10 things top UK universities look for in PhD applicants?

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If you are an international student planning to do a PhD in the UK then you must be wondering what do top UK universities look for in PhD applicants? There can be numerous reasons for this such as (a) a PhD is a much different degree than anything you have previously done, (b) targeting top UK universities can be worthwhile for the job market post-PhD in the UK, and (c) you want to improve your PhD application as much as possible.

Top UK universities look for various attributes in PhD applicants and you can maximize your chances of getting a funded PhD studentship in the UK if you polish as many sides of your application as you can.

A UK professor when hiring you for a PhD project actively examines your reasons to do the PhD, especially, in the context of the selected research topic. She may also be interested in the prospects of developing research compatibility as well as personal compatibility with you. Further, your ability to perform the research independently can really ease her burden.

Unlike the US, where general things like persistence, grit, curiosity, or inquisitiveness traits really attract the hiring committee, A UK university really wants many mature answers from a PhD applicant.

Questions like (a) Do you know what you are getting yourself into? (b) Do you have the intellectual capacity to do well in a multi-year research project? (c) Do you have the right background for the program, and (d) what do you really plan to do with your PhD? are most common on a UK professor’s mind when hiring PhD student.

Here are the most important things that top UK universities look for in PhD applicants.

1. Reason to do the PhD

The easiest way to strengthen your chances of standing out from the competition is to convince the professor that a PhD is essential to your career goals. There is only one thing that determines your success in a PhD, and that is, why you can’t survive without a PhD.

In other words, the professor knows that you are likely to complete your PhD grind if you really need a PhD. Therefore, the first question any UK university selection committee ask their PhD applicant is “why do you want to do a PhD?”

A PhD is not for everyone and there are specific reasons to do it. If you do not have those specific reasons you may regret choosing a PhD path.

How you can convince the professor that you are in a dire need of PhD

Following things can really communicate to a professor about your determination as well as the need for a PhD.

  • How your past is aligned to your PhD: This means you need to demonstrate that all previous steps you have taken were oriented toward a PhD. A compelling past can really win the heart of a professor as well as your interview committee. Your best bets for persuading the professor are your personal essay, curriculum vitae, and the interview.
  • What future do you want with your PhD: Are you genuinely interested in getting into serious “research” as your livelihood? The past is important too but the universities are also interested in your future plans after PhD in the UK. In fact, the future intentions, if presented with clarity and a clear direction, are the deal-breaker in any PhD application. The university, as well as the professor, are going to invest their time, money, and resources in you as a PhD candidate. Therefore, like any wise investor, they really are interested in your post-PhD plans.

2. Interest in the PhD topic

Every professor who hires a PhD student advises that a student should have an interest in the research topic. This interesting part is what makes a PhD apart from any typical job. This passion for exploring the research topic is usually the major thing that can help a PhD student to grind through this multi-year research project with meager pay and a high workload.

Choosing a PhD topic is a very important step in starting your PhD. If you get it wrong it can lead to years of misery and headaches.

A PhD student should be so passionate about PhD topic that she/he cannot think about any other endeavor where she/he can spend next 3-4 years.

Professors usually have different ways to evaluate whether you are really driven by your PhD research topic or not. A PhD application, from your personal essay to CV to the research proposal itself, can signify to them that you are really inquisitive about that research question. So make sure to convince the professor in your application about why you are interested in this topic?

“If you’re proposing your own project, this is your chance to show some passion and enthusiasm for it. Refer to your research proposal and take the opportunity to discuss and expand upon it.”

#6 Why this project? PhD Interview Questions and Answers

3. PhD project’s ability to reward all those who are involved

You should be aware that a PhD is not like your previous degrees, where you have been spoon-fed the coursework and the most important thing you are required to do is attempt exams. University was largely disinterested in your performance in any previous program you have taken.

  Can you work while doing a PhD in UK?

However, if you are applying for a PhD you need to understand that it is a research project. Also, someone is funding for your PhD.

Therefore, when writing your UK PhD application you should consider the interests of all the parties involved in supporting your PhD project. These parties can be the university, your department, your supervisory team, or even the grant provider who seeks some solid research outputs out of their investment in you.

4. Ability to do an independent research project

Unlike the US, where PhD students usually initially take graduate coursework, UK universities expect students to be mature enough to take full responsibility of their research projects right from the start.

UK professors, when hiring PhD students, are more concerned about your ability to do independent research. The more independent a PhD student can be the less effort is required from the professor and research team.

Most UK PhD applicants already have a Master’s or in many cases a research master’s, this means they already have some research experience and something to show for it. Usually, PhD applicants prove their research competency by presenting previous research projects and publications.

