How to successfully apply for a PhD place in Australia

I’ve guided many a person into a PhD candidature, both at ANU and to other places, so I know how confusing it can be. The process of making an application to an Australian University is frustratingly opaque for many, especially people who do not have ‘connections’. This post by Madeline Taylor will be useful to anyone who is considering applying for a PhD in Australia. The general points are probably applicable to other countries too, but I will be interested in what people might share in the comments.

Madeline Taylor is a PhD candidate at Victoria College of Arts, University of Melbourne. Her research generally focuses on contemporary costume practice, technical theatre’s interpersonal dynamics and fashion display and performance, and her thesis is examining the collaborative practices of costume production. This research draws on her 15 years’ experience as a performance practitioner, working on over 85 productions in theatre, dance, opera, circus and film in Australia and the UK. Balancing her work and study is learning to be a mum to a 2 year old, her fern garden and hanging out with friends as part of fashion and design group the stitchery collective.

Deciding to start a PhD is alternately exciting and terrifying, especially if you need a scholarship to afford to study. In 2012, I decided to do my PhD. I wrote an application, put together my support documents for Honours 1 equivalency (at 83% I was a few points short of a greatly desired First), and crossed my fingers hard.

I was rejected.

Well, not entirely. Accepted into the PhD program but not awarded a living allowance scholarship. I knew financially and practically I couldn’t accept the offer. My tendency to prioritise paid work would mean research wouldn’t get the time it needed and would just end up feeling guilty and stressed. I backburner-ed study, but kept writing a articles and conference papers to build my research track record.

Fast forward to January 2017. After applying to four PhD programs around Australia, I was offered places in all four programs and three scholarship offers. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. In this process I learnt a lot about PhD applications, and want to share some of my findings.

The most important things I learnt was how closely the PhD application process resembles a job hunt. This is particularly evident in how much personal connections count.

I don’t think it coincidental that the three institutions that offered me a scholarship were the three institutions where I knew or met people face-to-face. I was successful at QUT, where I did my undergraduate and honours studies and had been tutoring consistently for the last 5 years. I was accepted at Griffith, where I met with potential supervisors prior to submitting my application, a connection which grew out of chatting at a conference. Finally, I was accepted at University of Melbourne, where I approached a former honours supervisor who had changed institutions as a potential PhD supervisor, and I decided to fly down to meet the interview panel, rather than Skype in (I do not do good Skype). My unsuccessful scholarship application was with RMIT, with whom I only had email contact.

The value of personal connections was made clear in the post-mortem discussions, in which potential supervisors discussed defending my research project in the committee meetings in which students were ranked and scholarships were decided. Having someone go in to bat for you here is important. This means building rapport and making sure they really understand your project and its value is critical. Face-to-face chats are also helpful for information on an institution’s areas of growth to align with or allude to in the application. Don’t just rely on the university website for information about things like research clusters; I found that these are often out of date.

Obviously, the application itself has to be strong, both in content and structure. While the project content is up to you, I highly recommend asking friends or potential supervisors for examples of successful applications to get a sense of tone, formatting, and detail. From the examples I was given I took the idea to diagram my research plan timeline, which made it clear and visually interesting, and include potential research outputs, which I put on the timeline. For example, I suggested I would present my research plan at a national conference shortly after confirmation, and pitch a contextualising chapter as an article to a respected journal 6 months later. This evidenced I knew the field, and how I could engage with it.

Applying to four institutions meant that each application I wrote was stronger than the last. Just like a job’s selection criteria, each university will ask for different information in its proposal. I wrote these concurrently, so was able to transpose some of the unrequested information into the different applications which gave each one more depth. Further, having to rearticulate the same idea four different ways prompted me to drill down into the specifics of the project and think about it from multiple perspectives; this was very helpful in solidifying ideas and identifying gaps in my planning.

How institutions rank applications varies and is very opaque, relying on complex scoring calculations. Understanding the intricacies of this isn’t vital, but knowing what the scholarship committee look at might be. Does the institution focus more on alignment with supervisory team, or the university vision? How do they weigh publications or professional experience? How much attention is paid to previous research projects, or creative works? Knowing this allows you to tailor your proposal and support documents to the institution’s scoring model.

Finding the scoring criteria can be tricky, so getting it directly from potential supervisors or the HDR support team might be the best bet. If they don’t want to give it to you try searching the bowels of the net using some permutation of “phd scholarship criteria/ranking/scoring institution name”. I think establishing institution alignment was helpful to my success. In framing my research, I discussed not only the global changes and national and international conversations in my field the study was responding to, but how it connected to the university vision and aims. While only one sentence of my 2-page application, I also explicitly discussed the research’s connection and potential value to undergraduate courses and discipline pedagogy, for which I extensively researched course details in the university handbook.

Treating the PhD application process like a job hunt really worked well for me. If you fail in the first application and don’t have the capacity to study without scholarship I encourage everyone to try again another year. In 2012 it was suggested that I could start my PhD and reapply for scholarship after confirmation. I hesitated when others at the institution warned that a scholarship in this scenario was unlikely: advice subsequently borne out by friend’s experiences across several universities, although this might not be the case everywhere.

The intervening years since my first application have allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I now have a far stronger topic, more experience writing and researching to draw on, and the emotional resilience to deal with the PhD journey. That early rejection was the best thing that could have happened.

