Advice for Aspiring PhD Candidates from an Admissions Expert

Joining us on the blog today with five key recommendations for aspiring PhD candidates is Joe de Pasquale. Joe has worked in Higher Education for at least twenty years at both Monash and Melbourne Universities. At Melbourne he was responsible for overseeing the scholarship scoring process for an academic department of the Faculty of Education. Whilst at Monash, he was the PhD Admissions Manager in Arts responsible for assisting potential research students with their applications for admission. 

PhD THE website

1. Make sure you convert your degree to the appropriate scale:

This is a mistake most international candidates make, but it also applies to Australians looking to apply for a PhD overseas. Something you might not know is that PhD candidates are assessed very differently from coursework programs. For PhDs, we look for the equivalent in grading scale (for example, an 80 in Australia would be a High Distinction, but in the UK it would be a 1st class). Make sure your grades are adjusted to the scale in your country of choice. Universities usually provide conversion tables to guide you, but if unsure, make sure you convey to the admissions officer how your grades rate in your university’s grading scale. The minimum admission standard at Australian universities for a PhD is H2A or Distinction average. (note the minimum for a university scholarship is H1 or first class honours or HD). The numerical figure varies from university to university but the key is to understand the grading level. A grade in the first division (is the minimum for a scholarship) whilst the grade in the second division is the minimum admission requirement.

2. Do not bulk email your proposal to people within the same faculty:

I cannot stress this enough. It is the easiest way to get your proposal discounted. I know that sometimes universities do not make it easy for you to find a supervisor, but bulk emails are never a good strategy. First of all, it shows that you do not have a personalised, targeted approach which is something academics really value. Most importantly, you are just wasting everyone’s time and that is something that academics truly dislike. Tailor to your email to the academic which has the most similar research interests. Don’t necessarily just target the Head of Department or Professor. Quite often, the most likely supervisor will be a more junior academic at a senior lecturer level or associate professor.

3. Make sure you present an academic CV:

Surprisingly, this is a mistake most applicants tend to make. An academic CV is supposed to showcase your research capabilities and technical expertise. Most people will just mention doing a Masters, but they neglect to mention whether they have done a thesis or research project. It is always a good idea to add the title of your thesis as well as your grade, as this will demonstrate that you have the necessary skills and relevant experience to carry out a PhD. Also know the word count of the thesis or pages (we normally say 300 words per page times by the number of pages equals word count.)

4. Read the admissions criteria carefully:

The same way you would address key criteria in a job application, it is really important to hone in on the admissions criteria. All the information is there for a reason. Learn to read between the lines in order to highlight the relevant experience and skills they might be looking for. Use their language; that shows your commitment and that you really understand your targeted audience. This is particularly relevant if you are also applying for a scholarship.

Most universities expect you have to complete a substantial thesis at an honours level or at a master level. The length of the thesis will vary from institution, however, students who have only completed a project subject will not generally be assessed as being eligible for admission

5. Find referees that can be your champions:

Most of the references we get are fairly generic, simply stating that X was in their class, performed well, got X as a result. This tells us nothing about you as a person. It is important that your referees know you well and can truly emphasise what your skills and strengths are and back this up with concrete evidence. Make sure you have a chat with them beforehand so that they are also aware of what your goals and objectives are so they can highlight relevant evidence of your technical knowledge in that area.

As a personal recommendation, I would suggest you pay a visit to the admissions department before applying. Believe it or not, they want you to do well and they are there to help with any questions you may have. If possible, I would suggest arranging a meeting in person, as emails can sometimes get lost in the noise or not really clarify your doubts. Again, this is something that I have always personally encouraged, but it might vary according to faculties. However, going for a friendly chat to discuss admissions criteria has been an invaluable experience for several of the candidates that have crossed my path.

Joe De Pasquale
Senior Manager, Global Engagement

4 skills you will need to apply for a PhD

Following my previous post, these are a few core skills that I found vital when applying for a PhD. While the list below reflects my personal experience, I believe it might be a good starting point for other aspiring candidates. That said, others may need different skill sets (and even strategies that are different from what I have shared) to make their PhD application successful.

