Thinking about applying for a PhD programme?

Agata Piotrowska
Wednesday 28 December 2022

We hope you are all enjoying this beautiful Christmas season! With the mulled wine’s and mince pies’ smell filling our homes, and the deadlines for PhD programmes and scholarships applications fast approaching, we thought that some useful links and insights might come in handy in this time. As an MLitt graduate and a current PhD student, who initially came to St Andrews only to complete a masters programme without yet a set idea of pursuing academic research in Scotland, I know how quickly this January PhD applications deadline can come knocking at your door…

Snowy Scotland, by A. Piotrowska

The University provides a brief overview of all the main details. There you will find all the information you need about identifying a suitable supervisor in your School, documents you might need, and fees and scholarships available to you. It is also worth visiting My Saint’s catalogue of scholarships available for the following academic year, as well as the website providing more details about them. Carnegie PhD Scholarship can serve as just one of the examples of such awards. It is in My Saint as well where you can then track the status of your application. And if you are successful – St Andrews will love having you with us for the further three years or more!

Among our alumni there are numerous inspiring individuals who decided to pursue an academic career in St Andrews or elsewhere. This was oftentimes done despite many struggles and uncertainties, yet with continuous hard work and dedication to their goals. Here are some tips and observations they share about their decision-making process, deadlines and applications, as well as the current stage of their academic development looking back at their masters years.

Caroline McWilliams, now in her third year of a PhD programme, shares honestly about her experience:

“While I knew that I was capable of completing a PhD, there was no guarantee that I could financially afford to do so. Ill-health had meant that I did not achieve a first at undergraduate level and this disqualified me from several scholarships. After receiving an offer from my now supervisor of a place at St Andrews, following on from an MLitt that she led, I was determined to find a way. I applied for absolutely every scholarship and grant that I could, holding my breath for something that would at least cover my tuition fees. The day that I received an email offering me a £15,000 per annum scholarship was one of the proudest of my life. My advice to anyone going through the application process is to be honest and to be yourself. Those on decision panels read bland personal statements all the time. I was completely honest about my past struggles in my statements and I believe that that was an element in my success.”

While Fiona Banham adds, looking back at her PhD application process:

“Having applied for a PhD whilst completing an MLitt degree at the University of St Andrews, I have three top tips for applicants this year:

Start early. I emphasise this as someone who did not… I applied in a last-minute panic, which raised the blood pressure of my supervisor to dangerous levels. Knowing exactly when your hard deadlines are, and setting yourself a non-negotiable mini-deadline in advance of this, can prevent panic, help you to keep a clear head when making important decisions, and reduce the chances of a medical emergency.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you already know your supervisor, working with them to draft your proposal is the best way to make sure you put in a strong and well-informed application. As well as having unique expertise in your desired field of research, they will have successfully seen countless prospective PhD students through the application process. Perhaps most importantly, this is also a great way to start to build rapport with your supervisor, and to establish (or fortify) a productive working relationship before the start of the project.

Done is better than perfect. The vast majority of proposals submitted as part of a PhD application end up changing significantly (sometimes beyond all recognition) during the course of the PhD. So, don’t sweat too much blood trying to craft a flawless project that you will feel bound to every detail of for the next 3-4 years. As long as the project is interesting, feasible, and original, you will be just fine, and will have plenty of flexibility to transform it into something better still once you secure that place!”

We are grateful to Caroline and Fiona for sharing their experiences with us, and hope that our dear readers will find these perspectives helpful and encouraging. If you have any questions about your application or scholarships available to support it, do not hesitate to get in touch with the relevant Offices of the University! And if you would like to share your own experience or ask current PhD students more about their academic research or application process for the PhD programmes you are welcome to get in touch with us or your chosen Schools. It is worth the fight and the work!

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