Americans Applying to UK PhDs: A Guide
The 3 things I wish I'd known when applying to Oxford
When looking at PhD programs in psychology, I submitted applications to schools in the US and the UK. I didn’t know anyone who had done their PhD at Oxford or Cambridge, and I figured the application was a slight modification on what it was for schools in the US. Not the case. Luckily, because of a scholarship I was applying to at Cambridge, that application was due several months before the Oxford one. If I hadn’t been able to learn from that one, I would have never gotten in to Oxford. I completely fucked it up.
In fact, I was so off the mark, the professor I applied to work with—Sander van der Linden, God bless him—immediately sent me a message. He conveyed to me in gentle but clear terms that I hadn’t even approximated what a full application should look like. Mercifully, he invited me to resubmit. I did. Several weeks later, I was rejected.
Which inspired me to figure out what I actually needed to do in order to submit a successful application to a PhD program at a UK university. It can be confusing for many Americans. Unless it’s a process you’re already familiar with, you need a coach. I had to coach myself through it—via a failed Cambridge application. So, for anyone like me who doesn’t have someone to coach them, I thought it might be helpful to share what I learned.
I applied to PhD programs in psychology. So that’s what I know best. The points below should be general enough to apply to a range of disciplines. But things may be different in other departments, so check to make sure all this lines up with what’s on the website (which, in most cases, can’t be described as overwhelmingly helpful). That said, let’s get started.
Here’s what you need to know.
There are three big differences between US and UK applications:
1. Finding an Advisor
When applying to a program in the US, getting a professor on your side before you submit is a nice-to-have. Different professors have different policies on this: some ask you not to contact them before submitting your application, because it advantages for students who come from backgrounds in which they’re taught to play the system. And while there’s no doubt that having a professor already on your side, you’re still allowed to submit an application even if that professor hasn’t given you the green light. This is not the case in the UK.
Getting a professor on board is a must-have. The professor must agree to sponsor your application before it officially goes to the university. To some extent, you need the professor to take you on before you even begin the main part of the application. Ideally, you should contact them at least a couple months before the deadline.
I covered my tips for writing an effective cold email in a previous post. Most of what I said there applies here. Your job in that initial email is to convey that you’re really excited about their work and to determine whether they’d be willing to consider sponsoring your application. This is a fairly standard procedure: to email a professor late summer / early autumn about whether they are accepting PhD students in the next cycle. You should expect a reasonably timely response. If you don’t get one… well, that’s probably representative of what they’ll be like as an advisor.
At any rate, there’s no need to tell your entire life story in the first email. Display that you are knowledgeable about their work (e.g., which of their papers are your favorite), mention the topics of interest to you, and briefly—briefly—highlight your relevant experience. Go ahead and attach a CV, which they can peruse at their leisure. Ask if they’d be willing to consider sponsoring your application.
From there, the ball is sort of in their court. They can dictate the terms of how involved they’ll be in your drafting of the research proposal. They should be willing to give you some feedback on it. If they’re unwilling to do this now, it is, again, a signal of what they’ll be like as an advisor. However, the fact the remains that you aren’t yet their student, and so you can’t expect them to spend all their time coddling you through the process. A fairly reasonable expectation would be an initial Zoom call going deeper into your research interests and what kinds of projects you’d like to do during your DPhil (which, by the way, is what a PhD is called at Oxford), a thorough round of edits on your initial draft of the research proposal, and then one more lighter round of edits to tighten up the final version.
Assuming they agree to sponsor your application, the other thing you’ll want to ask about sooner rather than later is which funding opportunities they’d recommend you apply to. This is potentially the worst aspect of the UK system in contrast to the US: in the UK, you’re not guaranteed funding. You can get into a program and not get funded for it. This isn’t the case for the US, especially at the big schools. If you get in, your tuition, as well as a meager grad student salary, will be covered. In the UK, you might well be admitted but then still be on the hook for tuition. Frankly, it sucks.
Your would-be advisor can point you to scholarships relevant to your discipline. This is something you should start figuring out sooner rather than later. But once you’ve got a professor on board, and you’ve started poking around for funding, it’s time to draft the research proposal.
