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Applying to carry out doctoral research: some practical tips

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 17 Jan 2024, 14:37

I was recently contacted by potential PhD (and EdD) candidates who were expressing an interest in carrying out doctoral research within the university. What follows is a short article which pulls together the different links that have been shared with me be one of our postgraduate admissions tutors. It is important to note that these notes have a computing (and education) feel, since these reflect my research interests. This said, much of the advice shared here is quite generic, and could apply to different schools and universities.

This blog sits alongside a number of other blogs I have written about doctoral level research. If this topic is unfamiliar to you, you might be interested in reading the following summary: Doctoral research: a short introduction

Consider this post to be a combination of questions that you must ask, and things that you need to do. There is, of course, a bit of overlap between the two.

Consider your interests

There are a couple of really important ‘starter’ questions, which are: what do you want to do research into? And why do you want to do doctoral level research? An important point to bear in mind is that doctoral research requires considerable amounts of time, energy and money. 

A doctorate is, essentially, a formal recognition of your ability to carry out original research, and be able to make a contribution an academic debate on the subject. Passion is important: you must be passionate about your interest, since it will take up (as mentioned) time, energy and money.

Consider your experience

As well as passion, prior academic experience is important. Here is an excerpt from some guidance shared on the School of Computing and Communication's website: 'applications will be considered from students with, or expecting to gain, a first degree in any of a wide range of disciplines including computing, information systems, data science, mathematics or similar disciplines at first or upper second class level'. Put another way, a postgraduate degree isn't essential, but a good undergraduate degree is. International students should also be aware of an English language requirement.

It is also important to ask the question: "what do I know about the subject I want to carry out research into?" 

Although 4 years of determined research sounds like a lot of time, there will be only a limited amount of time available to learn about new topics and subjects. A lot of the time you spend will be spent reading, writing, engaging in academic communities, learning about research methods, dealing with ethics, and carrying out your actual research. If you would like to do some research into, for example, ethics and artificial intelligence, it is important that you know something about ethics and artificial intelligence. 

Make sure you have a good level of familiarity with your topic before making an application. 

Consider funding

Let’s say you are committed to the idea. The next question is: how are you going to do it? A fundamental question to ask is: are you going to do it part-time or full time. A related question is: where is your money for fees going to come from? If you’re hoping to study full time, you might be able to get a scholarship, either through a university (the OU’s School of Computing and Communications currently has one doctoral scholarship per year), from industry, or from scholarship providers. 

If you’re a part time candidate, you need to pay an annual fee, which covers the cost of administration, access to university systems, access to an academic community, and supervision meetings. More information about the fees is available through the OU research degrees fees and funding page.

At the time of writing, in the UK it is possible to get something called a Doctoral Loan. Do bear in mind that these loans have quite a high interest rate.

Consider your time

If you’re committing to doing it full time, you might be able to gain a little extra money by doing some teaching (or demonstrating) on the side, but don’t expect to be able to commit too many hours to a part time job. A full time doctorate will take at least 3 years.

If you are carrying out research part-time, you will be committing something like 17.5 hours per week to your study. A part-time doctorate will take anything between 4 and 6 years, depending on what it is. (An EdD might take slightly less time than a disciplinary doctorate).

Look for an academic community

Let’s assume you know what you want to research, and you know why you want to do it, and you’re happy with how much time it takes, all this leads to the question: where would you like to do your doctorate?

You might know of a university that has a good reputation, or you might know of some people who are working in a particular field. The choice of where you go may well be guided by your own research. You might, for example, find out whether there are academics who have published articles that reflect your own research interests. 

Another thought is: why not approach current doctoral students, to ask them about their experiences? You could do this by asking an admissions tutor whether they might be able to help Whilst doctoral research can be quite a solitary activity (depending on the subject, of course), research can take place within an academic community. Knowing more about that academic community can be useful. 

The OU School of Computing and Communications tries to make it easy for prospective doctoral researchers by sharing a list of potential research projects.

Review the guidance

Let’s say you have chosen a university, and have chosen a school, academic, or academic community you would like to join. What are the next steps? It is now time to gather up as much information you can about how to find your way through the administration. Don’t apply just yet; just gather up information.

Here the School of Computing and Communication's application page which explains how to apply.

Candidates need to submit a form, which contains a research proposal (I’ll come onto what this means in a bit). To help candidates, there is some guidance about how to write a research proposal.

If you’re considering doing an EdD (which is at the same level as a doctorate), the OU WELS faculty offers some useful background information about the EdD doctoral programme. This site also shares some detailed information about the EdD application processTo help to prepare an EdD research proposal, the OU has prepared a free OpenLearn resource, Writing your Research Proposal that may be useful.  This resource may well be useful for candidates preparing a disciplinary (PhD) proposal.

Write down your research questions

It is important that your research proposal is as clear as possible. A big tip is: make sure that you write down some clear research questions. What are you going to be doing research into? The more specific they are in terms of what they are asking, and in what context they relate to, the clearer they are. Present them in the form RQ1, RQ2 etc. Do, break them down into sub-questions if you need to, i.e. RQ1.1, RQ1.2. They don’t have to be perfect at this point, but you need to give your potential supervisor the idea that you’re not going to be asking impossible or unrealistic questions. Over time, and during the supervision process, your questions will become refined.

Also, start to think about how you might answer these. Do you have any ideas?

If it looks like your question might need a team of researchers, and require a hefty travel budget, you might want to rethink your questions. A doctorate is all about showing what you can do. This said, in some cases you might be working alongside others who might help you.

In the earlier section, two different types of doctorate were mentioned: a PhD and an EdD. An EdD is known as a professional doctorate, and they typically relate to research carried out within a specific context, such as education, or health and social care. If your research questions touch on the topic of education, you might want to have a good look at the EdD. On the other hand, if your research questions address an important theme within an academic subject, it is likely that the disciplinary doctorate is more appropriate.

Talk to some academics

You have chosen your university, and maybe even read through the profiles of one or more academics. You have now sketched out an idea of series of connected research questions. With all this prep work completed, it’s time to share your research question, to test it out. Speaking with others will enable you to test your understanding, and also to determine whether what you have in mind is sensible.

Send an email to a potential supervisor, sharing your research questions. Since you'll want to impress them, do consider sharing evidence of your reading (as well as your enthusiasm). They will be much more disposed to your research project idea if you come across as being reasonably well formed. Ask to have an informal discussion with them. It is also okay to be cheeky: ask them questions about funding, and whether they have capacity to help you with your research aims and ambitions. 

The final step: make that submission

In some situations, writing a research proposal can become a collaborative process between a candidate and a supervisor. Here are some practical tips with writing a proposal:

  • Make sure you have a compelling and interesting title which relates to your research.
  • Make sure yous research questions are clear.
  • If there is a word count, don’t go over it.
  • Ensure your submission is as readable as possible. A useful tip is: if you’re thinking of using a long word, would smaller words be just as good?
  • Get one of your friends to proofread your submission. Can they understand it?
  • Be aware of the submission deadline; sometimes there is a submission window. If you submit something outside of a window, or outside of a deadline, your proposal may not be considered, and you might have to wait for another year.

The exact processes will differ between institutions. In the OU School of Computing and Communication, your proposal will be reviewed by a small committee, who will assess your proposal (which is why clarity is so important). Depending on what they think, they might then speak with potential supervisors, asking what they thought about your idea.

Related links

Here is a link to a useful article that was shared earlier: Doctoral research: a short introduction.

In terms of the OU, doctoral research (both disciplinary and EdD research) is supported by an academic unit: The OU Graduate School.


Many thanks to Patrick Wong and Soraya Kouadri for all your continued help and support, and for patiently answering all my questions. Many thanks to my friend, Akin Oladimeji, who is currently working through this process.

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