Applying for a PhD

Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: a PORT for Modern Languages
Book: Applying for a PhD
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Date: Tuesday, 29 November 2022, 11:59 PM


a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

1 PhD Application

Applying for a PhD: preliminary reflections

Until recently an inscription in one of the oldest universities in Britain used to challenge new students with this question: 'Do I remember why I am here?'. Now the words have disappeared, but the question still applies. Enrolling on a PhD course commits you to serious study of at least three years and may affect friends and family as well. It is therefore of paramount importance that you are clear about the kind of research you intend to carry out for your PhD from the very beginning.

A well-planned application does not only increase your chance of being accepted at the department of your choice, but will also be a reference point when you feel that you are losing your way, since it deals with all the main steps and aspects that your PhD course is supposed to cover. By carefully preparing your application, you will clarify your doubts and address questions such as:

  •  Is my proposal convincing?
  •  Is my knowledge of the field of studies in which I am interested deep enough?
  •  Am I eligible to do it?
  •  Am I going to be able to meet the relevant deadlines?
  •  Do I remember why I want to be there?

Your financial position requires careful consideration. Carrying out PhD research can be a very expensive task, not only because of university fees or rent, but also because you will have to buy books, attend conferences and consult books in libraries outside your city. However, all universities annually publish a fixed number of scholarships for PhD students (usually through their Graduate Schools), just as both national and private institutions (the most important for our subject being the AHRB) offer grants. For more information on this subject read the section on Applying for grants.

If you are clear about how to finance your PhD, and your answer to each of the questions listed above is YES, you can start to fill in your application.

1.1 Timing your application

Timing the application process

Time plays a key role in all applications, including PhD ones. Places are not assigned on a 'first come first served' basis, but the sooner your application is submitted, the longer the assessors will have to look at it and the longer you will have to address any problems.

Deadlines: The first step is therefore to check all deadlines. Deadlines, I repeat, not deadline, since applications often have different deadlines for their different elements. Different deadlines are, for example, common for registration and for grants aimed at covering the fees of registration themselves. Moreover, many departments ask for documents or official copies which require several days to be issued: this means that your real deadlines are not the ones indicated in your application form, but the deadlines dictated by the collection of all the documents that you have to attach to it. Since the deadlines that you have to meet are so many, and often so different, you may find it useful to draw up a special timetable combining your official deadlines with the deadlines dictated by the offices that issue the documents that you have to produce.

Click here for: Illustrative table [This link will be updated soon]

Remember to pay even more attention to the deadlines if you are not a British passport holder, because sometimes international applicants have to observe special deadlines for enrolments as well as for grants and any other applications.

Dispatching your application:
If you decide to send your application by mail, resort to a registered letter with a receipt for delivery so that, in case of dispute, you can prove that your form was delivered by the deadline. Likewise, if you are given the opportunity to apply online, remember to press 'submit' as soon as you complete your virtual form. After the submission, online applying systems usually offer the possibility to print a 'confirmation page'. If your online application form does not provide this, we suggest you send an e-mail to the postgraduate registrar's division or to the postgraduate secretaries, so that they can reply to your email address and confirm receipt of your application.

1.2 Form and requirements

Preliminary remarks 
Since each University (and Department) has its own requirements, as soon as you receive your application by mail (or you download it from the Internet), the first step is to read it carefully. Moreover, these requirements do not only vary from institution to institution, but also from year to year, which means you should not rely on what your friends currently applying for a position elsewhere or even already enrolled in the second year of your own department can tell you. Rely exclusively on your application form.

Document collection and mailing
When you read your application form, you are likely to see that its different elements (e.g.: registration, scholarship, accommodation) are subject to different requirements. The first step that we suggest you make is therefore to distinguish and deal with them one by one. Listing single application forms according to their deadlines will help you not only to manage them in a tidier way but also to meet the deadlines themselves.

You might find it useful follow a guideline table, similar to the illustrative one we have drawn in the section 'Time', on the cover of a folder in which you will put an envelope for each application. You will then fill each envelope with an application form and the documents that each form requires as and when you obtain them. In this way your folder will work as a sort of filing cabinet, enabling you

  • to keep all documents regarding your application in the same place
  • to be always in control of the collection of documents required in connection with individual deadlines.

Moreover, if you write the destination on each envelope from the beginning, you will not have to do anything but to send them as soon as they are filled in, which will give you, again, the sense of the stage at which your application is. Mailing all documents required along with their form in a single envelope will also make the processing of your applications more secure and faster. 

Sample list of documents required
As we have already explained, each university requests that different (and a different number of) forms be filled in, but you will be probably asked to complete at least

  •  a form for your registration
  •  a form for each grant for which you intend to apply
  •  a form for accommodation in your university halls of residence

Again, each of these forms requires in its turn different documents, but some are commonly requested by all universities.



Documents required


Application form for acceptance as PhD student

Your research proposal This is of course the most important element in your application package, the most decisive factor over your success in the application process and when approaching your potential supervisors. We have therefore devoted a separate section to this subject: The research proposal.

Your BA and MA results (or your degree certificate if you graduated abroad)

The minimum grade to be eligible for a PhD varies from department to department, but it is unlikely to be lower than a II.1. Nevertheless, even if you got a II.2 in your BA, you can ask your potential supervisor to make a special case, emphasizing, for example, that although your overall grade was II.2, you were very strong in the specific area on which you want to conduct your research.
As far as foreign degrees are concerned, we suggest you contact the Admissions Office of the university and make sure you comply with their requirements.

Letters of reference

The large majority of British universities ask for two letters of reference. It is important that you choose two scholars who have a good knowledge of your academic profile. Give them enough time, and maintain contact with them - tell them what you're applying for and when, also send them any relevant information - they will then be able to assess exactly what is required, and write a reference accordingly. Let them see your C.V. and don't forget to ASK them whether they want to see examples of your work BEFORE you send it.
As to the dispatch of these letters, they are the only documents that you may be asked not to send yourself, since some universities prefer them to be sent directly to registrar's offices by the referees.

