Applying for a PhD in the Humanities and Social Sciences (2/2)

Joe Cronin, Application Adviser

In part 1 I outlined some things to consider when thinking about a PhD in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Today I’m going to focus on how to deal with the application process itself.

Your research proposal is just that – a proposal. For almost all applications to PhD programmes (and undoubtedly if you’re applying for a funded position), you will be expected to write a research proposal. This can be a daunting prospect for those who ‘only’ have a Master’s degree and now have to consider how they would plan three years of research. But remember that whoever looks at your proposal is also going to be aware of this. Research proposals are simply a means to show that you are capable of conducting a long-term research project. They are not rigid plans that you have to stick to (and few people do anyway). With that said, it does pay to do some research for your proposal, if only to make sure that you have some knowledge about the topic you’re proposing to study (if it’s related to your Master’s thesis then this is less of a concern), and, in particular, to make sure that no one else has done your project already. However, you don’t have to show a comprehensive knowledge of your topic, nor do you have to know what the findings of your research will be. After all, you haven’t started it yet!

Make sure you have access to a library. When writing your research proposal, it’s a good idea to make sure that you can access a decent amount of scholarly material relating to

your area of research. You don’t have to read it all (yet!), but knowing at least the titles of major works and their authors will add weight to your proposal. If you’re no longer enrolled on your Master’s programme, and hence to a university, it can be difficult to access these resources. If you’re based in London, the British Library will grant you access for a temporary period for research purposes. If you’re outside of London, it’s worth contacting the department of the institution at which you did your MA to find out if they can provide you with library access. Even if you no longer live in that location, you can use this access to apply for a SCONUL card, which will grant you reference access to most university libraries in the UK. If all else fails, there are an increasing number of good quality scholarly resources available free on the internet through the Open Access scheme – but do exercise caution!

Prepare for your interview – but be honest too. If you’re successful at getting to the interview stage then you’re already doing well. Many people panic that their lack of knowledge will shine through in an interview situation, especially with your prospective supervisor present (who should be familiar with the topic you wish to study). However, the same rules apply here too: no one’s expecting you to be an expert before you’ve even begun your research in earnest. What they actually want to find out is whether you have the skills to conduct research effectively. In this respect, it’s more like a regular job interview than you’d perhaps expect – the panel is likely to ask you some competency questions based around what the position entails (e.g. ‘Describe a time when you’ve had to work under time pressure’). It’s these sorts of questions which often catch candidates unawares: they prepare to answer questions on the topic, but instead are asked questions on their key skills. Questions on the proposed project are very likely to come up, but they’re unlikely to be the focus of the interview.

A PhD takes a long time! Even if you’re one of the few super-efficient people who manages to complete their PhD within three years (the usual length of PhD studentships), as well as presenting papers at conferences, teaching seminars and even publishing an article or two – all of which are increasingly expected of PhD students in order to improve their employability – your PhD will still take a small but significant chunk out of your working life. This isn’t meant in a bad way: studying for your PhD should be enjoyable, rewarding and intellectually stimulating. Nonetheless, you won’t finish it overnight, and first-year PhD students often get frustrated with the perceived ‘lack of progress’ they’re making. In most cases, this is all part and parcel of the PhD process: it takes time to find your feet – and indeed your project – amidst what has already been written on the topic.

You are almost certain to encounter challenges and difficulties during the process, which can be both academic and personal. After all, a lot can change in three years. If you’re unlucky, you may find that friends and family members start to ask awkward questions about when you’ll be getting a ‘real’ job as you get further into the course. But, if you hold fast, you will finish your PhD with a piece of work which holds real value – not only to you but to the entire scholarly community – along with a range of skills, some of which can only really be gained by dedicating yourself to a project of this scope and size. And, best of all, there are employers out there – inside and outside of academia – who recognise this.

To discuss your options, why not arrange a 1-2-1 appointment with a Careers Consultant? Call the Careers & Enterprise Centre on 020 7882 8533


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