8 lessons I have learnt that helped me write successful PhD applications this year (guest post)

Cecilia Nobre is a regular tweeter, and has recently been accepted to do a PhD. When she tweeted tips for applying for PhD funding, I asked her to write it up as a guest post for my blog as I think it could be useful for some of my readers. Thanks Cecilia!

Cecilia Nobre

After 8 months of exhaustive work, no weekends and countless drafts written and proofread, I am over the moon to have received 3 PhD scholarship offers this year. It is surreal, but, at the same time, kind of expected (I wasn’t definitely expecting to get 3 scholarships, but I was hoping to get one at least). This has been my 3rd year applying and I guess the saying is right… third time’s a charm. I still got a few rejections this year and I am okay with them, we can’t win all the time. But I am proud to see that my hard work, resilience and strategies paid off this year.

I have received scholarship offers from Warwick University (through the Midlands ESRC), The University of South Australia and Dublin City University. Due to my previous studies at Warwick (I did my MA there), I have decided to complete the PhD there and I am thrilled to be able to work with Dr Steve Mann again as my supervisor. Besides these 3 universities, I have received PhD offers (no scholarships) from Reading, Newcastle and Open University. My project will investigate the use of a video analysis tool (VEO/ http://www.veo.co.uk) and its role in fostering dialogic reflection among EAP teachers’. It will also investigate if/how teachers develop through peer observation by watching and discussing their recorded lessons.

After these 3 years of experience in applying for loads of doctoral programmes, I have decided to share with other PhD applicants 8 lessons that I learnt which helped me write successful applications this year.

1) Start writing your research proposal and personal statement months before the application deadline – ideally 6/5 months. They are the most important documents, therefore, they must be meticulously well-crafted.

2) Before identifying your research questions (I would suggest between 2 and 5 – my proposal had 3), make sure they address these questions:

  • What is the main research question or issue that you want to address? (overarching question)
  • What are the specific objectives for the proposed project that follow from this? (keep a small number of objectives focused)
  • Why is your research significant and why does it matter either theoretically or practically? (you will demonstrate your awareness of the research that’s in the area you want to work in)

3) We have our own blind spots when proofreading our papers, so ask a friend who is/was in academia or your potential supervisor to proofread and give you feedback on content (I am still referring to the proposal and personal statement).

4) Invest in the pro version of Grammarly, but don’t rely on their suggestions 100% of the time. They don’t tend to like the passive voice, for instance.

5) Contact potential supervisors in advance (again); I’d suggest 5/4 months before the applications’ deadline. They are busy people who receive tons of emails and requests all the time – when contacting them make sure your email is brief, objective and relevant to their own research interests (you will find that information in the academic staff section of the university’s website). Ask them if they are willing to advise on your drafts. Look at the department research areas and the staff profiles on the universities’ websites.

6) Alongside the seminal and traditional works and articles in your field, make sure you also read the latest papers on your topic – from the past 10 years. This will show the scholarship committee that you are well-informed about what is being researched now and, therefore, you know the current challenges your research project addresses.

7) Apply to as many universities/programmes as possible. It’s just a simple probability equation: the more you apply for, the higher chances you have to be awarded a place. For instance, this year I’ve applied to 12 doctoral programmes, I got 3 scholarship offers and 3 PhD offers only (no scholarships).

8) Check the instructions or the application guidelines of each doctoral programme/university. You can use the same proposal for all programmes, but each university will have its own requirements, such as length, proposal format, submission deadlines, and a number of reference letters (usually 2 or 3, you must check), a few might ask you to add a budget ( especially if you’re applying for a Graduate Teaching Assistantship). I’d suggest adding this information to a spreadsheet.

Backstage of my last interview – the perk of doing online interviews is that you can have notes everywhere

I hope you find the tips useful. Feel free to follow me on social media for more conversations on PhD applications.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cecilianobreelt

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cecinobregriffiths/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cicanobre/

Cecilia is a teacher, Trinity DipTESOL and CertTESOL teacher trainer and an enthusiast materials writer.  She has over 20 years of classroom experience and became a teacher trainer 5 years ago. She holds an MA in ELT from Warwick University and she will start her PhD at Warwick in October 2022. She has taught in Brazil, the UK and Turkey. 

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