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The PhD Journey : How to prepare for your research application

How to Prepare Your Research Application: My Top Tips

Hugo (Hao) Du

10-minute read

‘Chance favours the prepared mind.’  Louis Pasteur, 1854. 

Introduction

Hello! I’m Hugo and I’ve just spent four years researching and doing my PhD at Newcastle University Business School (NUBS for short).

Welcome to my new blog series, written for anyone interested in doing a PhD at NUBS.  I will be writing posts about the different stages I went through during my PhD to help you understand how it works and everything involved.

So far, so good? Alright, here we go!

The difference between Master’s and PhD

Unlike a Master’s degree where you mainly receive knowledge from lectures, doing a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) involves original research that should significantly contribute to understanding a specific subject. Working with an academic supervision team on your unique study will enable you to become an expert in your chosen topic.

In the UK, it usually takes one year to get a Master’s degree. But doing a PhD requires a significant time commitment, usually three years of full-time study. During these years, you will mainly carry out independent research and attend research training sessions that benefit your study. Substantial work with an 80,000 – 100,000 word supervised thesis must be submitted to complete the PhD.  

You can read more about Postgraduate Research at Newcastle University and Business School PhDs here.

Passion for research is essential

It is absolutely vital that you feel passionate about researching your intended subject! You will need to draw on this energy many times to keep going and get past the inevitable challenges you will face during your PhD journey. The road to researching and evidencing your original ideas is not an easy path and involves hard work and commitment.  What should always be there is the passion that will drive you forwards.

Honestly, the journey is filled with excitement and joy, but there are also moments of frustration and challenge. The process of doing a PhD is like a giant sauce bottle, mixed with all kinds of flavours, but by the time that you have completed your PhD, I am sure you will taste the sweetness of success!

I have asked many friends for their thoughts about doing a PhD, and everyone has different feelings about it. But when asked if the journey was worth it, their answer was an unmistakable YES. It’s never been easy, but this is expected when you conduct original research and investigate new ideas. Now that you know this road is not easy to take, are you still ready to apply without hesitation?  If the answer is yes, that is passion.

Ability to do independent research

We often use the word ‘study’ to describe the Undergraduate or Master’s process. However, when describing the PhD journey, we say, “DO’! The reason for this is that the PhD process places more emphasis on autonomy.

Doing a PhD requires an ability to do independent research. You will attend some essential training to improve your research ability, then most of the time, you will learn how to overcome the questions and difficulties on your own.  Please be aware that independence does not mean isolation. When you face difficulties, your supervision team is always there for you.  

During the PhD process, you need to find the answer to the question through continuous study and careful experiments and finally finish the research independently. The most important thing that supports autonomy is – passion! The question you always need to keep in mind is How can I practice my passion for research?

Defining your research passion

What you need to do next, before you apply, is to make your research passion concrete. In other words, you need to define your ‘Research Interest’.

For your application to be seriously considered, you need to align your research interests with the Business School’s current research interests. Spend time exploring the Business School’s Research Communities to determine what these are.

Find the research subject group that matches your research interest. It could be the same subject you studied before, or a related research area. Doing a PhD requires a rock-solid subject learning foundation, so you must have at least studied a related subject area before doing your PhD.  For example, you could apply for a PhD in marketing based on a management background.

Develop a reading habit early

It is never too early to start reading journal articles that match your research interest. The more articles related to your research interest that you read, the more it will help you determine your specific research topic. 

Reading literature has become a daily habit for me over time.  Newton said, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Constant reading is a process of accumulation of previous research.

By reading much literature, you can clearly understand the current heated topics and enrich your own research. You can’t imagine how much good research is coming out every day. Reading enough can give you a clear idea of what has been studied, and also what is waiting to be studied (which technically we call ‘Theoretical Research Gaps’).

Your Research Proposal

After reading as much relevant literature as you can and making careful refinements, your next task is to write down your research interest, making it as detailed as possible. In other words, it’s time to prepare your Research Proposal. This is a formal document of around 1000-2000 words outlining the research you intend to undertake in your PhD.

Your Research Proposal will explain:

  1. What you want to research (Research Topic)
  2. Your justification for doing this research (Potential Research Contributions)
  3. How you will investigate/approach your research (Potential Research Methodology).

Ensure you follow the University’s Guidelines for Producing a Research Proposal when you write this, so that you present it in the correct format and cover all the necessary points. Remember to ensure that your proposed study aligns with the Business School’s research interests.

The PhD admissions team and academic decision-makers will be looking for evidence of your ability to research, including a compelling and original research proposal. And more importantly if you are ready and have the determination to be a PhD researcher.

