There is a certain uniformity to higher education in Europe because of a series of agreements called the Bologna process. Here we will talk about the British case in depth. While you might think that almost all English-speaking programmes in Europe are in the UK, there are actually a lot of programmes that accept PhD students working in English across Europe.
Unlike in the US, applicants for European PhD programmes must (except in exceptional circumstances which are very rare in the humanities) have a 1- or 2-year master’s degree (in general it is expected to be 2 years but the UK favours 1-year degrees),
Because of this, we will discuss both masters and PhD applications here.
A masters is generally a 1- or 2-year taught course entered after the bachelor’s which focuses on more advanced material. They are generally not specialised to the area you want to do your PhD in. The masters plays three main roles:
- the grades received in it are used to decide who gets funding at PhD level,
- a piece of course work from it is generally used as the writing sample for PhDs rather than undergraduate work,
- It gives you an opportunity to (and you are expected to) get references from faculty outside of your undergraduate.
To apply for a masters, you will need:
- 1-2 writing samples
- A personal statement
- An official transcript
- 2-3 reference letters
Some of these documents differ from their US equivalents. The CV should be an academic CV, but not as long as an American ones can be. It should be around 2 pages and not include a list of courses taken. The official transcript can cause some problems. UK universities are very fussy about it being official and not the unofficial one you can easily get access to. If you cannot get an official transcript for some reason, you should contact the university you are applying to well in advance to ask for advice. Another thing to note is that there is a difference between British and American letter writing practices. In general, British letters are more reserved and give less praise. It may be worth talking to your letter writers about this and whether they would be willing to write a letter in the British style (while it might seem that having American style letters is an advantage, they risk not being taken seriously). You will not need GRE scores, but you should check whether you need a TOFEL or similar score in each case as the rules may be odd. You will have to pay a fee to apply in the UK.
Finally, there is the personal statement. This is a one-page document that tell the department:
- Your reasons for applying, which should be personalised to the programme,
- Your preparation, which involves explaining why your undergraduate studies have prepared you for graduate work. This might include course and your dissertation,
- Evidence of your skillset, explaining why you have the skills necessary to complete more advanced work (this is less content specific than preparation but may include information about, say language ability),
- Your goals- what will you do after? If there is any chance of funding, you must say clearly that you will apply for PhD’s even if you aren’t sure you will, or you will not be put forward for funding.
With acceptable copies of these documents you will likely find your self accepted into most masters programmes you apply to (except for Oxford and Cambridge). Masters are mostly self-funded and so universities generally accept everyone who passes a certain threshold. You will find as an international student that the fees are very high. This brings us the topic of funding.
Funding for masters programmes is very rare. It is even rarer for international students. One of the few places that offers such funding for any university is Fulbright (https://us.fulbrightonline.org/about/types-of-awards/study-research). You should check each university you are considering applying to, to see whether funding is available. Be aware that funding generally comes with a lengthy application process and you may be required to contact the department you are applying to. If there is more than one source of funding available to you, you will probably have to submit an application for each. You should start looking in September for information about funding available the next year. Unfortunately, if you have a GPA that gets mapped to a British 2:1 or below (universities will do this themselves but roughly 3.7 or below) you are very unlikely to get funding.
So, you are doing a master’s, either in the US or Europe. If it is a two-year master’s, while you should keep PhD applications in mind, you have some breathing room. If it is a one-year master’s, you need to start preparing for PhD applications almost as soon as you start. The PhD applications will be due around January and, before that, you need to produce a new writing sample and get one or two new references (by producing good work in courses you are taking). To apply you will need:
- A writing sample
- A research proposal
- Official transcripts for the masters and bachelors
- 2-3 reference letters
This looks very like the master’s application and it is similar. One thing to keep in mind is that these applications are due right after your first term as a master’s student. You will need to be very on top of things to get an official transcript from your master’s in time (my department essentially forged one for me because the university couldn’t supply it). The writing sample should be from your master’s and 1-2 of your reference should be. Pick your first courses carefully; identify one you want to produce a writing sample in and one or two you want reference from. Talk to the faculty straight away about this and ask them what you would need to do for them to feel comfortable writing you a reference in time for application deadlines. Some may not be willing to because they will have seen so little of your work, so you should always check. Again, no GRE, you may need TOFEL. There is unlikely to be a fee.
The biggest difference between the UK (and most of Europe) and the US is the research proposal. In the UK, a PhD student is applying to work with a specific person on a specific, already planned project. The good news is you don’t need to do the project you say you will. The bad news is you still need a strong plan and someone on board to supervise it. That means even before you start your master’s you should start thinking about what your PhD is going to be on. The research proposal is your explanation of this project. Your research proposal should:
- Have a clear working title for your research project
- Have a clear statement about what you want to work on and why it is important, interesting, relevant and realistic
- Have some background knowledge and context of the area in which you wish to work, including key literature, key people, key research findings
- some indication of the strategy and timetable for your research project and any research challenges you may face
- a list of the key references which support your research proposal
These are not easy to write. It is a substantial piece of intellectual work and you should show it to as many people as you can to ask for comments.
When looking where to apply in the UK, rather than look at which universities might be a good fit, you should decide roughly on your project first and then look for people who would be good to supervise it. You can do this by asking other academics for advice and by looking at who’s currently writing on the topic, who would you cite in your PhD, etc. Those people would be good supervisors topic-wise. The list of people you want to work with gives you the list of universities you will apply to. Note that if two people work at the same university you must decide if you want them both to supervise (this may or may not be allowed) or only one. Before you do anything else you should contact these people. Why? You are applying with the claim that you will work closely with them for three years on a very particular project. If you want any chance of funding (or, for more prestigious schools, acceptance) they better be on your side. You should email them with a rough (but good) draft of your research project, explaining why you would like to work with them in particular, asking if they are currently taking students (they may have too many, be about to go on a two year sabbatical, or retire) and if they would be interested in supervising the project. You should offer to skype to talk about the project in more detail if they would like to. Also politely ask them for comments on the proposal (even if they decline to take you on as a student, you might still get good comments). If they say yes you are good to apply, and this generally also means you can ask them for comments on anything you have to write for funding proposals. If they say no, feel free to ask them if they know anyone who they think would be suitable. Also don’t take it personally. It is far more likely to be because they have too many students or worked on the topic earlier but haven’t kept up with recent developments, than a judgement on the quality of your proposal.
Ok, so you have a great research proposal, a new writing sample and references and a potential supervisor who is excited to work with you. The problem now is funding. Unlike the USA, funding does not come with an offer of a place in Europe. Most students in the UK self-fund their PhDs, but as an international student this will be virtually impossible for you. Unfortunately, there is very little funding for international students. You will need to look at each university individually. Look for things like ‘Chancellors international fellowship’ and other programmes run by the university. Just like the case in the master’s, these will require a separate application. If a university appears to have no funding for international students it is a good idea to contact them as they may have funding that the department can nominate people for which isn’t listed. You also might need to put together a funding package from several different sources (i.e. one might cover the international portion of your fees, another might cover the domestic portion, you might get a stipend for living expensive from somewhere completely different).
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