1. Formulating a research idea

While it might sound like stating the obvious, formulating a clear research idea is key to a successful application. You will need to narrow down a research gap, critique current theories or approaches or methods, and articulate your position through a new research idea.

2. Searching and networking for information

Knowing where you can apply and where to get funding from, what you need to prepare, when the deadlines are, and how you should submit the application are all crucial. You also need to find effective ways to gather information on where you can do your PhD. Doing some in depth online research is the norm, but attending conferences or talking to people are other great ways of obtaining relevant insights.

In my particular case, I tried all the above mentioned approaches. However, I found  the most relevant news through a Facebook post. Some programs and projects (like mine) do not publicise and circulate their information widely,  and so you really have to cast the net wider and network with people.

3. Writing an effective research proposal 

It is important to emphasise that this document will let your supervisors and those processing your application know what you are going to do. I have outlined the structure of a thesis proposal in this guideline, but you should check all requirements carefully before applying.

That said, while a proposal is important, your research ideas can change as you progress. Professors are aware of this. As a matter of fact, they will expect you to improve and refine your proposal throughout your PhD. Therefore, treat the proposal as a proof of your competencies by showing your critical and analytical thinking. Do not let the fear of not knowing enough intimidate you or constrain you while preparing the proposal. After all, it is about the potential of the research project; no proposal will ever be perfect.

4. Communicating effectively with all key stakeholders

I can’t emphasise this enough, but effective communication with all stakeholders is as important to your success as your GPA and research proposal.

It is therefore vital to communicate with your potential supervisors, funding/admission officers, and university administrators in a timely, polite, and confident manner. More often than not, they will try to help you should there be any issues during your application process. For example, if you need to submit a document late or have had a personal issue that might have affected your application, do communicate with them and always try to offer an alternative solution. During your admission interview, act confident and try to create rapport with your interviewers. Pay attention to details; do not forget to thank them, and follow up with them on your application the way you would do when applying for a job.

MIDP Alumni

Development and Academia: experiences of an international convention

The International Studies Association 58th Annual Convention was held in Baltimore, Maryland from February 22nd – 25th, 2017. It was organised by the International Studies Association, a premier organization promoting research activities since 1959  through connecting scholars and practitioners in the field of international studies. The theme of the convention was “Understanding Change in World Politics”. The theme resonated with the current political climate in America which impacted the participation of some of the potential attendees in the convention.  The travel restrictions led to  thoughtful exchanges and a number of protest events in solidarity with ISA members who were denied entry and could not attend. In fact, several members of the panel boycotted the conference altogether in solidarity with their fellow ISA colleagues.  

Despite these setbacks, the conference brought about 6500 people together from all corners of the world, both north and south. The participants were academics, researchers, young scholars, educators, and activists coming together to debate and discuss future world events, with a particular focus on research and activism. As a Young Career Scholar, the Presidential address by Ashley Leeds  (president of the International Students Association) was a particularly riveting start to the conference. It was an amazing experience to see academics and scholars (whom one has read and heard so much about!) under one roof. To witness such a big turnout at the event was both intimidating and overwhelming. I could see scholars dressed up in suits with their name tags hanging around their necks debating and discussing everywhere around us, whether it was outside the Hilton, (which was one of the main venues for the event) or at the cafeteria and bars around famous areas of the city. The sunny weather in Baltimore was an unexpected bonus and certainly added to the charm of the city.

Early career scholars like me were discussing experiences of their paper presentations, as well as their ideas. It was an opportunity for us to expand our networks and showcase our research, in addition to learning some essential tricks of the trade. In short, it was an opportunity for us to grow both personally and professionally. The Early Career Scholar Lounge was a space dedicated especially for young scholars like me to prepare our presentations, recharge and create early networks.