Language certificate
(only for foreign students)

Again, the minimum grade to be eligible as a PhD student varies from department to department, just as recognised certificates do. Make sure you comply with the requirements as specified by the university's Admissions Office.

Curriculum vitae

- if requested

If a CV is required, it is a good idea to let your referees see it before you send it . They might have useful suggestions about how to improve it.
Every CV must be prepared (or rather customized) taking account of its addressees, but there are some elements you should not ever forget to indicate. Click here - Structuring a CV - to verify what they are.

Grant application forms

Application form for acceptance as PhD student

Some universities allow you automatically to compete for a grant when you submit your application (ie., you don't need to fill in any extra papers). Other universities ask you for a specific application. In this case you are very likely to be required to attach a copy of your main application form (or of a part of it, e.g. the research proposal).
A copy of your main application is normally required also by government one being the and private institutions advertising grants.

Letter of conditional acceptance

In some cases government and private institutions ask you to attach the letter of conditional acceptance for your PhD course to your grant application form.

Letters of reference

If you are required to apply separately for an internal scholarship, you will be probably be asked to submit extra copies of references. The easiest and fastest way to do it is to ask the same referees for them, too. Obviously, this solution also applies for any other requests for grants and scholarships to private institutions.
Likewise, the rule that these letters must be sent directly by referees themselves applies for the large majority of government and private institutions.

Language certificate (for foreign students)

It is normally required by University Graduate Schools, but if you have not got one, you can explain that you are going to attend an internal language course.
Such an explanation, however, may not be accepted by some institutions. Always double-check.

The results of your first degrees  

Document testifying to your residential status

In order to compete for some grants you might be asked to prove that you satisfy requirements regarding your nationality or place of residence.

Research proposal

This is of course the most important element in your application for funding. We have therefore devoted a separate tutorial to this topic: The research proposal.

Application form for accommodation

Application form for your enrolment

Many universities have accommodation for postgraduates (even if not all of them), but if you want a room in one of their halls you have to prove your status as prospective PhD student by producing a copy of your application form.

Document testifying to your personal status

According to the type of accommodation you request, universities may ask for documents proving some aspect of your social and personal situation, such as physical disabilities, marital status, number of children, etc.

1.3 The PhD subject

The choice and the definition of the subject of your research obviously constitutes one of the most important parts of your PhD application. We therefore decided to deal with its various aspects in two different sections of this website:

1.4 Choosing a supervisor

There are many ways of choosing a supervisor. You may wish to continue working with someone who has taught you before. You may have developed a research interest at undergraduate or more probably at MA level in a particular topic, and know their work, or have been referred to them as academics in your field. They may be attached to the institution at which you have decided to study or to which you have won a grant, or have been selected by a head of department as the most likely to correspond to your specialism.

Factors to take into account

Yet, it can be risky to chose a supervisor that you don’t know well already – this is not to preclude it, but simply to make you aware of the potential pitfalls. Perhaps the most common cited problem (and problems do arise!) is that PhD students feel they don’t get the sustained and continuous support necessary for them to complete their research degree to the proper standard, or that it came too late for them to do anything about it, or that the supervisor didn’t have enough time for them.

The most important thing of all therefore when choosing a supervisor (and it is often your choice) is to check that they have enough time to take you on. Having a PhD student means not only getting them to PhD standard, but also providing continued support in the often arduous job market, as well as writing numerous job references. All this can be very time-consuming for an already over-stretched academic, and with the best will in the world, clever, nice, charismatic (whatever!) as they are, they may not be the best person to go for. This particularly applies to celebrity academics or to those who may not be actively famous but have written 20 books all of which have an excellent reputation. Ask yourself whether the person who teaches and still finds time to write 20 books or do t.v. programmes, etc, can possibly fit you in. That is not to say that they won’t, but just to tell you not to be starry-eyed about the most glamorous people and to warn you to be realistic about what you need. If you know that you like a lot of hands-on support, make sure you chose someone who can provide that. If on the contrary, you find that the occasional acerbic analysis of your work gives you sufficient stimulus, then the person who’s written 20 books and can give you a quick 45 minutes every other month may be the person for you. While many institutions lay down guidelines for the amount of supervision a student should expect to receive, not everybody follows them to the letter - nor would strict obedience be desirable in the eyes of all supervisors or indeed all research students.

It is important to be clear what you want, or need, from a supervisor. They may be a great expert on the precise field in which you want to work (a particular author, say). Or they may be exponents of a theory or method that you want to work with, in a different field from theirs. Or they may be neither, but have a general knowledge of the broad field, and of different approaches to its study, and sufficient pedagogical skill and experience to be able to direct you effectively. A supervisor of any of these types may be very successful; but try to get clear in advance what it is they can offer you. If you are working, for instance, in an area where very precise skills or knowledges are required (e.g. some kinds of bibliography, or history of ideas, or advanced psychoanalytic theory) you may need the specialist, not the generalist.

2 The research proposal

A research proposal is a piece of work that, ideally, would convince scholars that your project has the following three merits: conceptual innovation; methodological rigour; and rich substantive content. Of course your first version of a research proposal is produced at at a very early stage in your career, and you may well have many other calls on your time. Here we'll suggest the optimum route to take - of course the reality may have to be a compromise between this and what can more easily be managed.

A research proposal is a short document (probably between 300 and 1000 words - check the word limits on your application form) detailing the main components of your intended research. It shouls include the title, research questions and tentative hypotheses, the primary materials, the proposed theoretical framework, the intended design and methodology and, sometimes, outcomes expected. It is a means of presenting and justifying a research project and the practical ways of conducting it.

You need to start the reading relating to it at least nine months in advance of your proposed date of first registration, and the actual drafting at least six months in advance of this date. In the case of a proposal relating to an application for AHRB funding, you need to start drafting by January of the year of first registration. Many universities have their own internal advisory and vetting procedures in relation to these applications with a deadline well in advance of the early May deadline of the AHRB itself, and will be able to give you feedback on your draft.

By now you should have a clear idea of your chosen research topic and should have approached someone in the university department in which you hope to study for advice and guidance.

