How to get into a PhD program



Imagine my constant surprise, seven years later, at how much still remains unsaid about doing a thesis – even about the basics, such as how to get into a PhD program. Consider this letter which, eerily, happened to land in my inbox just as I was preparing my pitch for prospective students for ANU Open Day this coming weekend.

Getting into a PhD program can be very complicated. I’d value regular readers sharing their stories in the comments – I think think this is a good example of where newbies can learn a lot from existing students’ experiences… Here’s the letter I received.

Hi Inger,

Long-time reader, first time contacting you. I am just getting my bits and bobs finalised to apply for entry into a PhD at (an Australian University) as a mature-ish age (36) student.  I have found the application process in itself daunting!  I think it’s the first test.  I wonder whether you would consider a post about the entry requirements/proposal as I have found your site invaluable even though I’m yet to enrol!

The application form itself, is entirely geared towards students coming straight through without having had a career first, which is quite off-putting for those of us who undertook an undergrad years ago without concern of the GPA. I am assuming many like me, have no access to university library resources (given we’re out in the non-academic workforce) and whilst potential supervisors are great, they can’t be relied upon for doing all the groundwork.

There’s not a lot of guidance about what the university expects this proposal to look like, how complete it is, how much weight is placed on it when considering your application, how much you’re held to it over the candidature etc. For example I am assuming my approach to evolve once I’ve been able to undertake a literature review, which I can only do once I’ve gained entry!

Thanks in advance,
Potential PhD student.

This is what I wrote back:

Dear Potential,

First I want to validate your experience by saying you are not alone. For those coming straight from an undergraduate, masters or honours degree, the process can be quite straightforward. However, the older you get, the harder it seems to be. Given that the average age on entry to a PhD in Australia is 32, you’d think that universities would take this into account, but sadly many don’t.

I’ve helped several friends and relatives through the process of getting into a research degree and every time the process was complicated, protracted and confusing. Most people need a mountain guide to the academic Himalayas …  Every year at ANU Open Day I distill this advice into a presentation for prospective students. This presentation doesn’t isn’t just for prospective ANU students, it’s advice I’d give anyone trying to get into an Australian University. The advice may also have relevance for other places around the world (your mileage may vary of course).

Know thy supervisor(s)

Reading between the lines I assume you already have a supervisor in mind. That’s good. The supervisor is the first and most important piece of the puzzle. Finding a supervisor that is interested in your project and willing to give you the support you need is vital – and challenging.

Some people, like me, don’t actually want too much supervision. They have a clear idea of what they want to do and the skills to achieve it. To people like this, a supervisor is a cheer squad. Look for someone who is good with pom poms and happy to let you have your way. I’ve observed in my ten years of being a research educator that highly experienced, successful researchers are often a good fit for your more independent student. They have less time to commit, but can share valuable networks and resources.

Other people need a supervisor willing to give them hands on support. A student like this needs a lot of time from a supervisor – so they need someone who wants to ride shotgun, not sit in the back seat. In my experience, early career researchers are often better at playing this role. Early career academics tend to be in touch with the latest ideas and keen to form relationships and further their career (a good early career researcher knows that students are an excellent way to extend a professional network). Importantly, early career researchers might have large teaching loads, but they likely to have less of the tedious management responsibilities that mid to late career academics have to deal with.

The best idea, of course, is to have one of each type of supervisor on your panel – that way you have the benefit of freshness and experience.

Use your local public libraries

Access to papers and journal articles that are behind paywalls is deeply frustrating. There are, however, a number of ways around this problem.

Google scholar is a good all round search engine you can access from home. It doesn’t have everything, but it’s good enough for your purposes. Have a good hunt through it for a couple of hours and make a list of papers to follow up (keep an electronic record in something like Evernote – writing down all the details is very tedious and you might miss a comma or date that is import).

Your next step is to go to an actual physical library (I know, shocking!). All university libraries will have public access terminals, which will enable you to search and download a range of academic papers, depending on what they have in their collection. Don’t forget to hit the little ‘cited by’ button at the end of anything interesting, I’ve highlighted the button in the image below:


Citation searches are the most powerful weapon in your literature review arsenal. If you want to learn more about citation searches, you’re in the right place. Libraries are full of helpful librarians, who can guide you further into the dark arts of specialist databases. I’ve never yet had one of these helpful creatures ask me for a student card before helping me – but if they do, explain your situation as a prospective PhD student of the university. I’m sure this will be enough to get them to help you. A half hour with a great librarian can save you SO much time.

Download these papers to take home. I’d say start how you mean to go on and download a reference manager to start storing your papers in. For a discussion of the different types to use, you could look at my earlier post “Endnote vs… well, everything else”

The role, shape and purpose of the proposal

The very best way to get a sense of what is expected in a research proposal is to look at some. Unfortunately, they are not the sort of documents that people tend to make public. In the spirit of openness, this is the proposal I submitted which helped me gain entry to the PhD program at the University of Melbourne.

There are two things to note about this document:

  1. Re-reading it, 10 years later, I feel surprised they let me in
  2. I forgot that I even proposed that topic. I ended up doing a PhD about hand gestures in the classroom

This tells you two things: it might not actually matter that much in the selection process and it doesn’t necessarily lock you into anything. This is not the case in all disciplines, especially the sciences which tend to have funding in place for particular problems. But it does tell you that a good effort, which addresses all the basic categories, might be sufficient (I can’t say for sure, as departments can vary so much).

To be honest with you, the process is much more likely to be driven by numbers than the proposal. This is a problem for you if you don’t have the numbers.

If you are close to getting in on the numbers, having an academic publishing record – even if it’s only one paper – can help you over the line. A publishing record is probably a 5% advantage in getting a scholarship under most schemes (but that’s a whole other post for another time). References from academics who can vouch for your competence can do wonders – if they are the right people (I had one from a Dean of Higher Degree by Research which was like a magic spell).

Some people (like myself) have bad numbers but are still good candidates. This can be for a variety of reasons. You might have had periods where you were a ‘bad student’ and didn’t get great GPAs. Or you might have done a degree which is now defunct and no-one can work out equivalence. There are a number of ways around this problem, but it can be tricky and you will probably need some insider help. Sometimes it just takes a letter from the supervisor explaining the situation, or you can try enrolling in a ‘lower degree’ with the intention to apply for a transfer to a PhD.

Be careful – not all masters degrees in Australia are considered equal. Make sure the one you choose has a substantial research component. I ended up taking the MPhil to PhD route as, despite being awarded honours for my GPA, my overall undergraduate transcript was woeful (I was very distracted by beer and boys in my early twenties ok?). In the end I decided to finish the Masters and then apply for a PhD at another university. The road can be long for some of us! I wish you luck on your journey.

I’d be really keen to hear from regular readers – what did you learn about the process that you think might help Potential with her problem? I’d like to hear more about the process in other countries too – no doubt future readers hitting this post will be looking for different answers.