5 Reasons Why Your PhD Application Was Rejected

5 Reasons Why Your PhD Application Was Rejected

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Applying for a PhD can be a long and difficult process, with not many opportunities for you to hear feedback on your application. If your application was not successful and you're not sure why, here are some of the most common reasons for PhD applications to be rejected. If you plan to improve your PhD application this autumn, download our free guide "How to successfully apply to a PhD in Economics".

1. Your project proposal was too vague

Obviously, when you're applying for a PhD, you won't have a full overview of exactly what your project will involve. However, you do need to be able to lay out a reasonable roadmap to show how you would go about answering your research questions. You need to be specific in your project proposal – what kind of experiment or study will you perform? What statistical tests will you use? What meaning would either positive or negative results have for your field of study? You need to address these questions in your application. Without specific information on what kind of research you are planning to do for your PhD, your application is unlikely to be accepted. Try to make your research proposal as precise and concrete as possible.

2. Your project proposal was unrealistic

We all want our research to be informative and meaningful – but you need to be realistic too. If your PhD research proposal suggested that your work could radically alter the foundations of your subject and revolutionise the way your topic is approached by the academic community, then you were probably being overly ambitious! Three years in which to do a PhD sounds like a long time, but actually research projects always take much longer to complete than you would imagine. You need to make sure that the research you are proposing is realistically achievable in the few years that you will have available to you. Aiming for a smaller-scale project which it is possible to execute well in just a few years will show that you have a level-headed and grounded approach to your research.

3. You didn't demonstrate why your skills were right for your project

Universities are looking for candidates who have a proven track record of research in the area of study for their potential PhD. This is easy to address if you proposed a PhD which followed on naturally from your undergraduate or master's work. However, if you want to change fields for your PhD or to move into a different topic, you need to be careful in the way that you address this in your proposal. You need to show that you already have many of the skills needed to complete your project. For example, maybe you did a psychology undergraduate degree and want to do a PhD in business – in that case, you should talk about the statistical skills you have gained, and how your knowledge of human behaviour would help to guide you when dealing with management issues. Find example from your past of the skills that you would use in your new field and use these to demonstrate your capability.


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4. Your project was not a good match for the institution

Both universities and departments within each university will have topics or subject areas which they specialise in. For example, in psychology, some departments are very academically minded and specialise in evidence-based approaches, while others have a more clinically-based approach and focus on a certain school of psychotherapy. If your PhD does not fit neatly in with the department's interests, then your application is unlikely to succeed. The specialisation of any given department can be quite difficult for an outsider to ascertain, as it is not usually stated explicitly. So the best way to work out the interests of a department is to check the pages for each individual professor and researcher on the departmental website, and check over their publication list. Try to find a university and department whose interests match as closely as possible to your project.

5. Your academic profile was not a good match for the institution

Finally, you yourself also need to be a good match to wherever you are applying. “Institutional fit” is a high priority for admission committees, meaning that they want to know that you, your project, and the department will all fit together harmoniously. Emphasise your relevant skills, from previous jobs or volunteering that you have done, as well as your academic background. Try to show that you understand the language and priorities of the department and that you could perform your research there effectively.

Good luck with your PhD applications, and don't despair! Sometimes it takes a few attempts before you find the right PhD place for you.

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