Your research proposal frames your original idea, locates it, delimits it and specifies not just what you are studying but how you will actually carry it out and what you might find. For these reasons, a research proposal often turns out to be an invaluable resource and planning tool for your period of study. The process of preparing a research proposal is not a short or easy one. Often it is at this very stage that key elements of your study are decided. However, keep in mind that changes can and might be made in the future - for example the exact corpus of material may change as your work develops.

You are not expected to do it all by yourself: ask for help and guidance from your prospective supervisor or from a previous one.

To help you in drawing up your proposal, it might be useful to consider the following:

The guidelines we provide here are a COUNSEL OF PERFECTION! Much of what we suggest will not be attempted until you actually start your MA or PhD research. ALWAYS refer to a supervisor, past or future, to get detailed feedback on your work.

2.1 your proposal: aims

A research proposal is typically written to secure a place at a university on a research Masters or Doctoral course and/or to secure funding for these studies.

What is your research proposal for? You will need to know the reason why you are writing a research proposal from the outset. Are you looking for acceptance onto a Masters or Doctoral research programme? Are you looking for funding for these studies? Your research proposal will need to be tailored according not only to the research course of choice but also to the specific rules and requirements of your target university department or funding source.

The PhD application

For university departments

  • are you applying for a doctorate or research masters degree?
  • do you have all the guidelines and application details you need?
  • who have you contacted?
  • what is your chosen department(s) explicitly looking for?
  • what are the specific written rules governing your proposal? Have you paid close attention to these?

applying for grants

For funding authorities

  • have you looked at your university prospectus for details of funding opportunities?
  • have you spoken to someone in your chosen department?
  • where can you get the best financial support?
  • do you have all the guidelines and application details from the relevant bodies?
  • have you read these carefully?
  • what is each funding body explicitly looking for?
  • do you comply with all initial requirements?
  • what are the specific written rules, for example, a word limit that you must stick to?
  • what are the unwritten rules, norms, conventions, expectations? how would you find out?

2.2 your proposal: writing it up

The research proposal will need to be written in such a way as to demonstrate your intellectual and communicative competence, your expertise so far in your particular area of study and your potential contribution to knowledge. You will need to prove succinctly that something is genuinely at stake in your enquiry and so justify the academic and financial support and resources you are seeking. It is crucial that your proposal is well written and makes the case clearly and convincingly. Make sure that there no errors in spelling, punctuation or syntax, as you need to convince your reader that you can WRITE. The quality of your writing is almost as important as what you say.

Before you start the research proposal process do seek out and follow the advice of academics from your new or even your old departments.

What: questions and hypotheses

The first stage of writing your proposal involves changing your chosen research topic or idea into a hypothesis or set of hypotheses that can and should be investigated. That is, it will involve turning your research topic into a worthwhile proposition.

Your original idea should now take the form of a question or hypothesis that needs and deserves further study. See the section From topic to question (in The research topic section) for help with this part. You need a clear and precise object of study - modifications can be made in the future. If you feel the need for further guidance you should speak to someone knowledgeable, for instance your prospective supervisor.

You need to have a working title, a potential research problem, questions to be addressed and tentative predictions or explanations to be explored and tested. Your research questions will later have an influence on your choice of material and methodology.

  • what is the overall objective or purpose of your project?
  • can you express your core idea in a working title?
  • have you framed your topic or idea as a problem or question and stated it clearly?
  • what are the sub-questions that also need exploring?
  • have you drawn up any predictions?
  • what tentative explanations do you intend to investigate?
  • have you considered the delimitations of the scope of your study? what are you excluding?
  • what are the distinguishing characteristics of your project? 

Gaps: alluding to the critical literature

A literature review or critical survey is the next important task in developing your proposal, although the reading which underpins it will necessarily have begun well in advance. Why? At this stage you need to frame your proposed thesis topic within the existing body of knowledge in your chosen field in order to demonstrate some originality. This will help demonstrate not only the need for your research but also, perhaps, that it will have the potential to be turned into a publishable piece.

A one-year (two-year part-time) Masters by research will, of course, necessitate a less extensive literature review than a PhD.

Carrying out a literature review gives you the opportunity to summarise the current state of knowledge in your area. You will need to demonstrate an ability to evaluate critically, to integrate and to synthesize briefly but meaningfully the relevant works in your field. You will need to isolate key authors, theories and frameworks to engage with or exploit. This will also help lead to the development of a comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography in the long term. Remember that changes can, and probably will, be made in the future. Try to do your best within the time you have available.

When writing up your Research Proposal, you will not have the space to allude to many of the secondary sources (not to mention the time to read them!): this does not matter - keep them for the dissertation proper. Your aim in the Research Proposal is merely to demonstrate that you know the field and have identified a gap.

It might be useful to think of your literature review in three different phases.

  • Phase one is about generating ideas to lead to the main question of your research. You might even have an essay or a Masters dissertation to draw from here. By identifying gaps and weaknesses in the literature, you will have already isolated a problem and built a platform from which to argue for new theoretical insights or new conceptual frameworks. This phase should have been completed in your transition from topic to question (as covered in The research topic).
  • Phase two is about substantiating ideas. This is the current phase relevant to your research proposal. Adding to the bibliography you originally used to generate ideas, this part of the literature review involves reading of greater depth and coverage. This will help you situate your research in your field and demonstrate the importance, significance and (in the case of a PhD) the originality of it in your research proposal.
    • do you demonstrate your skills and knowledge and your understanding of your field?
    • do you show that your search for secondary materials has been thorough yet focused?
    • do you demonstrate that your materials and sources are authoritative and relevant?
    • How can you most effectively situate or frame your proposed hypotheses in the light of current debates?
    • have you defined the key concepts and terms?
    • have you specified your proposed theoretical perspective?
    • how can you exploit your literature review to justify your new investigation and show its significance?
  • Phase three is the extensive search and critique of the literature for your actual written research. You will undertake this during the PhD proper. For a more detailed discussion see Building a bibliography and The writing process

