Mistakes Master's students make before applying for a PhD

general masters phd Jun 19, 2023
shocked man

I had a meeting recently with my previous Director of Postgraduate Research (the head honcho of Doctoral Studies in my School). During this meeting, we discussed the recent issues she has faced when sieving through PhD applications from Masters students.

The Masters course is often seen as a Pre-PhD rite but the problem is that some students take the Masters programme for granted since their long term aim is to secure a PhD programme. This post is a synthesis of some of the major mistakes that I have witness Masters students made and my tips on how to set yourself up for a successful PhD application at the end of your Masters.


Mistake #1: I need a Masters to do a PhD

This is not exactly true and depends on the country that you are applying to. In the UK, a Masters is not always required to apply to a PhD programme. In many fields such as healthcare and social sciences, it is possible to do a PhD without a Masters. In fact, I have recently heard of a PhD student who secured a PhD in English Literature offer WITHOUT EVEN A DEGREE. Her application was purely based on her merits as a writer for the past 10 years. Before you commit thousands of pounds and a year of your life to do a Masters, check to see if you can take the express route straight into the PhD.
The Masters does prepare a student for a PhD course. There are many perks of doing a Masters first such re-adjusting to the academic environment, learning research methods, networking into academia etc. However, the PhD is, in essence, a learning journey. You are not expected to start the PhD knowing everything, instead, you are expected to learn new research methods, develop your research skills, improve your academic writing etc. The step up to a PhD level programme is going to be massive even with a Masters under your belt. That’s why it is worth considering skipping a Masters programme if possible and start from the deep end to save yourself some time and money.


Mistake #2: I just need to pass my Masters

Unless you already have a conditional offer for a PhD program, you better work hard for that Masters. When supervisors decide to take you on as a student, they need some sort of assurance that you are indeed up to the task. The dropout rate of the PhD programme is high and not many people survive the PhD programme. Supervisors want to be sure that you are not another statistic and the measure of your research capability is your work, whether it is your Masters, published papers or research experience. Doing well in your Masters is a great way to show that you are a worthwhile investment of their time.


Mistake #3: The university needs me more than I need them

Sometimes when speaking to prospective PhD students, I get a sense of self-entitlement from some of these students. The logic they seem to subscribe to is that since they already have funding secured so they expect to be accepted by any university of their choosing.

PhD programmes are competitive. In top-performing research institutes, you certainly need them more than they need you. I'm sure you have read about tuition fee cuts and how some universities are struggling to stay profitable. Academic finances are a lot more complicated than “more students = more money”. PhD student recruitment is often limited by the availability of suitable supervisors and research.

In the face of competitive funding, universities are starting to focus their research interests and efforts, in hopes of specialising in specific areas of interest. Because of this, they are starting to be more selective of doctoral student applications these days. There are many great research ideas left un-researched, funding unused, research programmes un-filled, it is more likely that you need the university more than they do you.


Mistake #4: Only my Masters dissertation counts towards my PhD

It is better to think of the whole Masters as an audition period for your PhD application. Your potential supervisors are observing how well you write, how you engage with your assignments, how you think, how you work, how are you as a researcher. How you behave and perform during your Masters will give your potential supervisors a glimpse of how you would be as a PhD student. You are not expected to be a top scorer but your attitude towards your work goes a long way in helping your potential supervisors develop some confidence in your abilities.

As a Masters student, you are in a great position to secure that PhD offer. Make very good use of this time to prove yourself as an academic. Forge great relationships with your potential supervisors and show interest in their research areas. Work hard on your dissertation and your assignments.

I was told that a PhD applicant was rejected recently by his supervisors because he was not engaging with the Masters programme despite doing well in his dissertation. Apparently, he was skipping classes, submitting sub-par assignments and did not participate in the tutorials. Don’t be like him.

Mistake #5: It is easier to be accepted at the same university where I did my Masters
This is sometimes true and sometimes not. It is indeed easier to apply to a PhD programme at the same university/school because you would have a better relationship with your potential supervisors or have the chance to prove your abilities throughout the course etc.

However, if you are thinking along the lines of “loyalty points” then it certainly doesn’t work that way. Universities are in the business of choosing the most suitable student for their programmes. I would like to believe that the selection process is meritocratic.

As much as you are “auditioning” during your Masters, make use of the Masters programme to see if the school/university is indeed suitable for your PhD. Consider your student experience, the amount of support provided, the city and surrounding environment etc. If you are already midway in your Masters programme, why not make full use of this experience to make the most informed decision?