The area around the conference venue was bubbling with activities. During the day difficult choices were made regarding which panel discussions to attend. The conference was structured around Panel discussions which catered to different themes such as Global Development, Feminist Theory and Gender Studies, Ethnicity, Diplomacy, and International Security Studies amongst many others. Presentations and panel discussion allowed all participants to enter into meaningful, practical debates around the above mentioned themes. It was an excellent opportunity for a future development practitioner and researcher to educate herself from the diversity of experience that participants brought to the table. In the evening, networking events were organised such as various receptions which provided a chance to meet people working in similar fields. Some of the discussion would carry outside the conference venues.

Personally, this conference was an eye opener in many ways. Firstly, I travelled to America, a trip I know I would not have the courage to take in near future if it was not for this conference. Secondly, I engaged with some of the smartest minds pursuing their PhDs . There was always so much to do like attending discussions, establishing networks, getting nervous about my own ideas and of course to explore the charming Baltimore.

Recalling my presentation, I had never been as nervous as I was when I saw a room full of people who came to hear the panel discussion. The theme of our panel was Peacemaking, Peacebuilding, and Post-Conflict Transformation: Gender, Agency and Political Change, to which I contributed with  my paper on Afghan Women; Peacemakers and Resilient Survivors. The paper talks about how experiences and perceptions of men have historically shaped the politics and discourse of conflict resolution. This simultaneously implies the silencing of a large part of the population and making their experiences invisible. It is important to explore the brilliant work carried out by the women in these silent and private spaces where they are subsequently confined to during the conflict.

As you can probably imagine, the experience of the presentation itself and all the feedback I got afterwards has been incredibly informative and rewarding. I am glad I took this chance to go present something that bloomed from a little idea that I had. This was my first international conference abroad, so I am positive this experience will stay with me for a lifetime. I am now more determined and motivated to pursue my academic career so I am hoping this will have been the first of many presentations to come. Watch this space.


MIDP student

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Doing the right thing before doing things right: a guide for aspiring PhD students

What is a PhD? Is it the right thing for me? What can I do with a PhD? How can I get into a PhD training?

If at some point you have thought about these questions, then this is the article for you. Through the reflection and first-hand experience of a former MIDP student, the article will prompt you to think whether your interest and reasons for taking a PhD are feasible and well-informed. The first part of our guide for aspiring PhD students will hopefully engage you to think critically about your interest before giving valuable advice to consider in order to submit a successful application.

From MIDP to PhD

I graduated from Monash University’s MIDP in December 2015. Soon after I left Australia, I joined the PhD training in human geography at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. Reflecting on my MIDP experience after more than a year, I very much value what I have gained during the program. MIDP has prepared me very well for my PhD  by allowing me to think more broadly about  participatory methods, research uptake, and policy implications in my current research. The highlight of MIDP for me is that it equips students with vigorous research skill sets and experiences through minor thesis and project options.

Picture 1. My thesis fieldwork in the upland Vietnam during MIDP was an eye opener, where I investigated how local ethnic minority people reconfigured their agency in responding to the state development policies. My PhD research proposal was very much influenced by findings of this research. Source: author.

However, pursuing a PhD is no easy task. As a result, I have designed a couple of guides for you to consider before entering the world of academic research. To start us off, here is a concise list of things you should be aware of before applying for a PhD

PhD 101: The Basics

Very briefly, a PhD is a big research that earns you a doctorate title at the end of the journey. It is when you can do something you are always passionate about, or you will be as the research progresses. A PhD degree will open new doors for you to do exciting new things: become an academic, conduct research, write papers and books, work with policy makers, nurture and inspire students among others.

Picture 2. A few months into my PhD training, I decided to co-organise a community talk with some people from the field site where I did my MIDP thesis. We co-presented the research findings to the public and answered questions from the audience. The PhD training prompted me to think more critically about how academics can engage with larger social changes and more diverse audiences beyond academic settings. Source: author’s friend.

Of course, having a PhD is not a compulsory pre-requirement to pursue many of these activities, or to learn and further expand your career. However, having gone through a PhD will familiarise you to solve complex tasks using very specific skills, and you can use it as a solid stepping stone to venture into new avenues.