How to persuade the professor of your research ability

Simply put, you can prove your research proficiency with the

  • Evidence of your proactiveness, especially, when it comes to any past academic projects. This shows the professor that you are a proactive student, a skill highly needed in prospective PhD students.
  • Research internship or lab work can really communicate to the professor that you have already experienced the struggles of PhD students.
  • Previous publications are the best way to convince the professor that you know what you are talking about. Publications under your belt, even if they are not high in impact factors, can really demonstrate your grip on the tedious steps of scientific research and the hurdles of peer reviews.
  • Recommendation letters from your previous thesis supervisors are much more credible and compelling than self-glorification.

5. Research compatibility with professor

In any university in the UK, you need to locate a couple of academics whose work is related to yours. If no one in the department is interested in your topic then your chances of getting accepted for a PhD are slim.

Research compatibility means your proposed research area or topic must be somewhat relevant to the professor’s area of expertise. Sometimes you need to consider the research preferences and interests of the whole team of researchers. The more relevant you are the more appealing your PhD application will be to the selection committee.

I don’t think that you want to be supervised by someone who is not much interested or qualified to give the best research mentorship.

Also Read: Top Ten Mistakes to Avoid During the Pre-Doctorate Journey (PhD, DBA, EdD, Mphil)

How to maximize your research compatibility with the PhD advisor

You must not make the mistake of applying for multiple PhD positions with the same research proposal or application. Every research proposal should be drafted after discussing the PhD project with a prospective supervisor. The more customized your overall application for one PhD position the higher will be your chances to get hired.

Also Read: 4 Reasons Why You Should Care If Your Professor Is An Industry Professional

  5 (simple) ways to increase your chances to get a funded PhD in UK

6. Personal compatibility with professor

No matter the belief in science, logic, and data, academics are humans too. Personal compatibility goes a long way when it comes to the multi-year research project journey and the high stakes of investing a grant in you. A professor surely evaluates your ability to go along with others.

In fact, you should also ask the professor as many questions as you like. This is because the most significant factor that contributes to your PhD success is your PhD supervisor. In other words, you and your prospective PhD supervisor are both hiring each other for the next 3-4 years, so be deliberate about it.

Knowing the mindset of a PhD supervisor can really help you configure the compatibility

How to convince the professor that you are a people person

In short, you need to communicate that you have three main traits

  • open-mindedness means you are able to understand the cultural differences and are tolerant of diverse behaviors and preferences in humans. Professors, like any other humans, want PhD students who are easy to go by.
  • A Positive attitude usually comes along with open-mindedness. This makes you a person who can bear stress. Failures and uncertainties are part of doing a PhD and require a glass-half-full type of person. The headaches of a professor go lower if a PhD student can deal with experiment failures or data collection hurdles positively.
  • Willingness to learn is the ability a professor may not be able to judge from your previous grades or projects.

Also Read: Ten simple rules for choosing a PhD supervisor

You can communicate your friendly nature and desire to learn via (a) recommendation letters where your referees can comment on your personal traits and (b) showing an appealing personality in interviews (even online).

Also Read: 10 ingredients for a successful supervisor/PhD student relationship

7. Scores and Privileges

You may have many concerns if you are planning to do a PhD from top universities in the UK. One of these concerns can be less than stellar grades. UK PhD admission selection is severely competitive and you have to stand out in different parts of your application.

Scores save time for the university hiring committee and are really the easiest way to filter a pool of PhD applications. Some might say that your previous grades do not depict your ability to research rigorously, however, scores are important to academics, and anybody else hiring you for a job.

It will be unfair if I discount that scores are not important to top UK universities for PhD applicants. In fact, PhD is a job, and sometimes much harder that the latter.

Almost every PhD position advertised, will include some details regarding any scores of your

  • previous academic degrees
  • English Language Test scores (if English is not your first language)
  • Graduate Tests e.g., GRE, GMAT, etc.

How to win at the scoring game if you did not have shinning scores in the past

You can convince the professor by

  • improving your master’s grades. In the UK, your master’s grades matter much more than your undergraduate ones. Therefore, you can give your best in your master’s program, especially in your master’s thesis project. A master’s, overall, is the best opportunity where you can take edge for your UK PhD application.
  • any journal or conference publications. A well-executed master’s thesis increases your chances to get published even before your PhD. This is strong proof of your PhD success potential.
  • You can also improve your PhD application profile even after your Master’s. Proofs like graduate tests scores, any specialization courses or some research-based internship can really demonstrate your commitment for the PhD.

