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. 

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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