The struggle is real

Taking a PhD also involves opportunity costs, requires a high level of self-motivation and discipline, and changes your life at a personal level. While you immerse in your 3-4 year research, life goes on. You may gain tremendously at the end of your journey, but you may lose some personal and career opportunities along the way too. There are moments of crisis – things can go wrong with your research, your supervisors, your participants, or your personal life – and you have to balance everything and motivate yourself to carry on. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much you have learned, and how your life perspective has changed so profoundly.

Picture 3. Apart from the joy of realising we are progressing, PhD students can intermittently face periods when they feel unmotivated, doubtful, frustrated or lost. This does not necessarily mean that PhD training is always stressful, but rather suggests that we need to strike for balance and self-motivate ourselves during the PhD course. Source:
Picture 3. Apart from the joy of realising we are progressing, PhD students can intermittently face periods when they feel unmotivated, doubtful, frustrated or lost. This does not necessarily mean that PhD training is always stressful, but rather suggests that we need to strike for balance and self-motivate ourselves during the PhD course. Source:

However, it is important to highlight that pushing your boundaries can also be a very frustrating exercise. Unfortunately, there are limits as to what we can do, and being constantly critical of yourself and others can challenge you in more ways than one.  

Plan, Do, Review

If you are certain you would like to pursue a PhD, then plan for it as early as you can. Firstly, think about what topics intrigue you, or what questions puzzle you. Secondly, find where you can apply for your PhD topic, and which supervisors you would like to be on your team. Thirdly, find out what entry requirements you must meet to be eligible; some programs place more emphasis on having a good GPA, some will stress on the importance of having a proven publication record, while others will want a good research proposal.

Last but not least, find out how you can secure funding for the PhD if you are not able to self-finance it. It is becoming extremely competitive to get a place in PhD training programs in the context of budget cut in many parts of the word. Therefore, cast the net a little bit wider by choosing a few options and trying it out. Check all possible websites and social media of your interested supervisors, universities, funding agencies and/or PhD groups. Talk to your current MIDP lecturers and get their advice. Attend different conferences and meetings to network and get more information. The options are endless.

Look at your life, look at your choices

Make sure you take the right discipline that fits with your strengths and values. It is quite normal in my current program that PhD students take their PhDs across different disciplines. However, I wrongly assumed that all sub-disciplines had similar academic traditions and approaches to solving problems, which has proven to be a bit of a challenge. Even within the same discipline, I am often surprised to see how different our epistemological stances are. For instance, in geography we are well aware that a human geographer may share more similarities in their theoretical frameworks and research methods with a sociologist or anthropologist rather than an economic or physical geographer.

Picture 4: Working with other research fellows from different disciplines and backgrounds can be a joyful and enriching experience as we learn to solve problems from a multidisciplinary perspective. However knowing your discipline’s traditions and where your strengths lie in are ultimately crucial to the success of your research project. Source: author’s friend.
Picture 4: Working with other research fellows from different disciplines and backgrounds can be a joyful and enriching experience as we learn to solve problems from a multidisciplinary perspective. However knowing your discipline’s traditions and where your strengths lie in are ultimately crucial to the success of your research project. Source: author’s friend.

Hence, you need to be aware and informed of these differences while making your decision. Read extensively on how research in each field is conducted and presented, and talk to people from different disciplines to have a more realistic and holistic understanding of all disciplines.

Your choice of location matters

Different countries and institutions have different PhD models. At least from what I know, in Australia and the UK, PhD students will embark on their research proposal and research project immediately after they join the program, and therefore can complete it in 3-4 years. However, in the US PhD students will have to complete a number of required modules before they defend their proposal and proceed to the real research, which eventually can take more than 4 years in total.

In Singapore (where I am studying now) they use a hybrid model that combines compulsory coursework modules (US model) and shorter PhD research (UK model). All funded PhD students in my institutions also have to fulfil research assistance and teaching tasks, which essentially prepares us for our future in academia.

MIDP Alumni