Applications for further study and research

Considering applying for a masters, PhD or research post? It is likely that you will need to write a personal statement.

When presented with an open text box it can be difficult to know where to start. Sometimes you will be given guidance on what to include, which you should primarily use.

If you are not given specific instructions, however, the advice below could be useful.

Personal statements for postgraduate study

Introduce yourself and your reasons for applying

Admissions tutors won’t have long to read your statement, so start with a strong opening paragraph to grab their attention. For example, can you explain why undertaking this course is important to you? Where did the interest in this specific area of study come from? Try to be original in what you write and keep it brief.

Match yourself against their requirements

State clearly with evidence how you match the course requirements, using the information you have gathered as part of preparing to apply. For example, do you have the relevant academic qualifications?

Why this course?

Show you have investigated details about the course by saying what attracts you to it. For example, could you comment on particular modules or experiences the course offers? Explain how you became interested in this subject, and what you have learnt about it through your education and experience.

Write about your studies to date, including any relevant projects, essays or presentations. Use this section to demonstrate study skills, research skills and/or transferable skills such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving or others that are necessary for the course or position. If applying for postgraduate research, include details of any papers you have written.

If you are applying for a course to a number of institutions through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), don’t name them in your statement or describe why you would like to study at one in particular. Instead, state what appeals to you about the subject or field you're applying to.

Why this institution?

If your application is to an individual institution, show that you have investigated details about the programme and department. For example, is the programme noted for a specialism, or highly regarded for its training? You can also state why you wish to study at this particular institution.

Does it have a reputation in your field?
Is the mode of study appealing?
Are there specific academics or research staff you wish to work with?
Are there other reasons for choosing this institution?

Work experience For vocational courses, you may be expected to have already undertaken a period of directly relevant work experience. Provide details, including what you have learnt and how you feel you have developed as a result. Even if you don’t need specific prior experience, think about the recent work experience you have done including part-time, temporary jobs, volunteering, work shadowing, membership of clubs/societies, etc. What skills have you developed as a result that would be relevant to your application?
Your career / academic goals Outline your aims and specific goals, showing how you think the course will help you achieve these. This helps you demonstrate your commitment to succeed in your studies. Ensure your goals are realistic and relevant.
Things not covered elsewhere in the form You might also use the personal statement to set out experiences you feel are of ‘secondary’ importance ie, things that are still relevant but which you haven’t written about earlier. For example, you might write about interests, leisure pursuits or volunteering where you have developed pertinent transferable skills and show that you get involved in university life outside your studies.
Finally, Try to end on a high note with a positive concluding statement. You could re-iterate your motivation and commitment or, if you have one, provide a relevant and memorable fact about yourself. It is vital that your writing is impressive.

Personal statements for PhDs and research posts

Introduce yourself and your reasons for applying

Academics won’t have long to read your statement, so start with a strong opening paragraph to grab their attention. For example, can you explain why this research area is important to you? Where did the interest in this specific area of research come from? Try to be original in what you write and keep it brief.

Why you?

State clearly with evidence how you match their requirements. For research posts, many academics will use a person specification as a selection tool when reviewing your statement. You need to provide evidence and examples that show how you meet each criteria listed in the person specification. Make your examples relevant to the role and how you will be using the skill or knowledge that is asked for. PhDs are unlikely to have a person specification, so make sure you are familiar with the requirements through wider research. Show you have the skills, attributes and knowledge to manage all aspects of your own research project for 3-4 years.

Write about your studies or research to date, including any relevant projects, essays or presentations. Also include information about other relevant experiences, such as summer projects (e.g. SURE scheme) and work experience. Use this section to demonstrate study skills, research skills and/or transferable skills such as communication, project management, independence, teamwork, problem-solving, decision making, resilience and self-motivation as well as others that are necessary for the PhD or position. Also include details of any papers you have written, relevant conferences you have attended or any funding you have been awarded (e.g. PREP scheme).