How: methodology

This third stage of your proposal process is about detailing how you will carry out your research. It is your opportunity to specify what you will be looking at, the way you will engage with the primary material of your project and also how you intend to do this. The methodology section of your proposal will specify in detail the research operations and instruments you intend to employ to address your research question(s) or test your hypotheses. This stage is about using your research proposal to demonstrate feasibility. Of course, if you are proposing a more traditional e.g. literary critical thesis then there may be less to say as regards methodology than if your proposal involves amassing quantitative or qualitative raw data (for example via interviews or questionnaire analysis). When outlining your methodology ask yourself the following questions:

  • have you defined your primary materials?
  • in what ways can your chosen methodology be applied to your proposed materials?
  • can you show that your methods can be used to explore your key problem satisfactorily?
  • how clearly have your methods been explained?
  • have you used appropriate and standard terminology?
  • how will you convince the reader of your research proposal that your approach is the most appropriate one?
  • what are the possible criticisms?
  • does your proposed research process help you examine the relationship between theoretical framework and textual (or other) evidence?
  • what relevant training do you have?
  • have you considered any further training or preparation you might need?

Structure and composition: crucial elements

  • Title: the title should give a clear idea of your topic as it currently stands: you may well change it once engaged in your research
  • Thesis: this first sentence or short paragraph should explain in clear language the aims, focus and argument of your research as well as the field and primary sources it will cover. You will need to explain how any work you have already done in your first degree or Masters makes you particularly well-equipped to work on this topic. For example, you have already studied the Eighteenth Century in two modules and now you want to work on Rousseau; or because your MA in critical Theory has given you a range of conceptual tools with which to analyse your chosen corpus of texts - in particular via feminist and psychoanalytical theory.
  • The body of the proposal: referring methodically to the secondary sources and identified gaps, this section should mention methodology, chapter content and breakdown
  • Conclusions: at this point, they will be provisional but nonetheless help to give a shape to your proposal
  • Your future career: is this Masters a grounding for a PhD? Will this PhD lead you on an academic career?
  • Append a draft bibliography, citing primary and secondary sources
  • Adhere to the word limit
  • Aim for a clear and concise style

2.3 sample proposal

Translating Neruda: Politics, Ideology & Poetics (Penny Johnson, Newcastle)

The overall aim of my research is to test the hypothesis (Lefevere 1992,
Lane-Mecier1997) that literary translators manipulate representations of
source texts and writers according to their own ideological stance as
well as external socio-political factors. My assumption is that poetry,
far from being 'untranslatable', lends itself very well to political
adaptations, versions and variations, and that this is especially
salient with source texts which purposefully carry a "political"
message. I will use as a case study the translations into English by
North American and British translators of Pablo Neruda's (1904 -1973)
Canto general (1950). I aim to investigate whether and, if so, how
translators may manipulate the source text either to go against the
dominant ideology and/or poetics of the time or to comply with them.
Moreover, this need not be an either/or choice, for translation and
compliance may interact in various ways. For example, sometimes the
translators may comply with the dominant poetics so that the ideological
message reaches the target culture audience or vice-versa.

In the substantial body of criticism on Neruda, little has been written
in English about his work in translation. What there is, is usually
without a translation theory dimension.

The theoretical framework that will be used is based on a combination of
polysystems theory (Even-Zohar 1979, 1990, Toury 1995), which considers
a culture to be a system of interrelated systems always in a state of
flux, the concept of translation norms (Toury 1995, Hermans 1996, Nord
1991, Chesterman 1993), and the idea that any act of textual
manipulation is constrained or motivated by poetological and ideological
factors (Lefevere). I will identify the differences between the target
texts firstly by focusing, at the macro-level, on the sections from
Canto General that were selected for translation and then on textual
manipulation (the deviations from a 'literal' rendering of the source
text derived from a close comparison of several target texts at the
micro-level). I will also contextualise the source and target texts
sociologically and historically.

Since this is an interdisciplinary study, it should make contributions
to several fields such as Translation Studies with regard to poetry
translation from the point of view of 'politics' and 'ideology';
Cultural (or Intercultural) Studies regarding, for example, asymmetrical
relationships between cultures and the image of the 'Other'; and Latin
American Studies, particularly regarding the criticism of Neruda in
translation from a firm theoretical base.

2.4 test questionaire

Have you....


given yourself enough time to plan and write an accomplished proposal?

read all the right forms and guidelines thoroughly?

a clear idea of all the rules you have to follow in your application?

spoken to people who know and can help?

given time and thought to your proposed research project?

a clear objective in mind?

thought about what makes your proposal convincing and unique?

anticipated criticism?

thought about the best way to structure your proposal?

related your proposal to your career interests?

considered how your competence and experience apply?

written a clear first draft?

met the specified word limit?

carried out any revisions?

taken this draft to an academic for advice?

acted on this advice?

clearly noted the deadline for submission of your proposal?

3. The research topic

Deciding on a specific topic for research is one of the first tasks you will have to accomplish when embarking on a postgraduate degree. It is crucial to find a topic you have a real interest in, one that will keep your attention and enthusiasm for months or years and may form an article or book or take you towards your career of choice.

How do you 'find' your topic? Often the process is one of surprises and accidents. You have a previous qualification and you are drawn to a topic or question that has puzzled you intellectually for some time. A piece of work or author that you respect and cannot let go. A problem or dilemma. Perhaps a lecturer or your supervisor has a specialism that appeals to you. Or maybe you need to go through different steps assessing, including/excluding and selecting certain ideas until you come to a decision.

You will begin engaging with the process of research and discover that at different stages you may need to reevaluate your choice, modify it and redefine questions in order to move forward in your research. You may need to revise, modify or even negotiate changes in your topic. You will keep making changes according to the material you may or may not find. You will start understanding your subject of investigation and developing a strategy to tackle it.

While deciding on a topic you should always be aware of rules laid down by, for example, your department, your university or your funding authority regarding time allowed and word limits. In your decision, you should also consider the future possibilities of producing conference papers and articles or publishing a book.

