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I am starting my MSc. this September (UK), and am strongly planning ahead and setting myself goals. Simply, when would be the appropriate time to submit my applications?

My MSc is 12 months long and will go from Sept 2018 to Sept 2019. I was thinking of applying 6-8 months into my MSc.

What do you think? When is the most logical time to submit my applications?

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    Just before the application deadline? – JeffE Jun 30 '18 at 13:19
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This kind of depends on what sort of PhD you wish to study.

For the most part, you don't get accepted for a PhD position in the UK by applying to a graduate program. Most universities/departments simply do have a formal "program". There are acceptations to this of course. Several of the larger funders run formal programs, look out for the Wellcome Trust PhD 4-year programs for example. Some of the research council's Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) operate on this basis as well. These are rare, and tend to be highly prestigious and often associated with research institutes rather than university departments (the Wellcome trust ones are also very well paid compared to other ways of doing a PhD). They are recruiting earlier and earlier in order to try to grab the best students. For example, the Sanger Institute 4-year program's 2017 deadline with 2nd of December.

For the majority of PhDs in the UK though, the supervisor will apply for funding from a funding body for a particular project. If they are successful they will advertise individually for applicants, interview on their own schedule, and the successful candidate will start at the earliest convenience of the both the supervisor and the candidate. This often ends up being the start of the next academic year as the candidate generally has to finish their Undergrad/Masters degree first. When these positions are advertised/when the closing dates are will depend most of all on the funders grant deadlines. Our DTP (where we get most of our students from) has a dealine just before christmas and we will generally be advertising in Feburary. A good place to look for adverts for studentships like this is FindAPhD.com. Another place to look is jobs.ac.uk. I would have alerts set up on these sites for the whole year, but expect the busiest time to be the first quarter of the year.

Finally, if you will fund your PhD yourself somehow (either though your own funds, or that of a company or from a foriegn government), its generally up to you. The application process may take a couple of months and if you are not native the visa process can take months as well. If you want to aim to start at the beginning of the new academic year (which is not a terrible idea, since you'll be starting with all the RCUK funded students, making things socially easier), I'd probably start this process in the early spring: give you plenty of time, and it you are sorted early, waiting to start is not going to be a problem.

  • Minor counterpoint: this could be discipline-dependent, even within STEM. It seems currently the case in most UK (pure) maths departments that one should apply directly to the university, perhaps after unofficially contacting some people in the maths department, stating explicitly that one is seeking funding. Departments will then have their own mechanisms for allocating the limited amount of funding they have, from various sources; this can include RCUK studentships that have been allocated to the department from a more central pool – Yemon Choi Jul 2 '18 at 14:17
  • I guess this is more or less what I meant by the third route I talked about. Except that we would never consider anyone unless they knew exactly what funding it wast they were planning to apply for and what their chances of being successful were. The EPSRC, like other councils in RCUK, now longer awards all departments block grants for students, but operates through DTPs. Some depts will choose to operate a program, others will fund projects. I don't know of any that operate as a scholarship scheme that is only available if you apply by other means, but I guess that probably exists somewhere. – Ian Sudbery Jul 2 '18 at 15:48
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Funded PhDs in the UK usually follow the academic calendar and start in late September or early October. Accordingly, application deadlines tend to be in February or March (often set by the funding councils and hence will be the same for every university).

The exception to this is if you are planning to self-fund your PhD, in which case you will have more flexibility on starting dates (but check with the universities you are going to apply to if you are planning to do this).

The best time for you to submit your applications is probably as close to the deadline as possible, especially if you want to use your supervisor/ tutor/ other lecturer from your MSc as a reference. The longer you wait to submit the application, the better they will get to know you and hence be able to write a better reference.

However, don't wait until the last minute to ask for a reference! Ask well ahead of time (>1 month) and let them know when the application deadline is so they have time to prepare.

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Google up the schools you are interested in and ask them. The people who will know are the support staff of the head of department, head of grad studies, and like that. Their secretary, clerk, assistant, etc. That's who you want to ask.

These are people that you should always try to stay friends with. They know everything. They see everything. And they know what will work and what won't. Always stay friends with the support staff.

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