Applying for research degrees

A quick guide to the doctoral application process...

1. Identify your area of interest

Once you have decided what you want to study for your research degree, you need to identify where you want to study and who you want to study with.

Bear in mind that there are two types of PhD project – the first, prevalent in science and engineering subjects, will have been predesigned by an academic, and the second, more common in arts and humanities subjects, where the prospective student must formulate a research plan themselves.  

  • A predesigned project, which will often be attached to full funding, will often form part of a wider research initiative being undertaken by an academic or research group. The project will usually have a project title and fixed aims and objectives, and be supervised by the academic who designed the project.  Students interested in a PhD in science or engineering need to identify a suitable project from those advertised, and then convince the supervisor they can carry it out. Swansea advertises several of these opportunities throughout the year, advertised on our research scholarships web page  as and when they become available. 
  • Your own research idea will take a little more work to get off the ground. After coming up with a project, you need to identify the right place to do your research. Find a university department with the areas of strength that are most relevant to your research, and you are likely to find a prospective supervisor in that department. You can search Swansea’s directory of expertise  to find an academic with research interests closest to your own. This potential supervisor will help you fine-tune your PhD idea.

2. Contact your prospective supervisor

Once you have identified a project you would like to apply for, you need to apply in the way that the supervisor has requested. This is usually in the form of an academic CV with a covering letter, and will be detailed on the advert for the studentship.

If you have identified a prospective supervisor for your own research idea, you need to contact them prior to submitting a formal application. Academics welcome informal approaches from prospective students – include in your email a brief description of your research idea and details of your academic background.

Often prospective PhD candidates will identify an academic department they wish to work in, but are not sure which academic would be best placed to supervise them. Each academic department will have a director of research – they are best placed to put you in touch with a prospective supervisor, so email them with your research idea and a request that they forward your enquiry to the relevant academic.

3. Submit a formal application, including your research proposal

Once you are in touch with your prospective supervisor, they will be able to help you with your research proposal. You can then submit a formal application for postgraduate study. This is usually just a formality, as your supervisor will already have decided whether or not they are able to supervise your project.

Special Notice:

Application procedures for funded places may vary. You can view details of all current research funding on our scholarships and bursaries page.


You will be required to submit two references along with your formal application and research proposal. If you graduated within the last five years, these should be lecturers or tutors from a previous course.

If there's been a long gap since you last studied, admissions tutors will sometimes accept references from an employer or another appropriate individual who can comment on your academic ability. References from relatives or friends will not be accepted.

If you are using a previous employer as a reference, think carefully about who you ask. An employer's reference is only valuable if you're looking to research an area in which your employment is relevant.

How should references be submitted?

References should be submitted EITHER:

  • On the relevant PG Reference Form OR
  • On headed paper OR
  • Be emailed from an academic email account.

When should I apply?

For individual research proposals, there are usually several possible start-dates:

  • 1st October
  • 1st January
  • 1st April
  • 1st July

These are subject to approval by the appropriate academic school. You should be contacting prospective supervisors well in advance of possible start dates. In particular, you should apply for your course well before any deadlines for funding that you intend to pursue, as funding applications can often be time-consuming to put together. Most funding bodies have spring deadlines.

Predesigned projects and funded studentships will usually have an application deadline – apply as soon as you have identified a project you are interested in.