2. The Research Proposal
For US applications, you don’t submit a research proposal. You submit a “personal statement.” A personal statement is essentially a one page document in which you give an overview of the kinds of questions you’d like to address during graduate school, touch on relevant experience, and make note of the professors with whom you might like to work. The research proposal is different. It is a fifteen page document (the length varies) in which you say this is what I’m going to do and here is the timeline on which I intend to do it. It’s something else entirely.
The good news here—and this is a commonality with US applications—is that even if you say you’re going to do something, no one is actually going to expect you to do it. Almost no one’s work in grad school resembles what they put in their proposal. I mean, if you were already capable of designing a PhD’s worth of scientific experiments… you would already have the PhD.
The reason that the proposal is so much more involved for the UK system though is that UK programs are generally three years whereas in the US they’re generally five. In the US, you spend the first two years dicking around—taking classes, trying to stuff out, and thinking about the work you’d like to build your thesis around. Then in your last three years, you settle into that better-defined track. In the UK—in theory, at least—you skip the dicking around phase and get straight to work. (I say “in theory” because as a matter of fact, I still spent my first year doing absolutely nothing.)
The reason for this is that students in the UK, as well as in Europe more generally, specialize earlier than is the norm in the US. For most UK/European students, they’ll do three years of undergrad, a year or two of masters, then into three years of PhD (at least in psych). So everything is fast-tracked compared to the standard in the US.
At any rate, the function of the proposal is not to hold you to a particular program of research. Rather, it is to show that you would at least know what three years worth of legitimate postgrad work would look like, were you to come across it.
What exactly this entails is something that your would-be advisors should be able to help you with. In my case, my Oxford advisor was especially generous. He supplied me with a template of a proposal, which he felt was scientifically strong. He felt this because it was work he was already doing. His advice was for me to build my own research proposal around these projects instead of coming up with something de novo. This just goes to show how little correspondence there can be between what you say in the proposal and what you actually go on to do.
At any rate, there’s a ton of variation in what your advisor will give you to go off of though. As I said above, you should expect some input from them, while recognizing that you’re not actually their student yet.
Beyond whatever advice your professor gives you, there are a few principles to keep in mind when putting together a research proposal. In no particular order:
Propose something you can talk about with confidence. It doesn’t matter how good the scientific idea is if you don’t actually understand the details of it or if you can’t mount an intelligent response when getting grilled about it. That’s not to say that you should be the world expert on the topic—that is, after all, the point of the PhD—but you should err on the side of what is currently familiar to you rather than what you aspire to become familiar with. By all means, explore new territory in grad school. But tread on familiar ground in the research proposal.
This was the drawback in the otherwise cushy setup I described above—with a research proposal template supplied for me. One of the experiments proposed was an fMRI study of Parkinson’s patients. I’d done fMRI before, but never had any intention of doing further fMRI work, especially not with a clinical population. During my Oxford interview, one person in panel asked me whether I could think of any issues with doing an fMRI study of Parkinson’s patients. Because I am a dumbass, I responded “uh, it might be hard to find them?” Whereas the actual answer was that people with Parkinson’s tremor and the first rule of acquiring good fMRI data is make sure your participant stays still. Duh. Be smarter than me.
Connect what you’ve done with what you’re planning to do. This is obvious enough. But it helps to think about the overall goal of what this proposal is supposed to communicate. You already have the individual professor on your side. You don’t need to worry about convincing her that you’re going to be a solid member of her lab. Your only task at this point is to convince the committee. They’re probably not going to be specialists in what you’re proposing. It’s also not going to be self-evident to them that what you’re proposing is especially interesting or needs to be done. Not at least, in the way that it’s obvious to a researcher who has already devoted her career to that line of work.
