Tips and tricks: How to get a PhD position?

innovationA number of our students consider a research career after completing their master thesis at the Hedda Master Programme in Higher EducationFor those of you who are considering this, here are some practical tips on how to proceed (but by no means do we assume this is a recipe for guaranteed success nor that this list is comprehensive). 

If you have additional tips – please share them in the comments section! 

Identify your research theme

It is important to know what it is that you want to work on for the three or four years of your PhD life. If you thought your Masters thesis was a long and lonely process…that was just a fraction of the scope that a PhD dissertation is. This means that you should have at least some inherent curiosity about the theme. It is difficult to spend this much time on something you not that interested in. Remember, your PhD should be fun! Painful and frustrating at times, sure, but it should also provide some excitement so it all evens out!

For instance, if your interests are related to teaching and learning, keep your focus on these issues. Try to identify the kinds of topics, theories and methodology you enjoy working with. Your master thesis probably gave you some insights to what you enjoy and what you would like to avoid.

While you did you masters on one particular topic, this does not mean you have to continue with the exact same area of research if your heart is elsewhere. As long as you can show sufficiently relevant competence, it is rather common to change focus, level of analysis or theme.

Start working on your proposal even before the position(s) are announced

Start preparing beforehand. In Norway you often need to prepare a rather extensive research proposal for the application process. Positions are often announced with a deadline of around 4-5 weeks (with some variation), and sometimes it might take some time for you to find out that the position has been announced – hence your time to write a proposal would be limited. As most people have other engagements in their lives, it might be difficult to just put everything else on hold and focus these weeks on writing a good proposal.

Therefore, if you know your topic of interest, think through relevant research designs, theoretical considerations and methodology, find relevant literature so you have it handy, and perhaps even write up some parts of the text that might be more general. Later tailor the proposal for the particular position and/or project. Having one (or more) proposals at hand will give you an opportunity to use those 4-5 weeks to really polish the proposal and improve it, rather than start completely from scratch.

However, having a research proposal already at the time you apply is not necessary in all countries/systems, so be sure to check what you need to submit for your application before you start your preparations. However, being well prepared is never a bad thing, even if you do not need to have a full proposal but are for instance just interviewed in the process. 

Prepare a superb proposal

If you need to submit a proposal when applying, this is where you need to really show that you are the right candidate. For instance in Norway, the quality of your research proposal is the decisive matter in the application process (provided that you fulfill all the other necessary criteria of formal qualifications, relevance of theme, and so forth).

Sure, things might change afterwards (in most cases they do at least to some extent): you might adjust your theoretical considerations or modify your methodology. However, in the proposal you really have to show that you understand what a research process is about, how the various elements fit together and that you have an idea for the project that is both relevant and interesting.

If you have prepared beforehand, you might have a draft at hand with some bits and pieces, but be sure to really tailor the proposal each time you send it in. This is particularly important if your project should link to a larger project or when there is an expectation that your project would fit into a specific research area/theme at the department/institution.

Overall, make sure that the proposal is coherent, that there is a good linkage between the research questions, analytical framework and methodology – these are some of  the same considerations that you had when writing a master thesis. Remember that more is not always better – the project has to be realistic. This means that adding more  questions, cases or levels of analysis to make it even more comprehensive is not always a good strategy – you might just end up showing that you do not have a realistic view on the research process and your project might lack the necessary depth.

Use people you know with experience in the field to give you feedback on your proposal and ideas – this can be former classmates or staff from the master program. Do not be afraid to ask for help to discuss your ideas, or have someone read your proposal draft and give feedback – this is a great way to further develop your thinking!

Identify the relevant universities and centers

The process of doing your PhD can be rather different. In some countries, PhDs are considered junior researchers, in others they are seen as students. In some countries you might have to do extensive coursework, in others there is none or very limited coursework. Think through what your expectations are. There are a multitude of places where you can do your PhD studies in higher education, in Europe and also worldwide. The regulations for admission can also vary significantly, so identify early on possible places so you also know what you need to prepare.

A smart idea is to identify potential professors you would want to work with and examine if there are any PhD positions coming up in the universities or research centres they work in. Does that institution have a separate PhD programme? Is there large project coming up that includes PhD positions? Do your research and know the relevant places for your research interests! When you have identified potential institutions, keep track on upcoming positions in those institutions.

Contact relevant people

If you know whom you want to work with, get/keep in touch with them, this can be an invaluable means to get information about upcoming projects and positions. Do not be afraid of showing your interest, but remember to not overdo that – becoming a nuisance is usually not a very good strategy for anything, including getting a PhD position. However, asking more information about the research themes at that particular institution or gaining insights about upcoming larger project plans is a good strategy to get information that will enable you to make your proposal as relevant as possible.

Familiarize yourself with the rules

The regulations for both admission and the whole PhD process vary a lot in different countries. In Norway, some positions are announced as vacancies – that means you get a full salary as a PhD fellow, and are employed at the university – including all the benefits that employees get. However, this is not the case in all countries where you might be required to find own funding, and sometimes you might even have to pay tuition fee for your PhD. Be sure that you know what the PhD process entails.

If you, for instance, need to find your own funding, identify relevant scholarship programmes and opportunities early on – when are the deadlines for applications? Who is eligible for support? What do you need to submit? You do not want to spend time on this when you should be focusing on polishing your proposal. Furthermore, you do not want to lose your position because of funding issues or other technicalities.

Have all the right documentation ready

Double check that you can document all the relevant competencies – are  there any constraints with respect to the required disciplinary background, grades, or for instance English language certification? Be sure to have all of the relevant documentation, including certified copies. This again is something you really do not want to spend time on in last minute.

Do not give up!

Some really, really good PhD candidates did not get their position on the first try. There are many bright aspiring scholars worldwide and few positions, so the competition will be hard. Do not get discouraged if you should not succeed right away. If you in the process of applying get some feedback on the proposal: use this to improve it for next time!

Good luck!

Do YOU have any other tips you would like to share? Leave a comment!