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Department of Geography

 

Demystifying postgraduate research admissions in Geography

Demystifying postgraduate research admissions in Geography

In this article, first year PhD representatives Anna Guasco and Hafsah Siddiqui share advice from their own experiences of applying to conduct research in the Department of Geography, as well as admissions insights from colleagues in the department.

Applying for a postgraduate research degree at Cambridge can appear intimidating. This is especially true if you're a student who doesn't already have connections at Cambridge. There can be a 'hidden curriculum' to postgraduate admissions – of things you're supposed to know, but can be difficult to find out with guidance. This article seeks to provide that guidance for anyone interested in applying to the Department.

As two first-year international students who applied to Cambridge with no connections – either in the department or in the broader university – we want to help potential future applicants by demystifying the complex and sometimes confusing world of postgraduate research degree admissions. This article is specifically focused on the policies, procedures, and expectations of the Department of Geography. The advice is relevant for the MPhil in Geography, the MPhil in Polar Studies, the PhD in Geography, and the PhD in Polar Studies. We've divided the article into categories of frequently asked questions/concerns.

Overall, we want to convey the following overall advice: spend your time doing your research, digging deeper into the department's website and other relevant websites, asking questions, and taking time to reflect on your own goals. We hope the advice in this article is helpful, and wish you good luck!

The department has also produced a video series on postgraduate admissions.

Timing

When should I apply for the degree? Why are there multiple deadlines? When should I reach out to a potential supervisor?

There are multiple deadlines to consider, and these actually are a bit different depending on your nationality and place of residence. Some scholarships (such as the Gates Cambridge in the U.S. round) may require that you apply earlier than the Department's own deadlines. Others (such as the Research Councils UK, Cambridge Trust and the Gates Cambridge in the international round) require that you apply by departmental deadlines for University funding (which for Geography are early December for MPhil or early January for PhD). There is also a later application deadline in March, but most University-based funding requires that you apply earlier than this. The Scott Polar Research Institute has two studentships for its MPhil in Polar Studies for which the deadline is late March. (If you are self-funding or relying on external funding, the March deadline may also be more feasible for you.)

But that's just when your application is due. It's also important to consider when to start working on your application and reaching out to your potential supervisor.

Among current students in the department, there was quite a variety of timelines for people's application processes. One person said they "saw the advertisement for my PhD in December and had to apply by the start of January. I then had an interview in February and received my offer the same day. The funding was already attached to the PhD but was fully confirmed in March." Another started their application in November, had an offer in early March, and heard back about funding late March. For one student, the process began in March of the year prior to their start date (so March 2018 for October 2019 entry), as they spent a long period of time researching supervisors and drafting their proposal; their application was due in October due to applying for the Gates scholarship in the US round. Some people reached out to potential supervisors in the autumn prior to their winter application deadline; some who applied to specific studentships had an application season of only a few weeks.

All of these application timeline stories share one thing: no one had the same timeline. Everyone's timeline is different, but it's important to start your research early, so that you have plenty of time to reach out to your potential supervisor, refine your proposal, and apply for funding.

Finding a supervisor, and sending enquiry e-mails

What should I say in an enquiry e-mail? What should I include? How do I know who to e-mail? How do I establish connections if I don't have any already?

For those who are essentially cold-calling supervisors, writing that first e-mail can be incredibly intimidating. One PhD student told us they applied to three universities at which they had no connections, and for each, they read several publications by each potential supervisor before contacting them. This helped them identify whose research interests seemed to match theirs, and to write an e-mail tailored to that individual person when reaching out. This process began far in advance of e-mailing these potential supervisors. If you don't have institutional access to articles, try looking on the Cambridge Open Access Repository, Google Scholar, Academia.edu, or ResearchGate. If you can't find a particular piece online, you can also ask if that person would be willing to share a copy; most often, people are happy to share their work!

Some faculty members explicitly state on their profiles what type of research they are interested in supervising. This is a quick way to check that your work seems relevant enough, before sending an e-mail. Another approach is to look at the profiles of the students a potential supervisor is already supervising or has recently supervised – does their work seem similar to yours (in topic, methodology, theoretical framework, etc.)?

One current faculty member who supervises PG research students gave the following helpful advice on a strong enquiry e-mail and proposal: it "first needs to fit what I and the Department can offer, where our strengths and interests lie. Someone might have a pretty good, workable idea, but if I can't see how I could supervise [that idea] effectively, then it's a nonstarter. Occasionally, supervisors like me get the impression that potential students have cut-and-pasted our names in the proposal and enquiry e-mail. Or, potential research students take a single aspect of what a supervisor might have worked on, possibly long ago, and they run with that. So I would look closely to the supervisor's most current work, their theoretical and methodological expertise, and their limitations. That said, you also have to hook them into being interested in the topic even if they aren't particularly knowledgeable about it. You want the supervisor to be asking where they might fit in, where the research might go, who the research might speak to when it is in published form…"

For some people, you might be applying to an advertised studentship with a specific supervisor. One student who did this told us they "e-mailed them saying I was interested in applying and would like to speak to them on the phone to find out more about the PhD and ask a few questions about how they work as a supervisor."

