It’s getting towards that time of year when people start putting PhD applications together, and thinking about how they’re going to get the money to do a PhD. When I applied two years ago, you needed an offer of a PhD place to apply for funding, and deadlines for this varied from end of January and end of March, and I doubt this has changed much. Applications mean extra research and writing and revising a proposal several times over, so I would definitely recommend starting around now and making the most of the Christmas break to make your application perfect. I got AHRC funding, which is ridiculously competitive, so hopefully my advice is worth something!
Your first step would be to find out what you actually need for a PhD application, and what funding is available. You might be thinking of applying to a number of universities, and they’ll all have different requirements; for example, differing word lengths for the proposal, or they might even want to interview you. Additionally, if you know you’re going to be reliant on funding to take up the place, you’ve wasted your time if you apply somewhere and then find out all the funding deadlines have passed, or they don’t have any suitable funding you can apply for at all. I only thought of applying to one university myself because I didn’t fancy the upheaval, but there were three different funding schemes I could apply for, all with different requirements and deadlines.
From there, it’s a good idea to talk to relevant staff members about your PhD idea. Specialists in the field can direct you to gaps in the literature and sources you might want to look at, and are usually happy to look over your proposal and make suggestions for how you can make it better. If you’re changing universities, it’s a good idea to make contact with relevant people in the department - not only can they help you with the things mentioned above, but if the application asks for the name of a potential supervisor, or who you’ve spoken to at the institution about your application, you can fill in those boxes and boost your application. And at the committees for both your place and your funding, there will hopefully be someone who knows you and is willing to fight your corner.
So, what about the PhD proposal itself? I would say the big thing you want to write about is the gap in the existing literature, because the whole point of a PhD is to contribute to knowledge. It’s therefore essential that you do enough secondary reading to say what’s already there and identify the gap. Next to this would be identifying what sources you’re going to look at, and what themes you plan to address. PhD proposals can be quite short (mine had to be just 600 words), so you don’t need to have looked at the sources at this stage. However, funding proposals can be several hundred words larger, and between applying for your place and applying for funding, I think it’s a good idea to take a preliminary look at your sources. Not only does this fill up the extra words, but you can say to the funding body: ‘look, this will work!’
It’s important to know that you won’t be held to what you wrote in your applications. Theses can take funny directions depending on your developing new ideas, discoveries and non-discoveries (for example, one of your sources might turn out to be a total turkey). Even an abstract I wrote a year ago, when I was already on the course, is now pretty much completely out-of-date. The staff you talk to might want you to include certain buzzwords or themes because they know they’ll make you more likely to get funding - but again, you can persuade them that you don’t want to do these later on, once you’ve got the place and the money.
**My top tips in short:
Research what the applications require from you and what funding is available.
Get ideas and advice from a specialist.
When writing your proposals, focus on how you’re going to contribute to knowledge, what sources you’re going to use, and what your themes will provisionally be. If the proposal requires a lot of words, use them to report on preliminary research.
Your thesis is not set in stone by the proposal. In fact, it’s never set in stone until the wonderful day you submit it.
I have my PhD and AHRC proposals on my Academia page if you’re looking for a model. Good luck!