisor on it since this is a good test run of what a potential working relationship would look like. I sit on the camp of the latter.
I pursued my B.A. in the USA and my MSc in the UK, so I often get asked about the differences between the PhD programs in both places. I’ve highlighted the major differences in the chart below. In general, I think the US programs are better if you’re unclear as to what you want to research while the UK programs are better if you have a clear topic in mind.
Length: 3 - 4 years. You first enrol in the MPhil, and if you successfully defend your research project, you’re upgraded to the PhD after a year or so. Some programs require you to take courses during the MPhil. Most don’t.
Funding: Each department at each university deals with funding differently. Most programs will have some funding from the university and the ESRC, but it is extremely competitive. Most likely, you’ll have to look for your own private funding.
Teaching Opportunities: Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTAs) are usually available after your 1st year in the PhD program but are certainly not guaranteed.
Sample written work
(having a masters is highly recommended)
Length: 5 - 6 years. The first two years you take courses in pursuit of the M.A. You’ll be working as a researcher simultaneously. The next four, you’ll be devoting most time to your research project.
Funding: If accepted, most universities will provide you with funding for 4 or 5 years. The funding is usually tied to teaching responsibilities. That makes acceptance into PhD programs A LOT more competitive than acceptance in the UK.
Teaching Opportunities: Teaching is usually tied to the funding so you probably won’t have to apply for these opportunities. The teaching responsibilities are broader than in the UK.
GRE (optional in many schools for 2020!)
Sample written work
Regardless of what discipline you’re applying to and where, I suggest the “Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology” guide for further reading. They have done an excellent job detailing the application process and most of the advice applies to other disciplines. You can view my application materials to the PhD in Psychology and Behavioral Science at LSE in the Fall of 2018 here.
If you end up applying and are unsuccessful, do not despair! It happens. I applied three times before I was accepted into a PhD program. Figure out what were your “development” areas in the application and work on those for the next application cycle.
Hope this article is helpful for those considering to embark on the PhD journey!
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