If you are planning to apply for a PhD and write your research proposal you are expected to have a fairly clear idea of your research topic right from the outset.

Whatever level you are researching and writing at, it might be useful to consider the following steps:

3.1 making the choice

You may not know or be unsure about what topic of research to choose. Making the choice about a topic for research is an important decision that will influence your postgraduate studies, perhaps your employment, as well as your future professional development. It is essential that you choose your topic carefully.

How would you go about choosing your topic? Start with your own ideas and insights. Many students develop a particular interest in a topic during their undergraduate studies, for example, in the works of canonical authors such as Federico García Lorca or film directors such as Jean-Luc Godard or Pedro Almodóvar. There are pros and cons attached to working on particular hub areas: on the one hand their critical corpus may be overwhelming whilst on the other, these topics may be precisely the subject specialisms that university departments wish to recruit lecturers in. Those students who have developed a strong interest in a topic in their BA or MA dissertation sometimes continue working on that. Others may be motivated by a personal interest related to, for instance, their national or sexual identity. Take time to make your choice.

Motivation is very important in order to maintain your drive throughout the process of your research and particularly when you are writing up. Some students fail to complete their research because they have lost interest or motivation in their topic. However, this fact can also be related to other pitfalls such as failing to manage your time efficiently. Evaluate carefully the reasons why you are thinking of choosing that particular topic. Whatever reason may motivate your choice of a topic, you will go through different stages to make your final decision.

What are your personal strengths?

If you understand yourself better and try to take advantage of your strengths, your research topic may emerge sooner. Your strength may lie more in textual analysis than in theory development. Knowing your strengths may make your research process smoother and faster. You might get better results.

  • Which of your strengths are worthy of exploitation? Why?
  • What background experience might you be able to draw upon?
  • Which research method plays to your skills or strengths? Interviewing or close text-based work, for example? 

What are your personal weaknesses?

It is equally important that you are aware of your weaknesses. If you are honest about gaps in your knowledge and skills, you will be able to identify your needs and do something positive about it sooner rather than later. For example, if you have a background in literary criticism, and you need to analyze a piece of visual culture, you can then seek advice from a qualified member of staff. Knowing your weaknesses will increase your self-awareness and help you move a step closer to a better decision.

  • Where are the gaps or limits in your skills or knowledge?
  • Do these rule out certain research topics?
  • Or can you, either independently or with help, fill a particular gap successfully during the early stages of your research?

What skills and knowledge do you have?

It is important that you think about the skills and knowledge you have gathered over the years either through formal qualifications or informal experience. If you think they are relevant for your postgraduate studies you may like to take them into account in choosing your topic and make that explicit in your application for a place or for funding.

  • What courses have you done in the past?
  • What languages do you speak? What is your level of proficiency?
  • What have been your past academic successes?
  • What skills have you acquired in your earlier studies or employment?
  • What has been your previous experience of research writing?

What is the purpose of your research? 

Your research may be for a PhD or an MA. There are time and word constraints attached to both. Your time and word allowance will influence the breadth and depth of your topic. Do you have any specific goals and motives in mind? Your motives and goals for doing post-graduate studies may influence your choice of topic. 

  • Are you doing an MA or PhD?
  • What is your aim in doing postgraduate studies?
  • How long will you be studying for?
  • Do you have any specific career or future personal goals in mind?

Making the choice

Through this process you should have identified your strengths, skills and knowledge as well as those areas with gaps. You can now make your initial choice and identify a potential topic. At this stage, it is crucial that you talk to your tutor or the director of graduate studies. Their advice will help you clarify your thoughts if, for example, the choice is difficult, or the potential approaches are numerous.

  • Will you continue with a topic you are already familiar with and take it to a higher level and explore it in more depth?
  • Will you continue with a topic you know while also learning and applying new skills?
  • Would you prefer to exploit a skill you already have and apply it to a totally new topic?
  • Will you have the time to learn a totally new skill or two and pursue a challenging new topic? 

3.2 getting to know your topic

You have made the choice and you should be closer to settling on a worthwhile and achievable research topic. However, how would you find out whether your topic is actually worthwhile and achievable? Bear in mind that a basic understanding of your chosen research area is essential both to answer this question and to develop criteria for testing the quality of your topic - even if you may feel that you do not have very much time at your disposal.

What do you know about your topic? By getting to know your topic you will begin to learn what your topic is about - its context and content. In this way you not only begin activating the thinking process about your choice of this specific topic but also contributing to the research process that will ultimately lead to your dissertation or thesis. If it is a PhD topic that you are deciding upon and you are currently studying for an MA, then you may wish to use an MA essay or the dissertations as a way of beginning some preliminary work on the topic. Even as an undergraduate you may be able to choose subjects that will help.

What do you know about your potential topic?

  • Have you previously studied this topic? Rate your knowledge.
  • How familiar are you with the terminology, concepts and issues?
  • How familiar are you with key authors, theories, paradigms?
  • Is your topic substantial enough for a paper, article, MA dissertation, PhD thesis?
  • What do you still need to do or explore in order to develop a basic or better understanding of your topic?

Have you started to carry out preliminary research?

If you have any time at your disposal, for example you have taken a gap year between BA and MA or MA and PhD, then you could begin to identify, access and consult some bibliographical resources. By doing preliminary research you will start reviewing the existing literature on your topic and related themes. Try to make a brief note of your findings.

By immersing yourself in the material, you start recognising terminology and authors that regularly appear, and discovering arguments related to your topic. You will begin to discover what your topic is all about and to identify different paths for future exploration as well as recognising issues which are over-researched.  Draw up an initial plan for your literature review. This saves time later. Consult your potential future supervisor for key texts.

  • What texts have you read to get an overview of your topic?
  • Which are the key journals in your area?
  • Have you identified the words and phrases that best describe your topic?
  • Are you alert to the concepts and terms (and their meanings) you encounter?
  • Which of these are worth searching as key-words?
  • What are the significant names associated with your topic?
  • Which are the important dates and events related to your topic?
  • Which are the related subjects that might be used when searching for articles and books?
  • Have you found too much or too little on an important aspect of your topic? How will you deal with this?

