CAREER NUGGET: Tips for making PG study applications

Read on for some insider tips from a selection of Academics regarding making applications for postgraduate study…


What makes an application stand out in a good way?

SPECIFICITY – a tight, full, direct and knowledgeable approach showing understanding of the details and focus of the roll and the nature and ethos or emphasis of the organisation. Specificity, in a cover letter, application statement, competency questions and even a CV is easy to spot and always impresses. Saying things that are exact, detailed, convincing and really make the match between the applicant and the role/opportunity is what stands out. Basically, a great application makes me nod, repeatedly, until I pause and see something that makes me slightly more impressed than standard ‘solid’ responses. A bit of personality, a clear sense of effort, and a great deal of specificity are what an application stand out in a good way. For PG study, applicants need to sound like they intellectually know what it is they are applying for and how they fit, including how they will grow and develop through the course. MAs and PhDs are all very different – even if they looks similar at first glance – and understanding what it is that specifically appeals to you will mean that you can be specific on your application about what it is you want to gain and how you fit.

What makes an application stand out in a bad way?
LOTS and LOTS of things. Anything casual, that looks lazy or rushed – like a bad essay really. For me cliches always strike a bum note. They jump out, ring as false and all-too-ready-made. Cliches make it seem as if the applicant hasn’t found their own voice, or can’t quite represent themselves in their own voice yet. Mistakes, generalities, vague responses, unsubstantiated claims and other ways of filling up a space without conveying information, fact, and a sense of the fit needed all stand out and hurt an application. Confidence expressed through claims without support aren’t useful either.

Tops tips for applying?
(e.g. apply in Autumn to be at the top of the pile? Contact the department first to discuss your research interests and show you’re keen?)…..

For most study opportunities I would suspect that its better to submit strong, clear and carefully selected applications than to be the very first to apply. For PG study there is a late Autumn to early Spring flurry and its good to think about applications in this period and get to know the courses and opportunities you want to move towards before rushing to apply. Applying in good time though is always best. Always speak to academics, staff and other students close to the area you are thinking of taking up – discuss your research interests, ask for honest responses, especially from staff, and try to develop your approach so that want you submit wasn’t the very first effort you made.


For PhDs…
– advice on how/when to research opportunities
Start early – good institutions close applications for open funding (you choose the topic) in Jan / Feb (for October start), so think about trying to find a suitable supervisor Sept onwards. Make contact early to give you enough time to write a good research proposal with them. tends to have specific funded projects – be sure the project really interests you before applying (don’t be swayed by the funding: if you are not 100% committed to your topic you will really struggle when you hit inevitable hard times during your PhD).
– advice on when to apply
See above
– how to approach potential PhD supervisors
Write a short email introducing yourself briefly, your main area of interest and ask if they are looking to take any students on and if there is any funding available. If they are interested, then write in more detail about your ideas (don’t waste your and their time with a lengthy starting email – they may not be taking on students that year). Use personal contacts – ask faculty in your dept in the area you are interested to recommend potential supervisors (and any they would advise avoiding!)
– how to pitch a CV and/or personal statement
Make your CV relevant to a PhD (sell your academic ability and research experience and skills – make this information easy to find and digest) – make sure any publications, academic prizes, research experience (voluntary or paid) and any research projects (UG or masters) feature prominently.


Quick responses in-line below (though I deal exclusively with applications for PhDs):

What makes an application stand out in a good way?
Knowledge of the course and main subjects to be covered, relevant experience clearly articulated, knowledge of the course leader/supervisor’s own experience/research, coherent and clearly expressed aims (for research project or participation in the course).

What makes an application stand out in a bad way?
A sense that the candidate is more concerned with telling you what they already know than what they want to learn, overblown/self-congratulatory descriptions of their experience, lack of knowledge of the course, incoherent aims for research or participation.