8. Ability to secure funding for research

Alternative funding and external PhD funding are really good options if you want to increase your chances of getting in. Academia on the whole reward anybody who has the ability to get money for research. The reason is winning grants is a lengthy and tedious process because you have to convince the grant provider of your research project’s worth.

Where to find funding for your UK PhD

As an international PhD applicant you are required to provide evidence of your ability to pay for your fees, living expenses, and health insurance. You typically do this by securing fully-funded PhD studentships in the UK.

On the other hand, the competition for funded PhD opportunities in the UK is severe, especially for international PhD applicants.

  1. First, the UK research councils, who are popular in funding UK-based students, are less generous when it comes to PhD studentships for international applicants. This means you need to look for other funding sources for your PhD in the UK.
  2. Second, besides UKRI (UK research and innovation), many top UK universities also fund PhD students from their own grants, and in general, these grants are assigned on merit to both UK home students as well as international students. However, sometimes these PhD studentships are severely competitive.
  3. The third option is that as an international PhD applicant you can really impress the university hiring committee by securing any external funding. See the section: How do I get an external PhD funding as an international student in the UK? if you want to put your foot in the door by proving that you have the ability to secure PhD funding.
  How to get a PhD studentship in the UK?

You can search for external funding options in the UK with these two helpful guides from the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford.

You can look for relevant PhD funding opportunities in your region for UK institutions.

Further, you can also go to The Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding for PhD funding, especially if your UK institution is subscribed to their website.

Academic Grant cycle for PhD funding in the UK
Academic grants are really competitive and anybody that knows how to secure them is valuable to academics.

9. Work Experience

Although there are benefits if you do some work in the industry before pursuing a PhD. In fact, taking a gap year to experiment with relevant work opportunities is becoming fairly common among PhD aspirers.

Many students consider the gap year between their master’s and PhD really worthwhile.

However, UK Universities, when considering you for a PhD, do not give much weightage to your previous industry work experience. This is because academic research is much more different than anything you have done in the industry.

Therefore, an industry experience might not be good evidence that you can do a 3-4 year PhD project with a lot of uncertainties, while also considering the fact that a UK PhD stipend is not the best compared to the competition.

That said, any previous projects relevant to your proposed PhD research topic show a good sign that you are informed about your research topic.

On a side note, work experience before PhD can really give you a perspective of both worlds. This is useful if you want to take alternative career paths e.g., starting your own business, or working in the industry post-PhD.

10. PhD Application

At last, the documents you submitted for your PhD application matter to UK universities. Most professors will not read your application if it is not clear and succinct.

There are many obvious reasons for discarding an ambiguous PhD application. (a) First, professors usually have a busy schedule and they may not have much brain power left to read ambiguous text. (b) Second, writing, in most subjects, is a major part of your PhD, thus, a professor is likely to evaluate your writing ability through your personal essay, research proposal and other documents.

This means you need to reread and reedit your PhD application as many times as you can before you submit it.

The application documents should be well structured, this helps the professor skip to whatever sections they like. More, the use of decent and consistent font and no spelling mistakes make a huge difference.

Also Read: How to apply for a PhD in the UK

FAQs for What Do Top UK Universities Look For In PhD Applicants?

What makes a strong PhD applicant in the UK?

In a nutshell, you can be a strong PhD applicant in the UK if (a) you really need a PhD to accomplish your career goals, (b) you are enthusiastic about PhD research topic, and (c) you can prove that you have the ability to do research independently, (d) your research, as well as personality, is compatible with the professor, (e) you have a shinning academic record, and (f) you have secured some kind of funding for your PhD.

Is it easier to get a PhD in the UK?

No, getting a UK PhD is not easier as it seems from a simple online search. First, you need to get selected for a PhD position in the UK. The selection criteria is harder to meet and the competition is severe, especially, if the PhD position is funded. Second, you need to survive the PhD training-which include uncertainties about research project, funding and mental struggles- for 3-4 years as around 1 out 4 student typically drop out from PhD in the UK.

How difficult is it to get into a funded PhD in the UK?

Getting into a funded PhD in the UK is competitive. You need to convince the professor of your research interest and potential. You also need to convince the grant provider about the significance and relevancy of your research. You also need to meet certain criteria for PhD set by the university or UK visa and immigration authority.

Can I do a PhD without a master’s UK?

Yes, you can do a PhD without a master’s in the UK. More and more UK universities are hiring integrated PhD programs offering a research master’s first and then you can work on your PhD research project.

When it comes to admission requirement for a PhD degree in the UK, will a truly wonderful master’s degree grades compensate a truly awful undergraduate grades?

Yes, In the UK, professors generally weigh your master’s grades more than your undergraduate grades. Therefore, you can really shine with good master’s scores.