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Potential problems with PhD applications

Potential problems with PhD applications
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© University of Leicester

It is important to understand the complexities of a PhD when considering whether it is the right route for you. They are reflected in the problems that we sometimes see in PhD applications made to the University of Leicester and are often the reason for a rejection of such an application. In summary, these include:

  1. Outdated or little knowledge of the field of research
  2. Practical research problems that are often defined by the applicant’s employer or government
  3. No research or methods training
  4. Suggesting that you know what your research will reveal, wanting to ‘prove’ a point
  5. Lack of understanding what a UK PhD is
  6. Problems in the clarity of expression and with English language proficiency

Outdated or little knowledge of the field of research

Recent academic research and literature are not always necessarily freely available, which makes it difficult for some applicants to access academic journals in particular and results in proposals that are simply out of date. In this sense, the best applications tend to come from students who have recently undertaken a Masters degree in the subject because they have been exposed to recent literature. However, you need to demonstrate that you have read and understood what other people have already written on the research problem. Importantly, do not submit a re-worked and slightly expanded Masters dissertation project.

There are discipline-specific aspects to this issue. For example, Criminology is a subject peculiar to the US and UK. In Europe, it is taught in law, but in other parts of the world it just doesn’t exist, which means that applications on criminological topics do not necessarily have any criminological theory or disciplinary knowledge. A case in point is an application from a computer studies graduate interested in a PhD on cyber crime, which is an interesting topic but the applicant may not know enough about the theoretical frameworks and knowledge of the subject area for a PhD in Criminology at the University of Leicester or elsewhere.

2. Practical research problems that are often defined by the applicant’s employer or government

Although the impact of academic work is assessed on its contribution to society and the economy, the research problems that PhD thesis address cannot be driven purely by such practical requirements. Where employers or governments offer to fund a PhD applicant, they often demand ‘something useful’ in return and may require a say in an applicant’s research question. This may mean that the proposal is not academic in orientation, insufficiently developed and/or does not reflect the current state of knowledge in the field of research.

3. No research or methods training

Many applicants have professional masters qualifications but these may have been in subjects that include no research methods training. There will be research and methods training provided as part of a PhD programme, either on campus or via distance learning materials, but if you have not had any such training previously and if you have not undertaken a Masters degree with a research component (e.g. a dissertation), you may be better off first undertaking a Masters degree that provides you with foundational knowledge in research methods.

4. Suggesting that you know what your research will reveal, wanting to ‘prove’ a point

Choosing a topic for a PhD proposal is a difficult process (and one that this course will help you with). Many applicants choose their topic because they feel strongly about a particular issue and/or feel that they already know a lot about it, be this via previous academic study or due to extensive practical engagement in the field. While you may have a fair idea or an argument in terms of your research area, a research question should be exploring something new. In this sense, this course and a PhD will expose you to discussions and different points of view, that need to be taken seriously and argued with.

Doing a PhD involves having to defend ideas, concepts and developing arguments. This is not always an easy process, especially if you feel strongly about the issues concerned. The more use you can make of the discussion forum as part of this course, the better. Traditionally, online discussion forums are not popular and this may be because it is difficult to have your ideas challenged and to ask and answer questions about your own and others’ thoughts. However, such activities will be very much a part of undertaking a PhD, so use this course as a test for such processes.

5. Lack of understanding what a UK PhD is

Within the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at the University of Leicester, departments continue to receive applications containing a request for supervision but which contain or offer no actual research proposal. In many science subjects, supervisors may set a specific research question for their PhD students but this is not the case for standard PhDs in social science, arts, humanities and law PhDs in the UK. Likewise in the EU it might often be the case that applicants are given only a broad area/subject zone and are expected to develop a research questions once accepted; alternatively they have a subject matter than lacks actual research questions – or at least questions that fit the idea in the UK of ‘impact’. Again, this course hopes to get you to think through interesting and challenging topics and research questions that suit you and suit the proposed host department/institution.

In addition to applying with a strong PhD proposal – and if you are accepted onto a PhD programme – you will also be expected to take responsibility for your research and thesis. There will, of course, be support in place in the form of training opportunities and individuals, in particular your supervisors, who will be willing to discuss questions and issues with you. However, your PhD is your responsibility. This means that the vast majority of your PhD will consist of self-directed learning.

“In its broadest meaning, ’self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Knowles, 1975, 18)

6. Problems in the clarity of expression and with English language proficiency

Being able to write and discuss in English is a fundamental skill required to write a research proposal and discuss this during a potential interview for a PhD space. UK Universities have very specific English language requirements for PhD entry, for example see the University of Leicester requirements. If your English levels are not sufficient, you may want to consider working with the English Language Teaching Unit who work with students and applicants at the University of Leicester to develop English language and broader study skills.

Even native English speakers may need to reconsider their clarity of expression for the purpose of a PhD. But we do of course recognise that your ability to discuss in English will improve over the course of your PhD and that this will be of strong quality by the time you might take your viva voce examination.

© University of Leicester
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