Thanks for sharing your story Madeline. How about you? What did you learn about the internal processes of the university during your PhD application process? There are many confused potential students out there who would value your advice!

Related posts

Not doing a PhD (and being ok with that)

What to say when someone asks “Should I do a PhD?”

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12 thoughts on “How to successfully apply for a PhD place in Australia

  1. Thanks for this post! I’m an international student who was accepted at an Australian uni for a PhD starting in 2019. I was not offered any scholarship from the uni because the main criterion seems to be volume of published research. In my field this is an extremely unreasonable criterion for several reasons, but no matter.

    So I’m now applying for an Endeavour scholarship from the Australian government (due Thursday!). What concerns me is that this has been restructured as the “Endeavour Leadership Program,” although they still offer PhD funding for international students. What kind of “leadership” do they have in mind here?

    • Hi Elizabeth, I’m in a similar situation and applying for the Endeavour leadership award. Finding sources/ success stories online is exhausting.
      The assessment criteria gave me the idea that the ‘leadership’ they have in mind is past demonstration and future aspiration. Why you would become a leader in your field and your investment in leadership/ self development.

      I have zero published research too and it worries me. So nervous about the application!

  2. Hi there, Thanks for the article. I’m provisionally enrolled for my PhD at University of Johannesburg and am thinking of transferring to the University of Queensland in the coming year. The application process at UQ has been extremely frustrating so far as they require that you secure a supervisor before proceeding with the application and unfortunately the almost twenty individuals I have reached out to so far have indicated that they cannot accommodate an additional supervision arrangement. Basically I am stuck at this stage. Any tips on how to break from this? Regards, Blessing MabutoFounder – Organisation for Youth Advancement (OYA)Regional Coordinator – JumpStart ProgrammePhD Candidate – University of JohannesburgP.O. Box 11734 Hatfield Pretoria 0028South AfricaMobile: +27 71 715 6964Skype: blessing.mabutoTwitter: @Butoz

  3. Posts like this are invaluable. I applied for a PhD in 2015 but was rejected. The following year I was on UniCanberra’s campus video recording interviews with Belle Alderman to give the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature publicity. My partner got me an interview with Jerry Watkins, then head of the N&MRC at UniCanberra. Jerry was incredibly supportive and nominated three supervisors without actually consulting with them.

    This was a problem!!!

    UniCanberra made me an offer for a place in a Master’s degree with the opportunity to upgrade to a PhD if I did well in first semester. I exceeded expectations at my Introductory Seminar, which I had to fight to do because my supervisor did not want to supervise me. She didn’t want to meet with me after our initial 20 minute meeting (apart from the time I told her a student had assaulted me, nearly pushed me downstairs and was bullying me) and I had to bring in the HDR convenor and reference the faculty handbook to support my claim that the introductory seminar deadline must be kept. Luckily I completed coursework that semester and the two lecturers involved were my pseudo supervisors for that semester.

    After that semester finished, the wheels fell off. I no longer had any kind of supervision for my project. I sent in my fortnightly research summaries as instructed but my supervisor delayed my confirmation from November to February then April while refusing any feedback until after her Christmas holidays, when she read my draft research proposal for the first time in February. Then she insisted that my lifetime of living with albinism and years of learning about albinism and its representations were invalid. It turns out she felt targeted: she has a mild degree of albinism and she said, ‘But I’m not like you!’

    Three weeks later she changed her mind about the previously positive written feedback she’d given me concerning my research questions then she quit when I asked for more than the one week remaining until my proposal was due because I had to develop a completely new proposal after she said I was not to mention marginalisation or power structures regarding representations of albinism (my disability and the focus of my research).

    Two months later the university appointed a new supervisory panel while simultaneously refusing to allow me to have a supervisor or advisor from outside the university. This new panel actually met with me!!! They actually gave me feedback!!! But they also instructed me to research different methodologies even though they anticipated these methodologies were incompatible with my work. They seemed not to relate at all to the reputable disability studies scholars whose work I was referencing. Even when my research proposal exceeded 30,000 words with an extensive literature review, they told me to keep researching and keep writing more and more instead of going to confirmation.

    My advice to others is that if your work is intersectional, make sure your supervisor/s allow intersectional research. If your work is unusual, like focusing on disability studies, make sure your university has a disability studies area or at least a few (preferably several) disability studies scholars.

    • This sounds so frustrating and well done for pushing through. I decided I couldn’t even go near selecting supervisors for this post, because it’s such a big thing in itself. But they really are crucial. Thanks for the nice feedback!

  4. Yes, I totally agree with Madeline, and it actually feels like reading my own story :), I won a prestigious scholarship and I believe that acceptance by a supervisor make a lot of difference and aspirants must invest time and efforts in going through the work and projects of the person they want to work with, especially when they have not met before, in this way when you approach your potential supervisor, you are able to make a good impression of understanding of the subject and mutual area of interest and get an opportunity to bring out a potential industrially relevant idea together, in case you are not very much clear on the future PhD project

    • Thanks I’m glad it resonated. You’re so right, researching your supervisors is so important. It’s something I couldn’t even touch on in this, because it’s such a big topic

  5. What an inspiring post. I have always thought that resilience and persistence are an important part of your PhD. We all have setbacks but need to push through and learn. To finally succeed at your PhD is very empowering and confirmation of your belief in yourself. Kerry

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