NB Your literature review will need to be continuous so that you remain aware of all the latest publications. In time you will be attending seminars and conferences and building up a network of critical (in many senses of the word!) colleagues who might like to comment on your topic/study. Get ready to run through your literature review again every so often to keep up-to-date!

Have you thought of the limitations of your topic?

Can you identify the main and related themes? Bear in mind that most topics are composites -they are made up of several themes which can also be studied and are also academically viable. For instance, if you thought about focusing on the works of a prolific author such as Camilo Castelo Branco you may consider limiting your topic by primary material, by theory, by theme, by approach, and so forth. It is essential to develop hierarchies around the topic of your choice. Through these you will determine the requirements of your main topic and related themes and start to improve your focus.

  • What are the (many) aspect(s) of your topic and the closely related themes?
  • What is interesting about the specific theme(s)? Why?
  • Which are the key themes (or areas) worth exploring?
  • What about content parameters?
  • Where are you going to draw the line around your topic?   

3.3 from topic to question

What is a research question? The research question is your object of study. It is a question, a problem worth basing your dissertation around. This is not always an easy thing to find. Certainly not at the outset, when you will be making decisions about something which is still relatively unfamiliar.

After a reasonable amount of time you should be able to explain in one (long) sentence the central question which your research addresses. In order to do this, you need to make the transition from a broad topic to specific focused research question(s). For example, focusing on how the Spanish films of the 1980s and 1990s mediate and represent the political climate of the time as the broad topic, research questions could examine how films deal with the dismantling of the ideology of the Francoist Regime ideology and with the extent to which there was a parallel transition in cinema representations of the family and gender/sexual identity.

You have started to understand your topic better, although there are lots of things that still puzzle you. This is a good sign that your topic has the necessary complexity. You begin to elaborate arguments and generate insights guided by a series of unfolding questions. From a number of possibilities, one idea gradually or suddenly emerges as the most promising one to frame and explore.

Identifying dilemmas, gaps....

Why do you need to identify dilemmas or gaps or problems? Your research question should posit a problem or a controversial issue, one that is still under debate or has not yet been pinpointed. Your work will need to be new and interesting. The question may be based on a hunch, an insight, a contradiction, a noted gap or flaw or unquestioned assumption in your subject area.

  • What would you like to investigate about your topic? Which aspects? Why?
  • Are there any problems or issues that strike you? Why?
  • Which are the unresolved dilemmas that you may have come across?
  • Which of these dilemmas / problems would be worth pursuing? Why?

Developing the question

Can you take an idea and distill it into a question? Develop filters (what?, so what?, why?, how?) so you will be able to turn your idea into a 'provisional' research question, a proposition or hypothesis that will give you a clearer focus. A question that will help you focus your research strategy. The question may lead you to discover, to explore, to explain, to describe.

If you are not ready yet, take the research question through the problems or gaps or dilemmas indicated above and generate some more ideas. The outcome may be new ideas or sub-questions to your original proposition. Use your imagination and your experience.

  • What would you like to demonstrate? Why?
  • How is your research going to be different from previous findings, i.e. in its specific approach, in the aspect(s) of the topic explored or in the theories applied?
  • In what way(s) does your question allow you to test different ideas?
  • How does your question allow you to make critical use of published sources?

NB Keep your question under review! You can expect your research question(s) to evolve and change during your study. Be prepared to change direction, or develop more than one question. You will learn as time goes on and improve your question at each point and turn. You will streamline your research, your ideas, your analyses, your evidence. Also your needs will change and your skills will develop.

The thesis statement

Have you thought of writing a potential answer to your research question? Although you are still working on a tentative or hypothetical proposal, writing a brief thesis or dissertation statement or a kind of possible answer to the research question might help you focus more. Also a thesis statement is the essential first step in writing your research proposal.

  • What is the controlling idea of your research question?
  • Have you considered the What, Why, How and So What of your research question?
  • Have you thought about the concepts, issues and contexts surrounding your topic?
  • What terminology must be understood?
  • What is the purpose of your research?
  • Why is it important?What are the short and/or long-term objectives?What is the focus of your research? Have you thought of a particular approach?
  • How is your research going to be carried out and achieved?
  • Which are the steps you intend to follow? What is the aim of each step?
  • What contribution to knowledge will your research make?

NB The transition from topic to question can be difficult. It may be useful to go through the above steps several times. Once you have identified the problems, developed a potential question and written your thesis statement, speak to your supervisor(s) for advice and comments. And be ready to run through this loop again if necessary!

3.4 evaluating the evidence

You will need sufficient evidence to support your question. What is your evidence? What primary and secondary material? Finding the evidence to start and finish your dissertation is critical. Evidence leads to an understanding of the problem(s), casts and puts parameters around the questions, leads to the definition of hypotheses or research questions and allows you to fill a space in the field.

The relationship between your research question and the evidence is ongoing and iterative. Here keep in mind that you are currently considering evidence to support your choice of question. What you do at this stage will also be determined by your practical circumstances - if you are preparing for final exams in which it is important to do well, then you will be able to spend far less time on this than if you are in the middle of a gap year. Later you will extend your search to look for the evidence in full. Be aware that you need to remain flexible. Your topic choice and framing of questions in the light of evidence found, evidence unobtainable, or evidence surprises, may change.

Always review evidence that could be used as counter-arguments to your main idea or investigation. Be aware of the data that can undermine your project. Try to anticipate answers to potential objections.


  • Have you considered the types of evidence you might use to support your topic and research question?
  • How are you going to identify the right type of evidence?
  • What sorts of primary materials? Texts? Films? Interviews? Photographs?
  • What secondary material might be useful or relevant? 
  • Have you identified any theories relevant to your topic?
  • How have you related these theories to your topic so far?
  • Do you think you may need to draw from more than one discipline?
  • Have you collected the right information to make an informed choice? 

