My application story – first time lucky 🍀

A blog summary of what the PhD application process looked like for me.

I promised a little more detail on the application process. So here it is. Just a little.

Firstly, if you are here to read about how to approach a PhD: try here instead. Thanks go to my new PhD supervisor for highlighting this resource.

The remainder of this blog is my application story. 10th May I was unofficially told, a few days later it was official. My application to begin a fully funded PhD enquiry had been selected. University of Leeds, School of Civil Engineering. As of October 2022 this part of my journey truly begins.

If you think you’re too old, or too career committed, just like me, you too may have thought of one day reaching higher into academic rigour, but let the passing of years latterly take the blame. Au contraire, says I, for our brains do not grow old until long after our hearts. So here are a few heartfelt pointers that worked for me.

Network, network, network

This is my most keenly offered advice. It is what we oldies still know how to do better than most. And what is true in industry, is also true in academia. We humans are social animals, and we connect to good luck more easily when we increase the number of times circumstance crosses happenstance. That requires activity in the social arena – even if one cannot leave the house.

My LinkedIn friends at the Major Project Association first prompted me towards this particular PhD possibility. The application deadline had been extended a month – so said their post. Not that I was looking to apply for this PhD or any other. At least not this year. But in bringing to my attention this advertised placement, combining sustainability with project need, I was drawn towards a speculative enquiry just to see what this might be.

Prepare long, to act fast

All of this happened quickly. Most PhD application processes are months in the making. I had no more than days to make my case. Timeline as follows:-

2nd April

The Major Projects Association post was 2nd April 2022. I know that because I tagged my soon to be supervisor on that LinkedIn post. I sent an invite to connect with a few details of myself, my research, and this blog. I thought no more of it for several weeks. Candidly, a network connection with a like-minded academic was all the prize I dared hope achieve.

14th April

14th April was the Thursday of the Easter weekend. “Thanks for your LinkedIn message, can you email me and we can chat early next week?”, said a LinkedIn DM in response to mine. I immediately obeyed and we agreed to chat on the Tuesday, i.e., post the Easter long weekend.

19th April

Tuesday 13:00. A very convivial chat. “Even if this goes no further“, I said with transparent intent, “lets find reason to talk again.” The discussion had indeed confirmed some alignment of research interests and I was keen to keep the dialogue going.

Having established a little common ground the bigger question was would I be prepared to move to Leeds? As a fully funded PhD this opportunity was in-situ and full-time. So if I was prepared for that then yes, an application by the imminent deadline would be well received.

Woohoo, to the first hurdle passed. Approval to apply. However, with the deadline so close and with my needing to prepare a proposal from scratch, I was under no illusions to the scale of that application task – at least I thought. Realistically, I was still only thinking as far as making my case and learning how to make it better. Learning and refining.

24th April 2022, written application deadline day.

There is simply no way a full blooded PhD research proposal can be written in just a few days. Several months is recommended – at least.

Prior research experience

But I had a little luck I had been storing up for a moment like this, which I can breakdown as follows:

  • a ready-made personalised blended template of key features to include and a framework to build upon in a PhD application – mind-maps I had made of 12 guide books on writing to a PhD proposal from my 2020 MSc dissertation which I had successfully self nominated using these same guides
  • this same 2020 MSc dissertation directing me toward a further research area, one I had been working with since that graduation, and which I hoped one day to be able to return to
  • from that same dissertation interest, a prior body of research notes offering a swollen literature review of over 120,000 words. Just 3,000 words of that chronology of project management theory had made it into my MSc dissertation – much to the amusement of my peers at the time
  • my decision to start writing this blog (back in September 2021) which holds a few of my strands of connection I hope to now build upon
  • detailed notes and mind-maps from my second MSc (psychology conversion course) where much of the behavioural science I hope to bring into what I think a project metric could reflect
  • a bonus of that ongoing second MSc was continued access to a library of peer journal articles written by those I was seeking to at least converse with in academically acceptable terms

Once the application forms were completed, a further 50 hours in three days turned that prior luck of preparation into the 18 page (5,500 word) proposal I submitted.

9th May 2022, 11:15. PhD Interview.

Maybe I was just managing my expectations, but I had not expected to be invited to interview. When I was invited, I took it as a job well done. First application attempt, first interview: affirmation that I was on the right track. But once that interview invite came in I reset. My reading and reflection of the research by this supervisory team was talking my language. I now really wanted this placement. The right university, the right people, the right research interests. All just coming sooner than planned (or dared believe). Other academics I know were saying the same. So I realised I now had more preparations to make.

Preparing for a PhD interview is well documented in 21st century ways. Podcasts and YouTube video have some great posts on what to expect in a PhD interview. All came to pass as those guides suggested. Each question designed to ensure aptitude and attitude aligned. No trick questions, or stock answers… I also had other academic contacts (all from discussions started on LinkedIn), all very generous in their encouragement and time which all helped me prepare.

More to share. More to say. More to learn.

That is not the full account. Not by far. Some of my research ideas may become blogs in due course. Mindful from hereon however that self-plagiarism is a risk if blog and attempted publication overlap.

For now, what I really wanted to volunteer in this post is what makes me think myself lucky. And to some degree, how such luck can be made.

Luck 🍀 based upon networking effectively – meaning modestly and sincerely, and with no agenda beyond a want to learn and contribute to the learning. In this regard I have so many people to thank and so many kindnesses to reciprocate. Each offering guidance, perspective, challenge, and learning.

Luck 🍀 derived from passion in this craft, desire to be more, and pleasure therein making work and play combine in my own time.

Luck 🍀 in discovering I work best in conjunction with others. Best of all via engagement in discourse. As I think in the end, most of us do.