Applying for Postgraduate Research

Alistair D N Edwards

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"
Albert Einstein

Note. This page presents some of my personal opinions; they do not represent official policy of the University of York or of the Department of Computer Science.

The purpose of this page is to try to clarify the way that postgraduate research generally takes place in this department - and particularly under my (potential) supervision.

I think there is a picture of traditional science departments, in which there will be series of projects and experiments under way. There will be new lines of research opening all the time and new projects to pursue. If an application is received from a bright sounding potential student, then he or she can be allocated one of these projects to work on. In other words, there is a structure of research in existence around them into which they slot and pursue a research topic which was really the inspiration of the supervisor.

That is not how I work.

If you apply for a research place at the University of York, the form you will be required to fill in includes a section, Outline of academic interests or proposed research topic. To me this is the most important part of the form. This is where you can put down your ideas about the research that you would hope to carry out. If they fit in with my own research interests, then I might decide I am interested in supervising you.

Note that this is also different from the way PhDs work in the USA. There you are admitted to a programme (or 'program') and will take some taught courses before you embark on your research. During that time you can refine your ideas as to what research you will want to pursue later on. In the UK you generally start straight away on your research - so you have to have quite a clear idea what it is to be when you start.

The research proposal

I think it is important that the initiative comes from you. You are the one who is going to be spending three years or so doing this work - so it had better be something that interests and motivates you. Also, in formulating a research proposal, we can get an idea of your abilities and your awareness of what postgraduate research entails.

The form does not allow very much space for the research proposal so it is usually better to add additional pages. You don't have to go too far, though; it does not have to be six pages of closely-spaced text! It also does not have to be detailed and complete; if you can give all the answers, then it is not research! Some sign that you are familiar with the area, that you have done some reading is useful. Then, looking ahead, we would be looking for signs that you have the initiative and drive to work on a single project for the duration of the programme (i.e. one year for an MSc or three for a PhD). Remember, a PhD has to represent a novel contribution to knowledge. It may not be clear at this stage exactly what that contribution will be, but there should be the feeling that the field you plan to research is sufficiently fertile that there is a good chance that new ideas will emerge. Also, do not think of taking on too much; you will not solve the world's problems in three years. The two are not necessarily the same. As a simple example, to make a PhD it must be something capable of being completed by one person in three years. It must also represent a reasonable challenge for a graduate student. That is to say that a simple piece of research could be entirely valid and a contribution to knowledge, but insufficient to demonstrate the skills that a PhD is expected to have.

If you think about the research proposal from the point-of-view of the people reading it, then they are trying to assess what the chances are that the person who wrote it will be in a position in three years' time to submit a worthy PhD thesis. That is not an easy judgement, but they will be looking for certain signs including:

Has the applicant read about the research in the area?
They are not likely to have an exhaustive knowledge of the literature (or they'll having nothing to do when it comes to the literature review in their thesis!), but they should demonstrate that they have sufficient interest to know broadly what the current state-of-the-art is, and will not be in danger of 're-inventing the wheel' when they start their research.
Does the applicant have ideas about the methods they will use?
It is realtively easy to identify a problem and to speculate about answers to that problem, but how will you know that it is a viable solution or approach? Again, having a knowledge of the literature should help - how have other people tackled similar problems?
Is the work feasible within a PhD?
A young researcher can easily be over-optimistic about what they can and want to achieve. During the PhD it is often an important role of the supervisor to rein in the student, to keep them to realistic objectives (see above), but at the stage of the research proposal it is reassuring to see that the candidate is being reasonably realistic.
Does the candidate have the necessary spark of commitment and originality?
This is getting harder to judge, but the award of a PhD is meant to demonstrate that the person has the ability to undertake independent research. You will have a supervisor, but you will be working on your own most of the time. Does this person look like someone who can take initiative?

I hate to quote - or paraphrase - Donald Rumsfeld, but he is famous for saying something that approximates to:

There are things we know that we know
and there are things we know we don't know but there are also
things that we don't know we don't know.

(Hear the whole quote. Donald Rumsfeld Soundbite of the week. Ask Professor Rumsfeld. The Foot-in-mouth award).

However, I think he has rather well summed up research. The things we know that we know are what researchers call the Literature Review. The things we know we don't know are the topic of our current research or research proposal, and the things that we don't know we don't know are those surprises that hit us while we are doing the research. At this stage it is good if you seem to have a reasonable handle on what the first two are, the third is up to luck and serendipity.

You do not have to work in isolation in writing your proposal, I am willing to look at drafts before you submit your application - but do not expect that I will always be able to do this in a short time!

If, having read through all this, you are still interested. Then please go ahead and either contact me (email alistair, domain or go straight to filling in an application.

See also:

The interview

If your research proposal looks promising, you are likely to be invited for an interview. This is our final chance to make a decision. The interview will normally be conducted by the potential supervisor and a member of the Departmental Graduate Studies Committee. The supervisor will be most interested in talking about the research proposal, while the other person will be there to see fair play and to explain the official processes and procedures.

There are two parts to gaining admission to a PhD programme. There is the offer of a place and the need for funding. We consider these quite separately (e.g. we would not decide to not offer you a place just because the likelihood of your getting funding seems low).

Offering a place is relatively easy, inasmuch as it might be seen that we (me, the Department, the University) have little to lose. Of course, to take that attitude would be unfair. We need a reasonably strong feeling that you are the kind of person who is likely to succeed, to come out in three years time with a PhD. That is the main judgement we would be trying to make in an interview.

If we think so, we will offer you a place. Then we will think about funding. The funds available are limited and the competition strong. A studentship we offer to you is one that will not be available to some other student, so we certainly do have something to lose. Unlike places, funding is thus allocated on a competitive basis. Again we are looking for people most likely to be successful - but we may also have to consider other, external factors, such as the balance of research students between different research groups. Because of this competition, it is likely that we will take longer to get a decision on funding. In particular, we generally have to wait for the first-degree results of students who are hoping to move straight from an undergraduate course to a PhD.

Of course, if you can find alternative sources of funding, so much the better, and it may be that you can find sources for which you are particularly eligible - because of your country of origin or the secret society to which your father belongs or whatever.



This page maintained by Alistair Edwards (User name: alistair. Domain:

27 June 2013