The implication of this is that you’re trying to convince the committee of two things: (1) That the proposed work is a reasonable extension of what’s already been done in the field. It doesn’t have be revolutionary, but it does have to be defensible. And (2) that you have most of the skills necessary to complete this work. Demonstrating this for the UK proposal is, in a way, more important than it is in a US application. In a US application, you can get away with saying that you have a background in fMRI and are looking to acquire a new skillset in multivoxel pattern analysis to answer your research questions of interesting. Great, you have plenty of time to do so. The same isn’t true in the UK. They expect you to get down to business right away, not spend your entire first year learning some newfangled methodology. Write a research proposal that optimizes for conveying these two points to a committee of departmental colleagues who are not necessarily area-specialists.
Write a research proposal, not a thesis. This is mostly a reiteration of what’s above. But if you start to get overwhelmed when writing, remember: this is not your thesis! Your job right now is not to write a good dissertation or do any part of your PhD. The task in front of you is to write a good research proposal. It’s not the same thing. Keep in mind your target audience (the committee) and what you want them to believe about you (that you have a solid idea of what good research in your area looks like and that you’ll capable of executing it). It’s more involved than a personal statement. But it’s doable.
3. Choosing a College
There’s basically no precedent for understanding the Oxbridge college system as an American. It’s like a freshman dorm. It’s like a fraternity or sorority. But it’s also sooo much more. After your advisor, which college you end up at is the single biggest determiner of what your Oxford experience will be like.
In a way, there is no “University of Oxford”. The university exists as an abstract concept, and you can point to buildings and say that’s a part of the Oxford campus. But in almost every way that matters—logistically, administratively, etc—Oxford (or Cambridge) is just a collection of subsidiary “colleges.” Undergraduates, for example, apply directly to specific colleges, not the university as a whole. If there’s a book you want to borrow in library of Trinity College but you’re a member of Merton, too fucking bad; you can’t have it. Oxford is a beautiful city. However, the most beautiful parts of it are behind large, Kremlin-style walls that you’re not allowed beyond unless you’re a member of the college whose property it is. And the truth is not all college are created equal. They differ primarily in two dimensions: social life and money.
The college is the hub of your social life at the university. If you do get into Oxford/Cambridge, how much you enjoy graduate school will in large part depend on how much you enjoy your college. This is actually my favorite part of being at one of these schools. I think it’s an awesome system. In the US, graduate school can be such an isolating experience. It’s extremely difficult to make friends outside of your immediate circle of colleagues. And as great as your colleagues might be, you’re only ever going to talk to them about that which you have in common: your work. It’s super hard to develop a social circle in graduate school that affords you the opportunity to transcend discussion of the daily grad school slog. The college system allows you to do just that.
Essentially, a college is a a collection of students/professors (most, though not all, have undergrad, postgrad, and faculty contingents) from different departments. So as in a US university, you’ll have your affiliation with your department (for me, Experimental Psychology), along with the cohort of other PhD students in your year. Then, completely independent of that, you’ll have an affiliation with a college (for me, Jesus College). While some colleges do specialize in certain fields of study, you can pretty much mix and match any department with any college.
The reason this is so great is that it does allow you to transcend the desire to constantly bitch about work and research. Of the dozens of people in my year, I was one of only two psychologists in Jesus. Everyone else was in law, or engineering, or literature, or history, or chemistry, or physics, or whatever. It gives you the space to talk about actual life, not just the specifics of the latest experiment you’re running. I was also only one of two Americans. It’s an opportunity to meet lots of different kinds of people.
Like a dorm, your college offers you housing. It also puts on loads of events. This became a problem for me my first year. I came into graduate school expecting the usual socially isolated experience. Instead, I had a great time. I was living in student housing and five nights a week there was some college event going on. It was awesome. In fact, I was having too good of a time. By second term, I resolved to have less fun, to spend more time on work. Unfortunately, in March 2020 I got my wish. The fun stopped. Whoops. Sorry.
