Advice for PhD applicants
What is involved in doing a PhD in the School of Mathematics and Statistics?
A PhD is a higher degree, requiring the production of a thesis, a coherent written account of an original research contribution, examined during an oral examination (the viva) by internal and external examiners. The time limit for submission for a full time PhD is four years, but students should expect and plan to complete during their "funded period", which varies somewhat, but is often 3.5 years.
While the student is expected to take ownership of their research project, and to come to appreciate its wider context, rather than blindly doing as they are told, they will work under the guidance of a supervisor, an expert in the field, typically via weekly meetings. The supervisor will usually provide the initial idea for the research project, and will play a major role in guiding the student through its development, suggesting leads, and giving feedback on their ideas and written work. (The personal statement in your application will not be expected to provide a detailed research proposal, rather to demonstrate interest, motivation and preparation.)
All of our students are subject to a modest requirement regarding taught courses. We participate in the MAGIC consortium and the Academy for PhD Training in Statistics. They are encouraged not to be too narrowly focused on their thesis problem, to attend internal seminars and reading groups, and external conferences. In due course, they may present their own work at seminars or conferences, internally or externally.
Towards the end of their first year, they are required to write a report of approximately twenty pages, and to pass a Confirmation Review viva, demonstrating that they have started to work independently and have a viable research plan. Later shorter reports update on progress in research, writing and thesis planning. While it is the supervisor who is the main source of academic guidance, each student is also assigned an advisor, who attends their Confirmation Review and shows an interest in their progress. During their second year, SoMaS Ph.D. students present a poster to a general Faculty of Science audience at the Science Graduate School Showcase. At the end of their second year, they give a 20-minute presentation to an audience of fellow students and SoMaS academic staff.
Most of our PhD students opt to participate in undergraduate teaching at some point, which may involve marking homework or helping with problem sessions, as either assistant or lead demonstrator. Training (and payment) are provided. To aid personal development and employability, the university runs a Doctoral Development Programme.
How do I decide on a research area and possible supervisors?
This is a supremely important question. To do a PhD, you need a strong desire to learn more about mathematics. To get far enough to make an original contribution, some specialisation is necessary, and at the point of application you need a clear enough direction of focus to be able to choose a general research area, and a supervisor within that area. This will usually be guided by some interest sparked by modules you have enjoyed as an undergraduate or masters student, possibly by a final year project.
You should beware that not all research areas are represented in SoMaS, and compared to other universities with similar sounding research groups, the emphasis may be quite different. Furthermore, it is difficult to know, as an undergraduate, what it will be like to study a particular area at postgraduate research level, or what undergraduate or Master’s modules may be most closely related. For this reason, it is especially important to be well-informed and to seek the advice of subject specialists, including prospective supervisors both here and at other universities. Do not be afraid to ask them for advice about universities other than their own. It may be that someone elsewhere is a better fit to your interests and preparation.
Doing a PhD is a major commitment, not just another degree, and it is important that you are working on something you feel strongly motivated to pursue. But you should also consider your career prospects, and may wish to seek advice on how competitive it is to get an academic job (or even a PhD place) in different research areas, or what non-academic opportunities may be especially dependent on choice of research area.
Another reason for contacting a prospective supervisor is that this is somebody you would be spending a lot of time with, and be heavily dependent upon, so you will probably want to make sure it is someone who makes a good impression on you. It may also be that certain supervisors are busy with other students and not available to take on new starters.
What makes a good application?
This depends quite a lot on the research area. Prospective supervisors should be able to advise on what they are looking for. A strong academic track record indicating the aptitude and preparation to successfully complete a Ph.D., within the relatively short time available, is a necessity in all areas.
In some it may be especially important to have a truly outstanding record, and to have done modules covering enough of the preparatory material that it is feasible to do whatever further study is necessary, after arrival, to reach the point at which one can begin proper research work, and to have a chance of getting far enough to complete a good thesis.
In other areas, this may be less important compared to having demonstrated a genuine interest in, and appreciation of, the research area, or a suitability for research (as opposed to just learning material and passing exams). Of course, these qualities are important in all areas. They may be demonstrated by things you write in your personal statement, or by what your academic referees write about you, especially anybody who has supervised you on any kind of final year project, dissertation, or research internship.
After assessment of your application by potential supervisors you name, if they wish to consider you further for a possible offer of a place to study, you will be invited to an online interview, with at least two academic staff, including a possible supervisor. Since they may wish to compare different applications arriving at different times, this may be some time after you submit your application. Interview styles will vary, tailored to what is important to the interviewers, and what they have seen on your application. Most interviews last up to an hour.
The interviewers may want to explore your motivation and suitability. They might want to discuss things you have learned about and probe how well you really understand them or have turned them over in your mind. You may be asked technical questions, or to talk about project work you have done, or to explain how you think about the subject. It is also an additional opportunity (beyond any earlier enquiry) for you to find out more about what it might be like to work with them, and what kind of things your research might involve.
If, after an interview, you are offered a place, this will be to study with a named supervisor, and a more-or-less detailed scope of research will be specified, as well as the length of the period of study for fee-paying purposes (the "funded period"), and the level of the fees. It may take some time after your interview for an offer to be made (or a rejection sent), depending on the progress of other offers. As explained on the funding webpage, an offer of a place to study is nothing to do with funding, which is a separate matter.
Most postgraduate research students start on 1 October, and there are advantages to starting at the same time as the rest of the cohort. You need to be aware of deadlines for any funding for which you wish to be considered. In particular, if you are hoping to get one of the limited number of EPSRC studentships usually available each year, to give yourself the best chance you ought to be getting your application in before the date (usually late January) mentioned on our funding webpage.
This means, you should not be leaving it too late to make initial enquiries, or to request letters from referees.
Am I good enough? Is this right for me?
Mathematical talent and intellectual curiosity can arise anywhere, though it needs nurturing and encouragement to thrive. Don’t be too quick to conclude that people like you don’t do Ph.Ds., just because you may not see examples in your family or social circle, or because you were a ``late bloomer’’ as an undergraduate, maybe not the most visible "high-achiever". While doing a Ph.D. is a major undertaking, it shouldn’t require single-minded dedication to the exclusion of all other interests or commitments. Depending on your circumstances, part-time study may be appropriate.
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