By Caroline Batten Mary Boyle and Alexandra Vukovich
Looking to apply for a PhD in a medieval research area? We’ve got your back! This month, OMS held a workshop for students on Oxford’s MSt programme in Medieval Studies, and now we’re making those insights available more widely. We’ll give you our three top tips first, and then answer some Frequently Asked Questions underneath.
The advice below is specifically for applying to PhDs in the UK. You’ll find that American and European PhD programs are often very different from UK ones. Whereas in the UK your degree is research only, in American PhD programs you spend two years doing coursework before you begin your dissertation, and the whole process takes longer (5-7 years, as opposed to 3-4 years in the UK). Different countries in Europe offer different PhD structures: some are research-only, some are project-specific, others involve significant coursework and training. Be sure to research the different PhD programs available to you in different places, to help you decide what kind of program might be best for you.
- Be bold!
With your research proposal, you’re selling both yourself and your project, so you want both to be as eye-catching as possible. You need to tell your readers why your project is exciting; what gap in the discipline it’s filling; and why you’re the right person to do it. But being bold is also about approaching the people you think can help you – ask as many people as possible to read over and comment on your application, because that will make it much stronger. This point also stands for approaching potential supervisors.
- Be definite!
One straightforward way to sell yourself and your project is to make it clear that you know what you’re doing – even if you don’t actually feel like you do. So make sure that you’re telling your reader exactly what you’re planning to study (define your corpus); how you’re going to structure your project; and what you’re hoping to find out, even including some potential conclusions.
- Develop the topic in dialogue!
At an early stage, approach people whose research you find interesting and talk about your topic with them. Your choice of supervisor is probably the most important decision that you’re making at this point. Your supervisor, or supervisors, don’t necessarily need to work on exactly what you’re working on, but they do need to be a person or people with whom you can imagine having a long-term working relationship. They need to be someone with whom you can have an honest conversation, and from whom you can accept constructive criticism.
If only early career offices looked like this. London, British Library, Add MS 11850.
- Should I do a PhD/DPhil?
A doctorate is a hugely rewarding experience, giving you the time to fully devote yourself to research and learn how to be a scholar. It is, of course, a necessity for a career in academia, but can also prepare you for work in museums, libraries, archives, the rare books trade, publishing, a variety of cultural institutions, the foreign service, translation and interpreting, (and the list goes on!) as the skills you will gain are important for all kinds of work. But the unvarnished truth is that PhDs are intensive and demanding. You must be, or become, comfortable working independently, planning your own time and meeting the deadlines you set. You must spend many hours a week working on one singular project, requiring intense focus and commitment. For some people this sounds like heaven; for others it would make them miserable. You should do a PhD if you’re certain that you want to spend the next several years working very hard on one research project.
- What if I’m sure I want to do a doctorate, but I don’t have a project?
A doctorate is 3+ years of intensive work, so you need to be sure you’re working on something you find compelling. If nothing has suggested itself to you yet, you could brainstorm about topics you’ve studied so far, and see if anything suggests itself. Ask yourself if any of your secondary reading has left you with unanswered questions. But it might also be that you need to finish your Master’s before the idea will suggest itself, and taking time out of academia might actually help focus your creativity.
Equally, you are not bound to your project once you begin, and you can make changes. If you feel you definitely want to do a doctorate and want to get started, talk with people who know your work, and they may be able to help you to work up a project. For some people, it is better to wait and apply when you are sure. For others, it is better to get the application in, and make your final decision later.
- How do I identify the right institution?
The right institution for you will have several key features:
- The institution will offer specific resources, support, and mentoring to its postgraduate students. Your chosen department will also have resources particular to its needs and yours (seminars, specific research clusters or groups, access to manuscripts, digital resources, strong libraries, etc).
- The institution will have a strong and supportive community (large or small!) in your chosen field, so that you have colleagues with whom to collaborate, commiserate, and share ideas.
- Most importantly, the right institution for you is the institution at which your chosen supervisor works. As noted above, your supervisor will make a huge contribution to your PhD experience. Any institution can be the right institution if you’re working with a person or people who offer you support, aid, encouragement, and thoughtful, critical feedback.
- Which department/faculty should I approach?
This may be a question you are asking yourself if you’re doing an interdisciplinary Master’s. Ask yourself where you feel more at home: where does your methodology or topic fit best? Look at statistics for places and funding. Most importantly, talk to people who know your work, and especially your potential supervisor. Finally, remember that many institutions will allow you to have two supervisors in different disciplines. Being in one department/faculty doesn’t bind you to that department/faculty in the long-term and your research may well lead you to a different field later.
- Do I need to approach supervisors before sending in an application?
Ideally, yes! It is not required for a PhD application that you have a supervisor in mind, and many applications are successful without a future supervisor listed. But your proposal will be stronger with feedback from a potential supervisor, and their support within the institution will be useful. It is always a good idea to talk to potential supervisors, to exchange ideas about your project and to learn about the different forms of support that their department/faculty might be able to offer. Another good reason to approach supervisors before applying is that, based on your proposal, they may be able to direct it to targeted funding (e.g., part of an ongoing project or a large grant) for your doctoral studies.
- How do I approach potential supervisors?
Shoot them an email! It can feel hard at the moment to get in touch with someone you don’t know well, as you don’t just bump into people at seminars. But academics understand that you have to look around for potential supervisors at a variety of institutions, and they welcome enquiries from talented young researchers with interesting projects. They’ll be excited to hear from you! They may even be able to direct you to relevant projects with funded doctoral places attached. You may want to talk to your current course convenor and/or your tutors who may be able to guide you about whom to contact based on your interests.
- When should I start work on my application?
Now! Get your initial thoughts down on paper, and you can start editing and discussing from there. An application is very much a work in progress, so jot down your ideas, along with any source material and bibliography that looks promising. It will be easier to put together a project once you have all of the component parts in place.
- How long should my first draft be?
Aim for a few hundred words shorter than the word limit at this stage, to leave plenty of room for revisions.
- How many drafts should I do?
As many as you need, but be realistic about when it’s time to stop! Remember: this is only a proposal and no one expects you to have all the answers. Your research questions and how you plan to explore them (source material, approaches, auxiliary tools) are much more important than speculative conclusions, at such an early stage.
- Where can I find out about funding?
You should join subject-specific mailing lists (such as those you’ll find on Jiscmail or H-Net). There is also a PhD-specific section on jobs.ac.uk. Have a chat with your potential supervisor or with current doctoral students, who might be able to tell you about lesser-known scholarships or funded places on existing projects, like this project, which funded fifteen doctoral places over three years (all students have now started). Use this tool to find funding opportunities at Oxford specifically.