Applying for a Sociology or Social Policy PhD in the UK: An Insider Guide

Aerial view of female sitting on a bed surrounded by a diary, books and a laptop

Dr Roxanne Connelly and Dr Kevin Ralston, University of Edinburgh 2022


Applying for a PhD is very different to applying for an undergraduate or master’s degree. There is no central application system (like UCAS in the UK) and the process often involves less formalised elements, such as making contact with potential supervisors. From a sociological perspective applying for a PhD certainly embodies elements of the ‘hidden curriculum’, knowledge that is not directly taught and is generally only accessed by those who are lucky enough to have appropriate networks or helpful mentors. In this blog we give some insider advice to students intending to apply to undertake a PhD.


Let’s start from the beginning, in the UK a PhD is one of the highest level academic degrees that can be awarded. A PhD programme involves the student completing a piece of research and writing it up as a Doctoral thesis. A PhD is officially 3 years in length, although it is not uncommon for students to take an extra year to complete their work. When the thesis is complete it is shared with examiners and defended in an oral exam, the viva voce.


We outline five tips that are generally helpful and especially relevant for anyone interested in applying to undertake a Sociology or Social Policy PhD in the UK:


1. Start looking early

Deadlines for PhD applications can be up to a year in advance.


  • Leave yourself plenty of time and start researching deadlines as soon as possible.
  • By giving yourself plenty of time to prepare you can also think about developing your CV with relevant activities. You might consider summer research opportunities your university offers, or whether you can gain relevant work experience related to what you intend to study. These sorts of activities can help you stand out if you are applying for funding.

2. Look for supervisors, not universities

PhD students are supervised by a team of supervisors, usually two academic members of staff who you will meet with regularly. Applicants are usually required to gain the support of potential supervisors before making an application.


  • Ideally, you will select supervisors who work in your field of interest, and from whom you want to learn. Universities and departments have different reputations and levels of prestige which you may wish to consider. But our advice is that the quality of the supervisor is more important than the university you want to study at. It would not be sensible to decide on a university, and then seek to identify supervisors as an afterthought.
  • When contacting potential supervisors attach a copy of your CV and a short (i.e. 1 to 2 page research proposal). Writing a long email is probably not the optimal strategy. Introduce yourself and make it clear how your research fits with the supervisor’s interests. It is likely you are contacting someone who is very busy and may not have much time available to read long unsolicited emails. Bear this in mind, don’t take the approach of sending a very large number of impersonal emails, they are likely to be ignored.

3. Looking for a PhD opportunity and looking for PhD funding are intertwined

The question of how you will pay for your PhD studies is probably at the forefront of your mind. Self-funding your PhD will be demanding, a PhD is a full time job in itself. Whilst there are often paid tutoring opportunities available to PhD students this income will generally not allow you to fully support yourself. Looking for a PhD studentship or scholarship to fund your studies is a sensible approach. PhD studentships in our disciplines are available, most commonly via UKRI. These pay your fees and provide a stipend to live off. There are usually also a small number of university or departmental scholarships available. These opportunities are limited and highly competitive, but they do exist.


  • There are two studentship routes, the first is student led where you come up with your own research idea and then apply for a studentship. Application details for this route are generally advertised on university webpages.
  • The second is the supervisor led route, which, from our experience, is the less well-known approach. Here the supervisors secure funding and then advertise for a student to fulfil the role. These opportunities are usually advertised in the spring on websites such as or Students can sometimes be less excited by this route, and often favour ‘their own project’. But these projects have been designed by experts, and have the full support of appropriate supervisors. These are excellent opportunities and should not be overlooked. Indeed, your chances of obtaining a fully funded PhD may be greater if you take an approach to apply for supervisor led PhD’s.

4. Consider what comes next

It is never too early to think about the future. Unfortunately, getting a PhD is no guarantee of getting an academic job. Academic jobs are scarce. When thinking about applying for a PhD you might also want to think carefully about the transferable skills you wish to develop throughout the course of your studies. These might be skills in qualitative or quantitative research methods, working with particular groups, or developing expertise in a particular substantive or policy area. Our main advice in this regard is not to put all your eggs in one basket, and to use your PhD study to maximise and specialise your skillsets. If an academic career is what you want, then go all in to build a C.V. for that, but equally, it is important to have a ‘plan b’ in the event this does not work out as you hope.


5. Try and try again

Securing a PhD place with funding is competitive, but that is no reason not to try. You might find that you need to apply to multiple programmes and institutions before landing the funded PhD of your dreams! Good Luck!



Photo by Windows on Unsplash


The Research Training Centre applies expertise in a diverse set of social science methods, through teaching and research. The Centre provides new insights to the key challenges in society.

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