Anyway, the upshot here is to do some research on the colleges. It matters. Don’t just go with whatever you get put into by default. Don’t go to a graduate only college (boring). Check out the location of the college in Oxford (closer to city center is generally better). The ritzier ones are colleges like St Johns, Magdalen, Balliol, and Christ Church. If you want to have a great fucking time, apply to Jesus.University, Exeter, Trinity, Corpus Christi, Wadham, and New College all seem fine. Merton is for nerds. No Kellogg. No Wolfson, unless you’re intent on doing serious athletics (e.g., rowing) during grad school. Pass on any colleges founded recently, like Green-Templeton. Give it another couple hundred years.
The other important consideration in choosing a college is money. Colleges pay for things: everything from your phone, to your tuition, to your books, to conference travel, to fucking diddly-squat. And colleges, like universities, vary dramatically in how much cash they have on hand. St Johns and the other ritzy ones I named above have a lot. Others don’t. Jesus isn’t great in this respect. They’ve got some money. Most of it, as far as I can tell, goes into buying loads of gin, wine, and port—which is fine by me. But the important point here is that you might be able to find funding at a specific college. For example, my partner got accepted to her DPhil program in international development initially at Balliol College. But they didn’t give her any money. Then she discovered if she switched to Merton, they’ll pay for her tuition in full. Guess that makes her a fucking nerd.
So yeah, pick a decent college when you apply. If you get in, you’ll be happy you did.
That’s the main stuff you need to know that won’t be obvious as an American applying to PhD programs. Beyond that there’s a couple consideration beyond the application process itself: First, what qualifications do you actually need? Most students applying to UK PhD programs will have done a masters. It’s possible to go from US undergrad to UK PhD, but pretty unlikely. You’ll probably need a masters or equivalent. I did two years of research experience in a lab (as well as a publication), which put me in competitive position because most masters degrees focus more on classes than research experience. The other thing to look into is a “1+3” program—as in one year of masters, and three of PhD. I had several colleagues who came in as masters students and stayed on to complete their PhD. The dynamics of this are a bit different than US undergrad to US PhD, which it is easier to go straight from undergrad to grad school.
The other thing is funding. I mentioned this a few times above, the most important point being that it’s not guaranteed even if you get into a program. Start early trying to figure out a strategy for funding. It can be a real bitch, especially for Americans. Many students (e.g., Europeans) bring funding from their home countries (e.g., Erasmus). There’s not so many similar scholarships for Americans. There are the super competitive ones: Rhodes (Oxford), Gates (Cambridge), Marshall (anywhere in UK; preference to non-Oxbridge universities, if I remember correctly). Other than that, it’s hard to secure them. There are a couple scholarship search engines it’s worth poking around on. Your advisor will know of field-specific scholarships. Your department might have some funding, not usually for North Americans though. Maybe college can help you out. The other things to investigate is if there are any specific scholarships for your demographics. For example, if you’re an Armenian-American studying mechanical engineering, there is a chance, however slight, that someone endowed a scholarship for just that, and you’re a prime candidate. Beyond that, all I can say is good luck.
Okay. That just about covers it. There’s more to the application process as a whole. But for the most part, that’s everything that I wasn’t clear on when I applied that I wish I had known. I hope it’s helpful. If you have any further questions, send me a message. You can reply directly to this message, comment on this post, or send me an email.
And if you’re applying to grad school, especially in the social or behavioral sciences, you might be interested in my podcast, Cognitive Revolution, in which I talk to eminent scientists, writers, and thinkers about how their personal experiences during their early career led to where they are today.
Thanks for reading. I’m Cody Kommers, and this is my Substack in which I write about psychology, travel, and the science of meaningful experience. I’m a PhD student in social psych at Oxford. If you liked this piece, please consider sharing or subscribing. It’s a huge help in supporting this content. I really appreciate it.
P.S., For any one who has recently applied to or been in a UK PhD program (especially coming from the US), please let me know anything I’ve gotten wrong or have omitted. If you leave a comment or respond in an email, I’ll put your comments / additions into the main piece. Thanks!
I had no idea about any of this when I applied. Presented with the list of college options on a drop down list, I picked “Jesus College” because I thought the name was funny. Not the best selection criteria. But it worked out. I feel way more connected to “Jesus College” as a social group than Oxford more generally. Jesus: 10/10 would recommend.