Availability and Access

  • Is it possible to collect the evidence you have identified above? How will you gather this material?
  • What sources can or will you use?
  • Are there networks of colleagues, librarians or specialists you can ask for help and advice?
  • Do you have to search in another country?
  • Have you considered the pros and cons?Have you considered whether the resources and other materials are available, or still in print?
  • Are there any legal considerations for the acquisition of the material?
  • Have you earmarked evidence too precious to be used? 

Quality and relevance

  • How would you test the quality of your evidence? What sort of criteria do you need to develop?
  • Have you made a good match between topic and evidence? Do you have the right / relevant material?
  • Is the evidence you have identified reliable? Consistent? Valid? Not too biased?
  • Is the evidence you have in mind authoritative? Who has written or published it?
  • Have you made a decision about the amount you might need?

3.5 the (re)defining step

You will start with a broad definition of your topic. The topic will evolve and develop and, in time, take on a different shape. The definition of your topic / question is a flexible and ongoing process. What do you need to keep in mind? Above all, the need to revisit or even revise your topic's focus when necessary!

You might be ready now to settle on the topic of your choice. To define your topic means to identify content and questions and to start putting limits around your topic. The definition of your topic is essential to formulating a research strategy. This strategy will help you focus your bibliographical search (or search for other kinds of non-printed material) to find the relevant material. It will help you to plan and progress.

You are now at the (re)defining stage.  It is important to take a flexible approach to the definition so that it can take shape as you go along -widening the process of knowledge while narrowing your focus to produce a manageable, worthwhile thesis.

What is the overall focus of your topic and research question(s)?

  • What are you looking at? What is your proposed content?
  • What are your main arguments, concepts or issues?
  • What are the limits you have imposed on your research in terms of timescale, culture, discipline or geography?
  • What is the context you are considering?
  • Who are the key thinkers and therefore theories, perspectives or methods you are including or excluding?

What is the scope you are considering?

  • How will your topic differ from other research and findings?
  • How broad is your topic?
  • How is your topic similar to other studies?
  • Does your topic need to be broadened? If so, how would you broaden your topic?
  • Does your topic need to be narrowed? If so, how would you narrow your topic?
  • Is the scope reasonable given your time and word constraints?

NB You may be reasonably happy with the focus and scope of your research proposal and wish to take it forward - go for it! Talk to your supervisor(s) if you feel you may need to spend more time getting the balance right or if you have serious doubts about the scope and focus of your topic or question(s). Perhaps you may need to re-evaluate your question or even topic. Do talk to your supervisor(s) whatever conclusion you come to.

3.6 your research strategy

The research process will take you from evidence to topic and back to evidence again many times. It will be about compromise and default as much as design and tactics at times. It must be clear, efficient, do-able.  You will need to think about and develop a research strategy, a plan.

It is important to anticipate difficulties and exploit the positive in order to counteract risks. Are you already aware of any risks? For example, the risk of pursuing a piece of work that is too demanding, and so setting yourself too large a task and risking not finishing. The risk of pursuing a piece of work that is too simplistic and might not meet examination requirements. The risk of duplication and so insufficient originality and quality. Draft a plan and then consult your supervisor(s) for comments.


  • Have you sketched a proposal or an outline detailing your research project and plans?
  • What is your topic of choice?
  • What is your main hypothesis or controlling idea?
  • What are the sub-themes and sub-questions that you intend to explore?
  • What is the context of your thesis? Major authors and pieces of work?
  • What might be the original or worthwhile contribution of your studies to this context? 


  • Have you considered drawing up an outline of how you might go about carrying out your research? The theories, paradigms and evidence you might use? The sources that you might consult? The content and context of your research? The methods you will employ in gathering, analysing or theorizing for your research?
  • Do you have a good idea of the resources open to you?
  • Have you identified the opportunities open to you? Funding, collection of evidence abroad, conferences or courses you can attend to learn and develop? A supervisor (or lecturer) with extensive knowledge and expertise in certain topics?


As you draft your research proposals and plans, it may be sensible to also draw up a time table for your research. This will help you see how realistic your plans for your proposal actually are (see managing your time). You may like to divide your research into a number of phases and assign a time allowance to each. 


Have you included a brief note in your research plan regarding your locations - this could be your location of study, or for gathering evidence or a country abroad where you need to develop your research? Have you considered how this might affect your timescales?

4 applying for grants

Applying for grants is an integral part of applying for a PhD course or for a Master's course leading to a PhD. There are various different types of grant, from studentships that pay for fees and provide maintenance, to travel and conference awards, as well as hardship funds. Getting a grant not only makes life much easier from a financial point of view but is also a significant morale booster and impressive on your CV. If you do not succeed in getting funding and intend to support yourself, e.g. by a bank loan, then you need to weigh up the pros and cons of studying part-time or full-time. Do discuss this with your supervisor.

4.1 Identifying funding bodies

The first problem is actually to find out which grants are available and from whom. Broadly speaking there are three categories of awards:

Grants open to everyone resident in the UK
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (the AHRC) should be your first stop in applying for grants. They are the main organizing and funding body for research in the Humanities in the UK, and also the most prestigious award to have on your CV. They run a doctoral competition to provide fees and maintenance for both full and part-time doctoral students. Of the 5500 applications for postgraduate awards they receive each year (including MAs), about a third are successful (1800). To be eligible for a full award. A full doctoral award covers both the cost of tuition fees, and a maintenance grant. To be eligible for a full award, you must show that you have a relevant connection with the UK, usually through residence. A fees-only award provides payment of tuition fees, but not a maintenance grant. To be eligible for a fees-only award, you must have been ordinarily resident in the EU for the three years immediately preceding the start of the academic year in which your award will commence. 

Grants linked to a particular university
Many universities and departments offer studentships. These studentships are specifically for courses at that university. If you know where you want to apply, you should check the website or telephone the department to see whether the department or university that you are interested in offers any and whether you are eligible to compete for them. They are also advertised when they come up and you can find them on the

  • web pages of the academic institutions
  • Graduate School/Admissions Office/International Office/Finance Office of the academic institutions
  • The Guardian (Tuesdays)
  • The THES (Times Higher Education Supplement on Fridays)
  • postgraduate fairs organized by an individual university or a consortium of universities
  • books

Most studentship applications are made at the same time as applying for a course. You might be asked in the course application form whether you want to be considered for a studentship or not. Make sure you tick the relevant box and take advantage of this automatic inclusion in the selection process. Most studentships require that you simultaneously apply for grants open to everyone. Only if you fail to get one of these will you then get a studentship. 

