Deciding to start a PhD is alternately exciting and terrifying, especially if you need a scholarship to afford to study. In 2012, I decided to do my PhD. I wrote an application, put together my support documents for Honours 1 equivalency (at 83% I was a few points short of a greatly desired First), and crossed my fingers hard.
I was rejected.
Well, not entirely. Accepted into the PhD program but not awarded a living allowance scholarship. I knew financially and practically I couldn’t accept the offer. My tendency to prioritise paid work would mean research wouldn’t get the time it needed and would just end up feeling guilty and stressed. I backburner-ed study, but kept writing articles and conference papers to build my research track record.
Fast forward to January 2017. After applying to four PhD programs around Australia, I was offered places in all four programs and three scholarship offers. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. In this process I learnt a lot about PhD applications, and want to share some of my findings.
The most important things I learnt was how closely the PhD application process resembles a job hunt. This is particularly evident in how much personal connections count.
I don’t think it coincidental that the three institutions that offered me a scholarship were the three institutions where I knew or met people face-to-face. I was successful at QUT, where I did my undergraduate and honours studies and had been tutoring consistently for the last 5 years. I was accepted at Griffith, where I met with potential supervisors prior to submitting my application, a connection which grew out of chatting at a conference. Finally, I was accepted at University of Melbourne, where I approached a former honours supervisor who had changed institutions as a potential PhD supervisor, and I decided to fly down to meet the interview panel, rather than Skype in (I do not do good Skype). My unsuccessful scholarship application was with RMIT, with whom I only had email contact.
The value of personal connections was made clear in the post-mortem discussions, in which potential supervisors discussed defending my research project in the committee meetings in which students were ranked and scholarships were decided. Having someone go in to bat for you here is important. This means building rapport and making sure they really understand your project and its value is critical. Face-to-face chats are also helpful for information on an institution’s areas of growth to align with or allude to in the application. Don’t just rely on the university website for information about things like research clusters; I found that these are often out of date.
Obviously, the application itself has to be strong, both in content and structure. While the project content is up to you, I highly recommend asking friends or potential supervisors for examples of successful applications to get a sense of tone, formatting, and detail. From the examples I was given I took the idea to diagram my research plan timeline, which made it clear and visually interesting, and include potential research outputs, which I put on the timeline. For example, I suggested I would present my research plan at a national conference shortly after confirmation, and pitch a contextualising chapter as an article to a respected journal 6 months later. This evidenced I knew the field, and how I could engage with it.
Applying to four institutions meant that each application I wrote was stronger than the last. Just like a job’s selection criteria, each university will ask for different information in its proposal. I wrote these concurrently, so was able to transpose some of the unrequested information into the different applications which gave each one more depth. Further, having to rearticulate the same idea four different ways prompted me to drill down into the specifics of the project and think about it from multiple perspectives; this was very helpful in solidifying ideas and identifying gaps in my planning.
How institutions rank applications varies and is very opaque, relying on complex scoring calculations. Understanding the intricacies of this isn’t vital, but knowing what the scholarship committee look at might be. Does the institution focus more on alignment with supervisory team, or the university vision? How do they weigh publications or professional experience? How much attention is paid to previous research projects, or creative works? Knowing this allows you to tailor your proposal and support documents to the institution’s scoring model.
Finding the scoring criteria can be tricky, so getting it directly from potential supervisors or the HDR support team might be the best bet. If they don’t want to give it to you try searching the bowels of the net using some permutation of “phd scholarship criteria/ranking/scoring institution name”. I think establishing institution alignment was helpful to my success. In framing my research, I discussed not only the global changes and national and international conversations in my field the study was responding to, but how it connected to the university vision and aims. While only one sentence of my 2-page application, I also explicitly discussed the research’s connection and potential value to undergraduate courses and discipline pedagogy, for which I extensively researched course details in the university handbook.
Treating the PhD application process like a job hunt really worked well for me. If you fail in the first application and don’t have the capacity to study without scholarship I encourage everyone to try again another year. In 2012 it was suggested that I could start my PhD and reapply for scholarship after confirmation. I hesitated when others at the institution warned that a scholarship in this scenario was unlikely: advice subsequently borne out by friend’s experiences across several universities, although this might not be the case everywhere.
The intervening years since my first application have allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I now have a far stronger topic, more experience writing and researching to draw on, and the emotional resilience to deal with the PhD journey. That early rejection was the best thing that could have happened.
Author Bio: Madeline Taylor is a PhD candidate at Victoria College of Arts at the University of Melbourne.