Applying for a PhD

The School of East Asian Studies receives a large number of PhD applications every year. The following guidelines have been written in order to help you submit a high quality application that is targeted to the research strengths of the staff within our School.


Before you begin your application 

  • Am I eligible to apply (please see criteria below)?
  • Does my area of interest fit closely with the research expertise of the School
  • Is there a member of staff whose research interests seem exciting and relevant in terms of the research topic I have in mind?
  • Do I need research training? Does Sheffield's Doctoral Development Programme seem attractive in the context of my research background and interests?
  • What sources of funding are available to support my research? SEAS is a recognised centre for ESRC and AHRC scholarships for research degrees. We can also offer funding from various other sources.

Initial enquiries

Enquiries are welcome at any time of year, However, our major intakes take place in twice a year in early October and late February. Please make your initial contact with our Research Student Admissions Office (

You may if you wish contact a potential supervisor directly to find out their interest and availability to provide supervision. Please note, however, that if that member of staff is away from Sheffield at the time of your enquiry a reply can be considerably delayed.

Contact through the Admissions Officer means enquiries will reach the relevant member of staff as rapidly as possible. Please cc the Admissions Officer should you make a direct approach to a potential supervisor.

In order to consider you for a PhD we require you to submit two documents for us to review at this initial enquiry stage: A research proposal and a CV. 

Our Admissions Tutor is able to give you personal help and advice and pass your enquiry to an appropriate supervisor or supervisors. If you wish to undertake your research with a specific member of staff please make this clear to the Admissions Tutor.

Remember to tell us:

In making your initial enquiry please provide us with a brief indication of your academic background and your research interests to allow us to focus our reply on your specific needs.

If we are unable to provide you with expert supervision in your area of interest we will tell you at this stage. If we have the necessary supervisory expertise and capacity we will ask you to provide us with a research proposal and your CV for consideration before guiding you to the University’s online application form.

For enquiries please contact us on

Entry requirements

The standard requirement for entry onto our PhD programme is a Masters degree with Merit from a university in the UK, or an equivalent qualification from an institution overseas. Applicants with other qualifications combined with relevant professional experience may also be eligible. If you are unsure about your qualifications please contact us.

If your first language isn’t English you will need an overall IELTS grade of 7.0 with a minimum of 6.5 in each component, or an equivalent English language qualification in order to be considered.

Your research proposal

These guidelines are intended to assist you in developing and writing a thesis proposal. Applications for admission to a research degree cannot be dealt with unless they contain a proposal.

Your proposal will help us to make sure that:

  • The topic is viable
  • The school can provide appropriate supervision and other necessary support
  • You have thought through your proposed piece of research and are clear about how to proceed
  • You are a suitable candidate for admission

The process of producing a proposal is usually also essential if you need to apply for funding to pay your fees or support yourself whilst doing your research. Funding bodies will often need to be reassured that you are committed to a viable project at a suitable university.

Outline of a research proposal

Your proposal should be 2000 - 2500 words in length and contain at least the following elements

A provisional title

This should indicate the overriding focus of the PhD.
You can negotiate changes in the title with your supervisor should you be successful but it is important to devise a provisional title that describes what you aspire to research – and which looks original and exciting!

A clear articulation of the central research question you wish to address

You need a question to drive the research forward. The question will help to guide the overall logic of the programme of research. It will also help to define the methodology: to answer the question or prove/disprove the hypothesis. The question will need to be focussed, meaningful, answerable and original. This may require looking at something that no-one has looked at before, or it might mean taking a fresh approach to an existing topic or issue.

A brief statement of why this is an interesting question and why it is important

This section follows logically from the previous one. It highlights what the gap in current knowledge is and how your research will contribute to original knowledge. Will your research provide a new perspective, generate new evidence or challenge existing assumptions? And, to whom might the PhD be useful and/or of interest: scholars looking at a particular issue, communities within specific institutions or certain groups of people?

Why it is new or different in relation to the existing literature (what do we already know?)

This section should situate your chosen topic in the existing research. Literature reviews are not simply descriptive mapping exercises at PhD level. Here you should identify key texts that support, extend, or challenge existing work.

A brief statement of the methodology (theoretical approach and methods) you propose to use

Here you need to outline what methods you will use to answer your research questions. This section should outline your approach to your research (the methodology) as well as the method of investigation (eg, semi structured interviews, surveys, statistical analysis of existing datasets, content analysis etc). You need to make sure that the methodology is appropriate to the nature of the research being conducted, and is able to provide answers to the research questions raised.

The resources you need to carry out your work can vary according to the nature of the research: access to a particular archive, specialist library, visits to field sites, the use of analytical software, access to databases, training, workshop attendance and so on. It is important to list any of these resources and give a very brief account of how they will enhance the PhD, as well as how any practical obstacles in accessing resources will be overcome - e.g. how you will fund fieldwork trips.

What you expect to contribute to our understanding of East Asia and your discipline. This should include a statement concerning the possible impact of the research on society

The aims of your research should be a short list of answers to the question: what will the PhD do? So, for example ‘this PhD will explore…’ or ‘by carrying out this research, I will contribute to debates about…’. The aims are broader than the questions/hypotheses: they give a prospective statement about the overall destination of the PhD and its potential impact..

A plan and timetable of the work you will carry out

This section should be set out over three years with clear indications of how long you will need to prepare for and carry out research (however defined) and allowing at least six months for writing up. Try to be as detailed as you can at this stage.

Three additional points:

  • Try to be concise. Do not write too much – be as specific as you can but not wordy. It is a difficult balance to strike.
  • Bear in mind that the proposal is a starting point. If you are successful in your application you will be able to work the proposal through with your supervisor in more detail in the early months.
  • Take a look at our supervision and research pages. Can you identify possible supervisors and intellectual support networks within the Department?

When you have a potential supervisor

Once we have reviewed your research proposal and CV you will be allocated a potential supervisor. Your supervisor will be identified as the member of academic staff who's expertise best fit with your proposed research project. If you have a potential supervisor in mind please make our Admissions Office aware of this when you make your initial enquiry.

Once you have been allocated your supervisor you will be asked to complete our online application form.

Apply online or request a paper application form

The online application form requires you to provide standard information about yourself and your past academic performance. Please ensure that you complete this information thoroughly and accurately and that you provide evidence of your qualifications (both those already gained and those that you plan to take in the near future).


You are also asked for the names of two referees, preferably academic referees. At least one of these should be from your most recent place of study. Your referees should be able to comment on your academic record and your research potential and will ideally have seen a copy of your proposal.

Selection and offer

Your application form, CV and referees' reports are considered by an admissions group, consisting of your potential supervisors and the Postgraduate Research Admission Tutor.

You will be offered a place to study for a PhD upon a successful outcome of the review process. In all cases it is standard departmental practice to request an interview via telephone or skype call prior to acceptance. This would normally take place with your potential supervisors.

If you are currently completing a Master's degree you will receive an offer conditional upon your final Master's results. In most cases we ask for a Masters with merit.

You will receive your formal offer letter via email.

Overseas applicants

If your first language is not English, an offer of a place may be conditional on meeting an English Language requirement and/or a particular standard in any examinations that have not yet been taken.

Students whose first language is not English must have passed IELTS with a grade of 7.0 overall and 6.5 in all elements of the test or equivalent.


An offer of a place is not an offer of funding to support your research. You will still need to secure your funding.

Our available funding.

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