I am in the UK and I am looking to contact a supervisor about starting a PhD.

First, I know the area that I want to focus on but I don't have a defined research project just yet. I'd like to define the proposal once I know who my supervisor will be and I would look for his input into the proposal. I can come up with a proposal myself now but I think this is sub-optimal. Should I indicate this in the email? Something like:

I am looking to do a PhD in field X. While I have ideas about a research proposal, I would value your guidance in producing the final proposal.

Second, I don't really need funding. I'm a working professional and I wouldn't need a stipend. Should I indicate this in the email? I don't want to be distasteful and talk about money at the beginning. At the same time, I don't want to get a "No" from a supervisor that I like because they don't think they'll get funding for me.

  • This is a UK (and maybe Europe as well) question. In the US, the answer would be no, you don't need anything specific here. It might even be counterproductive to be too committed to a specific thing.
    – Buffy
    Mar 18, 2023 at 13:20
  • Also, see this answer for UK to our canonical question on doctoral admissions: academia.stackexchange.com/a/181161/75368
    – Buffy
    Mar 18, 2023 at 13:44
  • I think these are two interesting questions and would benefit from being separated out. Mar 18, 2023 at 14:04
  • 3
    I would not agree to supervise a student who is a working professional unless I had a long discussion about their priorities during the PhD. Mar 18, 2023 at 19:51
  • 2
    How are you going to work full time and do a PhD? A PhD is a full-time job, not a hobby. Mar 20, 2023 at 21:13

4 Answers 4


The correct answer to the first question will depend on the field. In more science oriented fields, particularly lab based sciences, then the answer is no, you shouldn't have a fully worked out research proposal in mind. It is likely that the supervisor will only want to put the work into supervising a student who can work on things they at the supervisor's priorities. This is particularly the case where the research will cost money.

However, the tone of your post suggests to me that your are not thinking about lab sciences. In which case I think it might be slightly different. I think here, you will want to have more of an idea about what it is you want to do. I'm sure a supervisor who decides to take you on will help you hone and polish the idea, make it more specific. But I think you should have at least some idea of what it is you want to do.

For your second question: Yes, I think you should tell the supervisor up front. Generally being unfunded rules somebody out, and I throw emails from students who don't say how they will funded their students straight in the bin without further consideration.

Be aware that as well as a stipend, funding also includes tuition fees, which will have to be paid, as well as, in some subjects "bench" fees (which are supposed to cover the cost of the research).

I wouldn't be too worried about @DanielRCollin's point. In the UK, students must successfully graduate after 4 years (or the equivalent if part time). Failure to graduate or graduating later than 4 years is a black mark on a supervisor's record, and if more than 20% of students fail to graduate in 4 years, the department by be blocked form taking government funded students. There is a strong incentive not to do this.


Q2: Second, I don't really need funding. I'm a working professional and I wouldn't need a stipend. Should I indicate this in the email?

Two things here. Are you contemplating part-time. Your "I'm a working professional" would be construed as seeking PT.
There's no rule, AFAIK, that stipulate indicating outright from the onset.
Nonetheless, often, if a potential supervisor is interested in you, (s)he/they will set up a short session with you. Both parties will get to engage on interest and key areas. Issues of stipend can be engaged on here.
Be it as it may, whether you indicate in your 'introductory' email or not, keep it succinct and polite as you can.

Q1: ... Something like: I am looking to do a PhD in field X. While I have ideas about a research proposal, I would value your guidance in producing the final proposal.

In my view, there's no clear cut approach.

You may consider along the line
I'm looking at PhD in field X ...
I have looked into subfield X.1 ...
I have researched into subfield X.1
... ...
Your work in subfield X.1 caught my interest and I'm keen engaging further on subfield X.1, X.1.1, X.1.2 ...
... ...

In essence, simply mentioning I've ideas in X without a 1 or 2 sentence of what that/those idea(s) is/are might not suffice. Of course, you are not compelled on specifics: you can be broad (within field X).

Just to mention:
In the UK, some universities list

  • studentship (with awards/stipend)
  • open PhD research projects (funded or unfunded)
  • units/centres research areas/interest

PS: Each has its own dynamics within the interested candidate and potential supervisor/advisor. In certain instances, not all, for competitive studentship, the dept/doctoral school/college might request you submit a formal application. Post interview and upon acceptance, the proposal writing process takes place with (possible) supervisor/advisor.
One writes and submits around the studentship's research topic


Regarding the second question ("I wouldn't need a stipend. Should I indicate this in the email?"), from experience I would suggest no.

I have a family member who let slip similar information in an interview for a PhD position (U.S.) and the effect was that they were eagerly admitted and then indefinitely delayed in being able to graduate (and so, contributed to the department's income stream out-of-pocket as long as they were there). After an extended number of years, they were compelled to drop out of the program and switch to a different department at the same university, from which they ultimately did receive a PhD (after several more years).

  • Thanks, first - I am sorry to hear about this unethical behaviour. That's a very good point. In the UK there is a time limit most universities will ask you to complete the PhD within but some might jerk you around. I've heard in the US it is a bit more common to take advantage of students. I mean, in the UK stipends are ~£13000 which isn't exactly not taking advantage of the student. It's under minimum wage.
    – s5s
    Mar 18, 2023 at 14:24
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    In the UK, not only is there a 4-year limit, but students must submit a thesis within this time that is successful. Failure to do this has consequences for both the supervisor and the department. Mar 19, 2023 at 11:28
  • @IanSudbery The limit (and maximum registration) are different for part time students. There are also ways that things can be extended. Mar 24, 2023 at 22:07
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    @PauldeVrieze - the time limit is different for part time students, but its pro rata - thus a student registered as 50% would have 8 years. My expereience is that it is very difficult to extend things beyond the limit (this was relaxed a bit during and immediately post pandemic) as if the number of students successfully graduating within limit drops below 75%, the department can no longer supervise government funded students. Mar 27, 2023 at 8:51

Taking it from a computer science/information systems background I would say that in your case (without a very clear idea of what you really want to do) it is better not to have a full proposal. Instead you should identify a supervisor/supervisors that you are interested in and contact them (this must be specific and details relating to this professor). Then you can work on looking at a proposal (and whether there is a "click").

Overall the vast majority of student PhD proposals are not fit for purpose, but they may convey the message that you are very stuck to the topic or approach chosen. This may disqualify you for many supervisors (either because of the topic or method mismatch, or because they think that you are set on a way they don't believe in). It is better to work with the supervisor to actually get a workable proposal that fits shared interests. This is especially true if you are not actually that invested in a specific topic.

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