How to apply for a PhD in the arts & humanities

Posted by IsabelFrazer on 27 March 2013

Be aware this content is over two years old

One of my colleagues has spent the last few years providing careers support to PhD students. I got some tips from him for those applying for arts and humanities PhDs. Here’s what he told me...

  • “You will need an area of specialism. Even when you are on well trodden ground such as Byron there may be angle that hasn’t been covered. So for example one of our students has taken a niche topic like ‘embarassment’ in Victorian literature and is studying ‘blushing’ as an aspect of that. To come up with that kind of angle requires a level of knowledge about what is going on in your field and what has already been done.
  • “You will need to be clear about why you are interested in the topic. Deeper than that you will need to provide evidence of the intellectual underpinning below the interest – demonstrating a relationship to the theory.
  • “You will need to have an idea who might supervise the PhD. This is crucial in many ways and it would be good to find someone you will be able to build a relationship with. It’s fair to say that academics can interpret the supervisor role in different ways. Some will have undergone voluntary training in how to be a supervisor and others may feel they already know what is needed because they are experts in their field. You won’t need to have settled on a supervisor at the application stage but you should have got some conversations going and the amount of time and research this stage takes shouldn’t be underestimated.
  • “You will also need to have opened up dialogue with the department that will be considering your application. They would expect and welcome these kind of conversations and, of course, they may well have approached potential applicants in the first place. You need to be talking to them about your draft proposals for the research area. At this early stage it doesn’t have to be so precise. Really as vague as pointing to an unexplored region on a map.”

I asked him whether the kind of advice we give to students applying for Masters bears any resemblance to that given to PhD applicants.

“Not really. At Masters level it can sometimes be important that students understand how the Masters fits in (or not) to a career destination. With PhD applicants the default assumption is that the destination is an academic research career.

“Similarly the skills agenda doesn’t show up much in PhD applications. Even highly relevant skills such as research, independent working and communication don’t tend to get scrutinised. It may be more of a feature if you are applying for a funded PhD when the awarding institution may produce specific guidelines. What you will need to demonstrate though is a willingness to be flexible in the direction your research takes. By definition we are talking about relatively unexplored territory and you need to show a capacity to navigate around an area as things are uncovered. Your supervisor ideally is someone who can then help you as things unfold supplying insight, support and even useful contacts and lines of enquiry. Your draft research question probably won’t survive till the end of the programme . By the end of the MPhil stage which is typically 12 to 16 months in depending on the institution your area of research will have clarified.

“There really isn’t a specific CV format for PhD applications. Applicants might make sure though that their autonomous research skills are clearly evidenced. Ensuring that their breadth and depth of reading around their proposed area of study is clear. Engagement needs also to be demonstrated in other ways. For example conferences attended and key players connected with. They wouldn’t expect any publications in academic journals from Masters level students. Material published in anything other than peer reviewed journals –student magazines, for example, wouldn’t carry any weight.

You can read our blog on PhD matters at

Other useful site include

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Topics: CVs and applications, Postgraduate study

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