Advice for PhD applicants

All the information you need about PhDs in the School of Mathematics and Statistics.


What does a PhD in the School of Mathematics and Statistics involve?

A PhD is a higher degree, which requires 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.

For a full-time PhD, the time limit for submission is four years, but you should expect and plan to complete during your 'funded period', which varies, but is often 3.5 years.

While you are expected to take ownership of your research project, and come to appreciate its wider context, you will work under the guidance of a supervisor, an expert in the field, typically via weekly meetings.

Your supervisor will usually provide the initial idea for the research project, and will play a major role in guiding you through its development, suggesting leads, and giving feedback on 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.

You are encouraged not to be too narrowly focused on your thesis problem - to attend internal seminars and reading groups, and external conferences.

In due course, you may present your own work at seminars or conferences, internally or externally.

Towards the end of your first year, you are required to write a report of approximately 20 pages, and to pass a Confirmation Review viva, demonstrating that you 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 your supervisor who is the main source of academic guidance, you are also assigned an advisor, who attends your Confirmation Review and shows an interest in your progress.

During your second year, mathematics and statistics PhD students present a poster to a general Faculty of Science audience at the Science Graduate School Showcase. At the end of their second year, you give a 20-minute presentation to an audience of fellow students and school 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) is 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?

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 the School of Mathematics and Statistics, and compared to other universities with similar sounding research groups, the emphasis may be quite different.

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, and it is important that you are working on something you feel strongly motivated to pursue. 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 - 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?

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 PhD, within the relatively short time available, is a necessity in all areas.

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 the 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 you are offered a place, this will be to study with a named supervisor, and a scope of research will be specified. The length of the period of study for fee-paying purposes (the 'funded period'), and the level of the fees will also be confirmed.

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 separate to funding.


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.

You shouldn't leave it too late to make initial enquiries, or to request letters from referees.

Is this right for me?

Mathematical talent and intellectual curiosity can arise anywhere, though it needs nurturing and encouragement to thrive.

While doing a PhD is a major undertaking, you should still be able to pursue other interests or commitments.

Depending on your circumstances, part-time study may be appropriate.

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