Nominating potential supervisors

As you read through the academic profiles online, you may find that someone’s research interests have attracted your attention. Before nominating any academic staff members as potential supervisors in your application, read their publications to ensure their research area matches your research interests.

Not all academics listed will be current PhD supervisors. Therefore, it is best to nominate 2-3 staff members.  The nomination does not necessarily mean that that person will supervise you if you are made a PhD offer.

It’s important you align your research proposal with the School’s research interests to ensure that the Business School can provide a suitable supervisor for your intended subject area.   Unfortunately, if there is no appropriate supervisor, the application will still be rejected, no matter how brilliantly written it is. If this happens, you do have the option to submit a new research proposal.

When nominating the academics, it is more appropriate to explain from an academic perspective why this person is an excellent candidate to be your PhD supervisor. For example, his/her research is relevant to your research interests, which can help you complete your study or potentially making more contributions.

Contacting academic staff before applying: yes or no?

It’s okay to reach out to academic staff before submitting your application with a considered email.  If you do, you should initially only send a short and polite email, introducing yourself and including a brief summary (2-3 sentences) about your research interest.  Do this to establish whether the staff member has the time to engage with you before taking further steps to share your full draft proposal. If they are willing to review your submission, then that’s great. If not, politely thank them for their time.

When I was applying for a PhD, I reached out to academic staff members from different universities. Most answered me within a few working days, and there were always some valuable comments regarding my application.

Taking the next step: Applying for your PhD

So now, after a lot of thought, you have identified your favourite university and potential supervisor(s). You have completed a research proposal that you are satisfied with, and it is time to submit your PhD application. 

There is nothing special about the application process. You just follow the instructions and be careful when filling in the information. NUBS does not have an application deadline, so you can apply throughout the year. However, suppose you are thinking about applying anywhere for PhD funding. In that case, funders often have application deadlines and require you to have a PhD offer before applying for the funds.

You should check the university’s step by step guide to apply for a postgraduate research programme, and you will find very detailed instructions. Spend time preparing a well-written personal statement and an up-to-date CV with you, to attach to your submission.  If you have any specific issues during the application process, you can email the Business School’s recruitment team at nubs.recruitment@ncl.ac.uk

Once you have accomplished all of these steps and submitted your application as we have discussed above, well, the last thing you need to do is wait patiently for around 4-6 weeks to get the decision. Please keep your eyes on the email during this period. If anything is missing from your application, the admissions team will email you to ask for additional information and put your application on hold. Please respond as quickly as you can to keep your application progressing.

Dealing with Rejection

I received some offers, but more were rejected, which is quite usual. So, if you get rejected by your favourite school/supervisor, try not to get too upset. 

There are different reasons for rejection. For example, the intended research does not match the school’s interests, or there are no spaces left in the new intake if you have applied later in the academic year. But most of the time, it is because your research proposal is not good enough. Instead of complaining or feeling sad, turn this around by trying your best to revise your research proposal.

Most rejection letters will provide pertinent suggestions for revision and guidance for future research. If the reason was not included in the rejection letter, you can politely email the admissions team and ask for this.  Read these valuable comments carefully. This feedback gives the direction for further improvement of your research proposal, enhancing your chance of success next time and submitting again.  

This is a vital part of the process because your PhD journey will be filled with challenges. You should be able to rise above failure. And you should focus on the reasons for the failure and work on those. So, there is no point to be sad at the early stage. You should be able to take these challenges rather than become disheartened.

One little tip from my own experience

If you get rejected, think about a related subject. You could achieve success by thinking from another angle and preparing a different research proposal aligned with the related research subject.  In reality, you might not find a research group that 100% matches your research interests. Therefore, be prepared to compromise on your topic, which could be your key to success. Sometimes your potential supervisor may be interested in a subject that might be slightly different from your research topic.

Remember that your supervisors have acute knowledge about the field. Discuss with them, try to merge the topic that you want to study with their expertise, and consider their suggested research topic, increasing the chance of getting a PhD position.

Accepting an offer

I was fortunate to receive more than one offer to do PhD from other universities. The reasons for accepting an offer can be diverse, such as university ranking, urban environment, living expenses etc.  For me, NUBS was not the first university that provided me with an offer. I accepted it because Newcastle University is one of the Russell Group Universities which ensures the standard of the NUBS PhD programme. I never regretted choosing NUBS, mainly because of the support I got from the school regarding training, conferences and the faculty members and supervisors.

Funding options

I personally did not apply for research funding. Still, there are different sources that you could explore to see what PhD funding options may be available.  Newcastle has a postgraudate funding page which you can check out, and there will also be various external funding sources online. It is best to check this earlier in the academic cycle, particularly from September to January or so, and make sure you note any funding application deadlines.

Best of luck 🙂

View all my PhD blogs here: My PhD Journey – Hugo Du

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