Another person had previously read their supervisor's work, and had been advised to contact that supervisor by a former student of that supervisor. That former student explained "how the system worked in the UK/Cambridge, since we both came from a different background (both country and discipline-wise)."

Some broad advice from current students included: not giving up if the first person you contact doesn't e-mail you back (it's okay to contact someone else!), including a CV (or offering to provide one) in your e-mail, and developing an elevator pitch of your proposed research. There is no one right way to contact a supervisor, but it's important to do your research and think through why someone would be a good fit for your proposed research.

Learning about the Department: Contacting current students and departmental programs

Why should you reach out to current students? What kinds of programming does the department offer?

It might be useful to contact students that your potential supervisor is currently working with. Most PhD students have their e-mail addresses listed on their personal departmental webpages. One student who took this approach asked questions about the supervisor's 'style' of working, how often they give feedback, and how often they meet their students. The student said that they felt more prepared and informed entering the program. A first-year PhD student says: "I asked the supervisor to put me in contact with his previous or current students so I could ask them what he is like to work with and about what a PhD is like in general at Cambridge. I also asked them about colleges as [I] find the college system baffling." Another first-year PhD student emphasises the importance of researching a supervisor: "Definitely talk to supervisors and current students if you can...The supervisor-student relationship is so important, you want to do everything you can to make sure you end up in a good one."

The department has a variety of research groups and reading groups. Research groups are the six thematic groups that everyone in the department belongs to. Looking through them can give you an indication of the range of topics being studied, current projects that are underway, as well as a list of seminars that have been organised under that particular group.

Reading groups are smaller groups that are more specific in nature. Participants usually meet fortnightly to discuss articles or to receive constructive criticism on their written drafts. If you're keen on a particular topic and would like to develop your own reading group with a handful of people, that is possible too. As an applicant, researching the reading groups that are available could give you a sense of the community you'll be interacting with and the type of material you'll explore during your PhD.

The department also holds various seminars on a variety of topics. Guest speakers from all over the world are invited to talk about their research and field questions from students. If you're someone who enjoys attending talks, it might be helpful to have a look through — and perhaps listen to — archived seminars.

Funding

How does funding work? What is a studentship? What are the applications for funding like?

The key piece of advice current students can offer about funding is: don't be afraid to apply!

Getting into the degree programme does not guarantee funding. It's generally fairly likely you'll hear about admissions before you hear about funding. However, for some PhD students, funding was attached to the PhD application (particularly in the case of studentships, which are discussed below), and thus don't require a separate application.

The most important starting point for funding is the University's funding information website and search tool. Most University-based funding does not require a separate application, but, within the University general online admissions system, there is a personal statement for the Cambridge Trust Scholarships, as well as a multi-part application for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

In addition to University-wide funding, you can look for college-specific scholarships, government scholarships from your home country (if you're an international student), Commonwealth Scholarships, or funding from external foundations (for example, there's a newly-launched scholarship for masters-level study, sponsored by ESRI and the organisation Black Geographers). When looking for funding at Cambridge colleges, remember that some colleges require that you rank them as your first choice in order to be considered for funding, whilst others may not. In addition, some colleges might have good scholarships despite not having the largest endowments. It's important to do your research, and consider not only endowment size, but also the types of scholarships available and their conditions. This research will take time, but it's worth it!

Another place to look, especially if you are a home or qualifying EU student, is the possibility of funding by the UK Research Councils (ESRC, AHRC, NERC, etc.) (covering tuition at the home rate, even for international students). These research council-linked funds are tied to particular 'studentships', which have already been approved for funding and are administered through Doctoral Training Partnerships at the University (see: Cambridge ESRC-DTP, AHRC-DTP, and NERC-DTP). Up to 30% of UKRC studentships may now be awarded to international students, but only at the 'home' fees rate, so extra funds to make up the difference to the 'international' rate will also be needed. Applications for Research Council studentships must be submitted through your department; students cannot apply directly to a Research Council for funding.

Most of this advice has been geared towards proposing a project independently. Another option is applying to an advertised 'studentship', which is usually a specific project (with room to customize to your interests) with a particular type of funding already secured. Studentships are sometimes limited to certain nationalities. Studentships can also be advertised along a different timeline than the standards admissions timeline. You can find advertised studentships on the Department website, on your potential supervisor's departmental page, or FindaPhD.com. Some studentships are linked to UK Research Councils, whilst others might be funded by external and/or affiliated organisations.

Research proposal

What expectations does the Department have for the research proposal?