Tops tips for applying?
(e.g. apply in Autumn to be at the top of the pile? Contact the department first to discuss your research interests and show you’re keen?)…..
Contact department/supervisor first, with a draft proposal (having already read up on course etc – don’t contact to ask questions answered in course/departmental webpages), asking a few simple questions for feedback. Arrange a short meeting if possible. Don’t leave it late but no need to rush to apply very early in my experience.


For PhD:

1. Make the first inquiry e-mail short (max two paras) AND include a cv
2. Proof read the e-mail. If it is full of typos it goes straight in the bin. That includes the use of capital letters!

For MSc & PhD:

1. Feel free to ask questions but not too many in the first instance. You can go on to ask more if we are interested in you and establish a dialogue.

For MSc:

1. Be considerate to your referees. It may seem like a good idea to you to apply for lots of MScs but if you keep asking the same person for refs for your multiple applications they will soon get fed up with you. You can after all only do one MSc so do the important thinking and research about what you want to do BEFORE you apply!


What makes an application stand out in a good way?
A sense that the person has thought about their proposal in a serious way – how their previous study/experience has prepared them for the coherent project being proposed and how the latter will prepare them for whatever it is they want to do next. There needs to be a trajectory which is to do with that person, that project, and that place/programme. Also, precision – giving specific examples and being clear about timetables.

What makes an application stand out in a bad way?
Sort of the mirror image of the above – Obviously proof-read, you don’t need me to tell you that one! There’s no point giving busy assessors a reason to discard your application without considering it deeply, and nothing creates a bad impression like poor attention to detail. It looks lazy. Also long-windedness. Life is short, people are busy. Don’t make it too long, if there’s no word limit (unusual) and don’t say in two sentences what you can say in one.

Tops tips for applying?
(e.g. apply in Autumn to be at the top of the pile? Contact the department first to discuss your research interests and show you’re keen?)…..
I would say definitely the latter, especially if its a research degree – in fact, it will seem odd if you don’t, in that instance. I don’t honestly know whether the timing makes a difference for history, I suspect not, but I could be wrong. Top tip is probably to read the instructions – if the application materials give you an outline of what the department is looking for in the application, definitely pay attention to that. Actually, joint-first is probably also to share drafts of your application with somebody senior who has experience of reading these things, either a supervisor or the person to whom you’re talking in the prospective department. Or both.


I’d say that the best applications are succinct, explain why you want to do the course (do you have a long term idea of what you want to do that this fits into or is it something you are fascinated by?), and, especially if you might be a borderline case explain either what extra experience you have or what factors influenced you not quite getting the grades.

Mostly we look for student who have a reason to do our course (rather than any other) and have a 2.1 (or will get a 2.1 if we give them a conditional offer). We are put off by candidates who apply for a raft of very different courses, and we expect them to particularly be interested in our specific course. We might occasionally accept a narrow miss grades wise if for example our Masters course is all based on coursework and they can demonstrate that it was their exam results (nerves in exams) which let them down ie they are likely to do better at masters level. If you get a 2.1 conditional offer and only just miss a 2.1 with a reason do get in touch with the Master director – if they are persuaded you are a good candidate they may make a case for you to be accepted anyway – certainly its worth a go (and most people wouldn’t try).

Its worth picking good referees and telling them a few useful things about yourself if they don’t know much about you when you ask them.


for doing a PhD abroad:
Most European countries will only accept PhD candidates with a Masters degree, not with a Bachelor. US institutions will accept Bachelors, but here the PhD takes 5-7 years rather than the 3-4 years typical for Europe.

Other tips:
Apply for several positions/programs, do not stake your bets on a single application. But when it comes to interviews/offers play it openly, all parties appreciate that it is a competitive process, and all they ask for is honesty when it comes to accepting/declining offers.


Don’t include filler quotes.
Put something of your personality in it- explain your motivations.
Don’t be afraid to include personal info.
Give a narrative.
Don’t be boring!
Being to safe is bad and making it very official sounding. It shouldn’t sound too corporate.
Get it proof read, ideally by an academic and/or Careers.