Grants for EU/international students
This type of grant is only available to EU or International students. Home/UK students are not eligible. While still in the country of origin you can try to find out what scholarships are available for studying abroad. Usually there is a National Research Centre or a State Scholarship Foundation that administers scholarships.

The British government also offers scholarships to EU and International students for studying at a British academic institution. You can apply before coming to the UK in some of these cases; for others you may have to prove residence. Make sure you are clear about the parameters of your grant-giving body. Your local office of the British Council may also be approached in person for guidance on awards, details of recruitment fairs in your area and upcoming visits by representatives of UK universities. 

List of grant-giving bodies and search engines
Here is a by no means exhaustive list of grant-giving bodies or search engines helping you to find grants:

4.2 Alternative finance

There are various different sorts of grants/awards/studentships and bursaries available (please note that institutions will use different terms to cover widely different funding sources). Although all offer some financial aid, they differ in the amount of money, duration and conditions of issue. Some bursaries may cover manintenance funds of £ 10000 and more, plus fees. Other bursaries may be a one-off payment of £ 500.

It is important to apply for a grant that suits your financial needs. Although any award is helpful, it may not cover the entire amount. Therefore, in some cases, you may need to apply for a combination of scholarships, or combine different sources of funding:

  • Assistantships
    They offer a salary in return for work with an upper limit on hours per year. Duties may include teaching, research or administrative tasks. It is worth checking whether the institution has proper training provision in place to help you carry out such work.
  • Study abroad grants
    These awards enable advanced study or research to be held anywhere in the world as part of a degree tenable at a UK university. When you apply for these, don't forget to cover estimated travel costs, overnight stays, costs of photocopying etc: they all mount up. You need, as a rule, to estimate costs according to the cheapest available travel means and hotels etc, and give detailed costings, to highlight in your application how you have arrived at costs and to mention where you have looked.
  • Travel grants
    These are grants that can be used for conference trips and occasionally field-working too. Check the British Academy website for these types of grants.
  • Awards
    These are usually a one-off payment on a fairly small scale.
  • Career Development Loans (CDLs)
    These are being offered by four banks as a joint scheme with central government. The loan covers either one or two academic years of a course and is designed to help students with their tuition fees. The criteria and information required by the banks is the same, but conditions such as interest rates differ between them. The scheme is open to all students. Career Development Loans
  • EU funding
    EU funding is limited but a good starting point is:
  • Hardship/Access funds
    A university's Hardship Fund is made up of money allocated by the Government to the university to help those students who would otherwise find it difficult to enter or remain in higher education. The fund is available to full-time or part-time home students. European students with 'migrant worker' status are also eligible. Small grants are given to postgraduate students to assist with housing, childcare, and travel costs, costs associated with disability, and exceptional financial difficulties.
  • Hardship loans
    More or less allocated on the same conditions as Hardship funds; however, they are repayable.
  • Getting a job
    This might not be what every prospective student wishes to hear but reality bites. If you have been unsuccessful with your grant applications you might need to consider financing your PhD through working.

4.3 Early planning

The search for a grant must begin at least one year before the envisaged year of studies. Early planning and careful organization help to maximise the chances of a successful application. The planner below may help you do just that. Here are the documents you may have to prepare for your funding application:

  • Application form: most often application forms are provided to applicants by post. Some of them are also available electronically or even allow for an electronic submission.
  • Letters of recommendation: most often two recommendation letters are requested. Make sure that you request them well in advance from your tutors and also make clear to them whether they need to send them directly to the funding bodies or not.
  • Transcripts of qualifications: make photocopies of all your degrees and certificates. Translate them if obtained in another country/language and certify them (e.g. the local British Council can do this job -otherwise request the Hague stamp from local authorities. Be aware that this is a costly enterprise!).
  • Research proposal/outline
  • CV: there is no single way to write your CV. However, in all cases you must highlight your qualifications and strong points. Make sure your layout is clear, structured and eye-catching.
  • Covering letter: this is the letter which accompanies an application of any sort (course, job or scholarship application). It is very useful because it introduces you and your application, and more importantly because it lists the documents attached. It functions as a navigator to what is included in the envelope you send. 
  • Financial statement: on some occasions for being awarded a scholarship one of the defining criteria is the financial situation of the applicant in which case the applicant must provide the funding body with a financial statement. The statements should be honest and concrete.
  • Interview

The more scholarships you apply for the greater the chances of getting one. However, a big number of applications makes difficult to track the progress of your application. The planner below might be of some help:

Last update:

Name of Scholarship

Value of Award

Date of submission

Notification Date

Combinable  with other grants?



4.4 Conditions attached to grants

Most grant-giving bodies do not tie any special conditions to grants, other than completing the work within a given period. However, some of the conditions below are common practice:

  • acknowledgment: the recipient of the scholarship is expected to acknowledge the financial aid received.
  • return to the country of origin:the recipient -especially in the case of EU or International students- may be obliged to return to her/his country of origin upon the completion of her/his studies. This clause may be found when the scholarship is issued by a National Research Centre which has vested interests in seeing its scholars returning to their country of origin.
  • time limitations
    The grant holder may be restricted with regard to the completion of her/his studies (e.g. s/he cannot exceed the completion period of studies as the latter is prescribed by the her/his course).

4.5 Eligibility criteria

Grants have different eligibility criteria. Make sure that you are eligible before starting. Given that applications take time -and in some occasions money too (e.g.. translation costs, postage, purchase of stationary, etc.)- to complete, it is important to check thoroughly whether you fit the profile or not. The most common criteria are the following - however many more may apply to grants linked to a particular institution:

  • academic merit
  • financial need
  • nationality
  • age group
  • duration and continuity of residence