There is a general description of what is expected for the proposal available. A strong research proposal also usually includes: some introductory context relating to your case study; a theoretical background section; a discussion on methods and methodology; your proposed research questions and aims; a summary of expected costs; a justification for joining the department under a specific supervisor; and a references list (not included in the 2,000 max word count). A draft research proposal should be submitted to your potential supervisor so they can have a look and give you some feedback before you finalise the draft for the formal submission.

Current students told us the process of developing and refining their proposals. A first year PhD student says: "I had a couple of weeks to write my proposal and found it quite difficult as [I] had no idea what a proposal entailed. I looked up online general outlines on what to include and used those suggestions as a template. I then asked one of my professors from the MSc I was on at the time to read it over before handing it in." Getting feedback is an important step in improving your proposal and making it stand out among the pool of applicants. A current third-year PhD student says: "I first developed a research proposal that I shared with my potential supervisor. I then integrated her comments as well as comments coming from other friends and colleagues from outside Cambridge into my second and final research proposal."

It is important to bear in mind that the research proposal is a work in progress rather than a finalised document. However, you want to make sure that the essential sections are included and are developed enough to give the admissions committee a clear idea of your research.

If you are applying for an advertised 'studentship' you may not need to write a proposal as such, but rather explain how your background, interests and skills match the requirements of the advertised project.

Interview

What is the interview like? What sorts of things are discussed in the interview?

At some point during the application process, you will be contacted for an interview. You'll be asked questions about your research, why you chose a particular topic, and what skills you have to be able to undertake the proposed research.

We asked a PhD supervisor for their thoughts on, and expectations from, the interview: "At Cambridge we believe it is essential that all successful applicants have an opportunity to 'meet' (often virtually) their potential supervisor/programme director prior to being offered a place to study at Cambridge. The interview therefore provides an opportunity for both the applicant and the potential supervisor/programme director to ask each other questions, and to find out more about each others' research interests and motivations. The interview takes place after the applicant's paper-application has been reviewed, but before an offer is made, and is typically delivered by the potential supervisor/programme director (sometimes accompanied by a colleague). While each interview is different, it would be typical to ask an applicant to summarise their research proposal, to explain why they wish to undertake postgraduate study and how their prior experiences have prepared them, as well as to ask them to justify their choice of Cambridge Geography. The interview is also a good time for applicants to ask questions about the degree they have applied for, and the working environment at Cambridge Geography. The interviews are informal, often lasting 20-30 minutes, and offer an opportunity for both the interviewer and interviewee to consider the suitability of the degree programme applied for."

At the end of the interview, you'll get a chance to ask your potential supervisor any questions. A first-year PhD student, notes that this is a great opportunity to interview your supervisor: "...this can be a good way to really understand their research, what they are like as a person and whether you think you would feel comfortable working with them. I would then recommend asking the supervisors to give you contact details of other students they have supervised or are supervising currently, so that you can ask for the students opinions on the supervisor. For me, this was crucial in getting a feel for what doing a PhD is like and how it would work with my supervisors, as that is one of the most important parts of the PhD and can massively influence how your PhD turns out and how you manage and enjoy the process."

Concluding advice

Director of Postgraduate Admissions, Dr Ian Willis says:

"I agree completely with what has been summarised above and I thank Anna and Hafsah for producing this helpful guide on the seemingly labyrinthine admissions process.

The University and the Department have tried to explain the procedure as best we can on our websites, of course, but having this current "insider" information will, we hope, help and encourage you to make those initial enquiries and, if appropriate, apply.

Do contact a prospective supervisor, whose research interests strongly match your own, early on in the process and if you don't hear back, do persist! Academics are famously 'busy' and your e-mail may have arrived at a bad time and slipped through the cracks. If you've tried several times and still not heard back, contact the Postgraduate Administrator to explain the situation and they may be able to help you make contact or recommend someone else for you.

The other thing to reassure you about is that so long as your application is strong (very good first degree(s); very strong references (so choose your referees carefully and chase them up if necessary); and your proposal or statement shows strong research potential and match to supervisor) and so long as you have ticked the relevant boxes on the application form to indicate which funds you wish to be considered for, then the Department and University will do the rest and match your application to the various sources of funding available to you; you may end up being partially funded by one of the Cambridge trusts and partially by a college, for example.

Good luck! I hope to see some of you at the Department next year, having made it through on to one of our exciting Masters or PhD courses."

* Note about vocabulary

We'd like to acknowledge that some of the vocabulary used in this article and elsewhere in admissions materials relies on terminology that is often not familiar. We've tried to avoid this type of terminology as much as possible, but we'd also like to provide a quick rundown of some of the most common phrases:

  • You might also see 'DPhil' used in describing doctoral degrees; a DPhil and a PhD are the same degree (a Doctorate of Philosophy), but Oxford uses DPhil, whilst Cambridge uses PhD.