Consider also any other experiences such as part-time work, mentoring, volunteering, work shadowing, membership of clubs/societies, etc. What skills have you developed as a result that would be relevant to your application?

You may find the STAR structure useful to refer to when presenting examples to demonstrate a competency:

  • Situation – Provide some brief details about the situation so that the reader can understand the context of the example
  • Task – Explain the objective/purpose, i.e. what you were aiming to do
  • Action – Describe what you did and summarise your actions
  • Result – Finish with the outcome. Show that you met your objectives and, if appropriate, comment on what you learnt from the experience

This is the opportunity for you to demonstrate your relevant skills, attributes and specific knowledge, so make sure you sell yourself.

Why them?

Explore the research group, their achievements, partnerships and the facilities that they have to offer. To do this, you could:

  • Look at departmental web pages
  • Read publications from the research group (particularly important if this aligns to your research area)
  • Search their social media pages (e.g. Twitter / ResearchGate)
  • Organise an informal phone call / meeting with the academic to find out more about the opportunity (this is very common for those that need to source a prospective PhD supervisor or are applying for a research role).

If applying for a PhD, explain what attracts you to the opportunity. For example, could you comment on experiences the PhD offers, the course structure, or any links with industry? Is the programme noted for a specialism, or highly regarded for its training? You can also state why you wish to study at this particular institution.

The more you know about the opportunity, the more you are able to demonstrate your motivation. For example, their research methods may take your interest, or you may be impressed by their achievements. Whatever it is that enthuses you about the opportunity, try to be specific and authentic, and relate it back to you and your experiences as much as possible.

Your career / academic goals

Outline your aims and specific goals, showing how you think the opportunity will help you achieve these. Ensure your goals are realistic and relevant to the role. Show you have an understanding of the potential impact and wider value of the research and why this is important.

Finally, Try to end on a high note with a positive concluding statement. You could re-iterate your motivation and commitment, or outline your eagerness to discuss further in an interview. Keep it brief and positive.

Research proposals

Structure of a research proposal

If you are asked to submit a research proposal, check what is required with the institution.

Below are the components which should be addressed in any research proposal (the specific research problem will dictate other sections that are required).

  • A working title - of the topic area / research problem
  • General overview of the research area / problem - include a brief abstract of the general area of research you would like to investigate, identifying the discipline(s) within which it falls
  • Research objectives - state what you would seek to achieve by your research.
  • Rationale - convince the reader that the research is worth doing by describing how the results may be used and the potential impact it could have
  • Identification of the relevant literature - demonstrate that you are aware of the debates and issues raised in relevant bodies of literature
  • Methodology / strategy - given your objectives, explain the research methods you would use to achieve them – reading, reviewing, designing experiments, questionnaires or interviews, fieldwork, data collection, analysis and interpretation
  • Timescale/research planning - demonstrate an awareness of the need for planning and the timescale of the research
  • Bibliography - include a short list of references to key articles and texts. Use an acceptable referencing format

Aim to produce a professional looking proposal, which is easy to read. Include a contents page and use clear headings and subheadings. Try to write a logical, flowing piece.

To get feedback on this document, get a friend or family member to proof-read for spelling and grammar. In addition, it could be a good idea to ask an academic (such as your personal tutor) to review it for you, as it is likely they will have experience of writing these for their own research projects.

Key tasks

1. Before writing your application, make sure you have done your research into the opportunity and reflected on how you meet the requirements. For further information on how to do this, see “Preparing to write an application form

2. Draft your application in a separate Word document. This enables you to keep a copy of your responses, which will be important to reflect on should you be invited to an interview. It also enables you to proofread your work to check for spelling and grammar. It is also a good idea to get someone else to check your application for you.

3. Explore our resources on finding postgraduate courses, which include information on funding and how you can find out more about a postgraduate course. Postgrad.com also has a range of guides you can explore to prepare for and apply for a PhD.

4. Did you know that we have specific support for researchers? Check out the Researchers section of our website.