Funding your PhD study

“If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.” (Dolly Parton) 

Summarizing this year’s enrollment season, I received Ph.D. scholarships from three universities in the UK, majoring in Social Science and Computer Science. I wrote a note of my journey to thank everyone around me who gave me a lot of support during this process and also to send a message to like-minded young people.

The following details describe some lessons I have learned for myself, and these can be applied in the UK and countries with similar education systems:

  1. Prepare a research proposal: A research proposal is considered the most important part of the whole process. In the UK, applications for a Ph.D. program generally include a research proposal, CV, a cover letter, and letters of recommendation. Many say that a research proposal is essential when applying for Ph.D. programs in the UK (because when you start studying, you begin on research while if you study in the US, you have to take coursework for 2 years before writing your research). However, keep in mind that a CV and letters of recommendation cannot also be overlooked.

When you are to choose a research topic, I could give you some tips – select a topic that you are enthusiastic about and intend to study deeply. You usually work on a chosen topic for 3-4 years; therefore, choosing the right topic is a key at first. This would not only help you complete your research but also motivate you every day. From my personal experience, I learned that it’s a process of constant reflection, reading, and updating information related to my topic.

When it comes to drafting a research proposal, you need not worry about having a complete research topic because you are still at an early stage of your research. This means that it is possible to develop, supplement, or redirect to other research (of course, you would have to get the approval of your professor at a later study phase). However, for the first step, you need to prove that your topic is (1) contributory, adds value to a certain field, or address a gap in research; (2) consistent with the school board/school’s research focus and interests and most importantly, your supervisor’s; and (3) you have enough knowledge, skills, and experience to conduct the chosen topic.

Proposed research depends on each university’s requirements, but the length is usually 2,000-3,000 words (not including references). The structure usually includes a title, overview (context – problem), literature review, research objective(s) and question(s), theoretical framework, research design and methodology, ethical considerations, timeline, and research outline. Also, research with high applicability may include how it can be used, in what context/organization, or knowledge sharing and further development. This particular section has a lot of good articles online and from school, so I do not share the details here.

For research in Social Science/Development, factors such as interdisciplinary research combined with methodology and the use of field data can be plus points for your research proposal. In my case, the focus was on data science and international development – mainly applying data science in solving development problems. I chose to work in Cambodia and Vietnam because I have a working relationship with NGOs and agencies that allow data collection and introduction as well as the application of research results later when completed.

  • Contact professors: Once you are confident with your research topic, the next step is to email a potential supervisor. He/she is the second most important factor in the process because he/she will be a companion throughout your process in the future, giving advice and research orientation. Acceptance is higher when you and your potential supervisor have the same research orientation, are specialized in a certain field, or intend to expand their research field. In addition to having one supervisor, a Ph.D. can have 2 additional supervisors from other departments and even other schools.

How to find a potential supervisor. Method 1: Based on the reputation of professors when you do a literature review. Getting the basic information (name, university) makes it easier for you to contact professors. Method 2: On the website of universities’ department, read through professors’ bibliography to know their research interests and publications, thereby determining whether your topic is relevant to professors’ areas or not.

Write emails to professors: Attach a CV and research proposal. Explain why you want to do this topic and ask if he/she is willing to be your supervisor (if possible, include a cover letter). Ask for more advice from them regarding your topic and evaluate whether it is suitable with departments’ research direction. From the process of interacting with different teachers, I found that even though they are extremely busy, they make time to read students’ profile and offer advice. So, there was a lot for me to learn in the process. In 2-3 days or a week, you would get a reply, depending on professors.

Identify your supervisor early before the application/scholarship deadline because when a professor accepts to become your supervisor, they may give you more advice and help you edit a research proposal. Note that although your topic is approved for guidance, there would be many research proposals from other candidates. So, the admission of a Ph.D. to the department and the decision to award scholarships would eventually be decided by a panel.

  • Participate in an interview 

If you pass the application round and get shortlisted, you will be invited to an interview. The interview is most likely to be a quick one, 30-40 minutes from my experience. A panel has usually 3-4 people, representative of departments, a doctoral center, and the person in charge of scholarships (this depends on each university; the Ph.D. admission and scholarship interview process can be general or separate, but usually, it will be a combined one).

In sum, prepare carefully about your topic, personal experiences, reasons for choosing a university, and other logistics answers (such as finance, admissions, etc.).

These are the questions that you can expect at the interview: 

– Why do you want to study for a Ph.D.? After completing a Ph.D., what will you do?

– Brief explanation of your chosen topic

– Present a method of data collection and analysis. For example, how to reach research objects, remote communities, access difficulty, etc.

– List difficulties/risks that you can encounter when conducting research. Propose mitigation measures. For example, imagine you are to conduct research on vulnerable objects. How would you avoid harm to these objects, or re-traumatization?

– Prove enough knowledge, skills, and experience to your chosen topic. For example, research experience and skills in using data analysis/programs, etc.

– Explain the practical applicability of research and development direction (depending on topics). Especially for Development/Global Challenges Scholarships, questions can be related to how a topic will solve problems in practice.

– Why choose the department/board of the university?

– Confirm financial ability to support your stay.

  • Finance/scholarship  

Universities in the UK often have the tuition difference between UK/EU students and international students. International students usually have to pay 3-3.5 times higher tuition fees, (at least £ 15,000/year) and many scholarships are available only to UK/EU students; even the first prerequisite is based on the resident status. However, do not worry. Once a professor is interested in your topic, he/she could find a source to compensate for the difference.

  In my case, as I submitted to a studentship for UK/EU students, after contacting a professor, she immediately referred to a scholarship for international students. I continued to prepare documents to submit for this scholarship. For another university, professors were very nice to find funding from their school fund, donations, or private funding. My source comes from an AI company in the UK under Google. Or some schools will offer teaching assistant jobs – but you need to balance your time and effort extremely well.

  Above are some of my experiences when I applied for my research proposal. However, there are also Ph.D. programs where topics and professors are already available, so you just need to apply (and send a research proposal, but with a predetermined topic).

Some reference websites: