Based on my own experience, choosing the right supervisor is the most important step in the PhD application process, which is even more important than preparing a good research proposal sometimes. A good supervisor is not only the person who guides and inspires you on your academic work but also the one who always supports you, encourages you and trusts you when you are feeling lost and confused during the long PhD journey. So, how do I find the right PhD supervisor? You must have heard many similar stories like – having a good idea of the Doctoral research project first and then seeking the potential supervisors regarding their publications, the institutions they are based in, etc. But in my story, I even had no ideas of doing a PhD in the UK when I met my current PhD supervisor.
I enrolled as a MA student in Film Studies at UCL in September 2015. As an international student (I did my BA degree in China), I found it was very difficult for me to adjust to the UK’s academic system. All I wanted at that time was to fulfil my MA course as soon as I could and then leave the country. Things changed since I started to do my MA dissertation with my supervisor. My supervisor told me that she thought I had shown the potential to evolve into a PhD researcher as I was completing a well organised and thought-provoking MA dissertation. Therefore, she encouraged me to do a PhD with her at the end of our last supervision. Honestly, I had never thought I was qualified to do a PhD before she asked me. Four years later, I still think the biggest reason why I decided to do my PhD is because I met a very good supervisor.
My suggestion is you need to take the time to figure out what your expectation for the quality of your supervisor is, as she/he might be the most important person in your academic future. Personally, it is very important for me to have a mentor with emotional intelligence. Some PhD students would like to have a strict and pushy supervisor, but others may prefer to have a supervisor with a kind of free style and relaxed attitude. It all depends on what you really want. However, I am sure nobody wants an absent or overbearing supervisor.
So, it is much easier or less risky to approach someone you already know or have worked with before. Thus, to reach out to your MA/BA supervisors and course tutors would be a great choice. And similarly, many scholars from Arts and Humanities tend to pick the students they have taught and known for a while. If you have never met your potential supervisors before, at least you should try your best to meet them or have a chat with them or even with their PhD students. I have to say, it is crucial to know if you could get along with your supervisor before you start working with them, and vice versa. To switch supervisors halfway through your PhD will not be a pleasant experience, however, it does happen quite often.
What do I need to complete the PhD application?
You should set out a research proposal before you contact your potential supervisors. It is essential to find a topic for which you have a real passion. Regarding your research proposal, it does not need to be perfect as we all know it will be fundamentally changed as time goes by. Your supervisor will be looking for well-structured and well-presented arguments and methods that demonstrate the extent of your critical and analytical thinking at the level of your project. More importantly, the original contribution of your project to the field must be identified. If the potential supervisors find your proposal demonstrates enough original elements and potential, some of them will be willing to give you some valuable feedback and even let you revise it. In my case, my supervisor gave me many suggestions when I was working on my proposal. This was also the case for many of my PhD friends. So, this shows the importance of finding a good supervisor – they will be very supportive from the earliest stage.
Once you have discussed your research proposal with potential supervisors and made a ‘deal’ with them, it is time to make a formal PhD application online. Different institutions and subjects may have different requirements, so please do check their guidelines beforehand. Taking UCL’s guidance as an example here, the essential documents to complete the PhD application include a research proposal, an academic transcript, a proof of English proficiency, a personal statement and two academic references. Apart from the research proposal, you should treat the letters of references as a vital component of your application. Please ensure your referees know you very well and are willing to give enthusiastic support for your application. They also need to have adequate time to write their letters and to submit them on time.
In addition, many of you may have a common question: Can I apply for a PhD without getting a Distinction at the Master’s level? The answer is ‘Yes, you can!’. A Master’s degree with Merit is acceptable to most universities, and in some cases, a Pass grade could also be accepted. However, it is just very difficult to get PhD funding without a Distinction. In general, the last step of the PhD application is an interview. Once you have submitted your application online, the admission process may set up an interview with your prospective supervisor and another academic member of staff. You will know whether you have been accepted soon after the interview.