Applying for a Post-Graduate Research Degree: My Application Timeline

One of the searches I ran time and time again while looking to apply for my postgrad is how long I should set aside for the application. I found a lot of sites stating that application times vary from university to university (true but not hugely helpful) but not much of a concrete timeframe that I could bear in mind when it came to things like writing up my proposal and, the big one, handing in my notice/not renewing contracts with the majority of my freelance clients.

While, hypocritically, I don’t have a definitive answer to share today I can share my own application timeline as a sample of how long each stage of your postgraduate research degree application might take. Before I start, a couple of things to note:

  • I applied for my degree ‘out of season’. That is, I didn’t apply for a September start which meant the admissions department were likely less busy than if I’d applied between, say, May-July for a September start
  • I scaled back on a lot of my freelance work in the early stages of my application, so I had a lot more time to work on my proposal than many of you will if you have a demanding full time job (or children!)
  • As I had scaled back my work commitments before submitting my application, I was ready to start my studies as soon as possible. If you need to give notice at work (and have an extended notice period – mine was two months) this is something to bear in mind when you apply so you aren’t given a start date before you’re ready

So, how long did it take me to go from seriously deciding to pursue a research degree to formally starting my studies? Just over five months (five months and one week, if we’re going to get precise).

For those who want a break down of how long each stage took and what the major milestones were, here’s the timeline:

  • August 30th 2021: I determined my first and second choice universities, deciding to apply for my first choice and see how that process went before I would move onto my second choice if I got rejected. Also on this date, I told my mum my research plans because, yes, I’m in my mid-30s but I always like to sanity check big decisions with my mum.
  • September 24th: After looking through my chosen university’s application guidelines and preparing my personal statement and proposed research idea (just the idea, not the full proposal!) I approached the professor at my chosen university who I thought my research would be most suited to. I send a brief email introducing myself and my potential research question, along with a very short background on my education and work history.
  • September 30th: I heard back from the professor with a request to send a 1000 word outline of my proposed research project, and a selected bibliography. Excitement! Panic! What if my outline wouldn’t cut it? Existential dread! More excitement!
  • October 4th: I took the weekend to think about how much time I realistically needed to finalise my outline. I had been working on it throughout September so it was fairly close to completion but I wanted to make it the best it could so I responded to thank them for the speedy reply and to confirm I would send my outline and bibliography across within the next two weeks. It gave me the headspace to look over and finalise my outline without rushing and ensured everybody’s expectations were managed from the outset.
  • October 4th-18th: It’s a haze, if I’m honest, of editing and rephrasing and producing luscious grey hairs over single sentences and trying not to pin all of my future hopes and dreams on a 1000 word document. I took it as a positive that during this very stressful fortnight of working full time and finalising my proposal that my passion for the project only deepened. It solidified 100% that this was the right decision for me. During this fortnight I also spoke with the two people who would become my references, and contacted my previous university’s graduation office to request a copy of my transcripts (I didn’t actually need them as it turned out, only a copy of my BA certificate, but it’s worth making sure you have them to hand just in case).
  • October 18th: I am a woman of my word and, thus, exactly two weeks later I sent over my proposal and set of texts I hoped to look at as part of my research. Now, the waiting began.
  • October 21st: As it turned out, there was less waiting than I thought. I received a response with the glorious words ‘I’d be happy to supervise’ and promptly burst into tears. A lot more of my self-worth was wrapped up in that 1000 word document than I’d previously thought…much to unpack there.
  • October 22nd: Lost all chill by responding entirely too eagerly and, sin of sins, indulging in the use of an exclamation mark. A single one, though, because I do have some self-control. My supervisor had raised a couple of good points to consider about my research so I sent back my initial thoughts.
  • October 28th-November 18th: We emailed back and forth a number of times to discuss research parameters to narrow my research focus a little, and during this time my supervisor also reached out to colleagues in her department she thought might be interested in co-supervising. In a nice little twist of fate, the professor who came on board is the second supervisor I was going to contact in the department! During this time I also reached the end of my notice period at work – freedom…to sit and refresh my emails. I jest. Sort of.
  • November 29th-December 9th: The three of us exchanged emails to determine a suitable time for a video call to discuss the project in more detail. During this time I ran through the documents I needed for my application one last time just to be sure I was ready to hit ‘Submit Application’ if I got the green light.
  • December 10th: I had a video call with my two potential supervisors to chat a bit about my research proposal and the university itself, and I came away fairly giddy with excitement. It was starting to feel real! I had actually spoken to real people about research I might really get the chance to carry out.
  • December 13th: I received the email I had been waiting for! I read the words ‘we are jointly happy to supervise your research’ and got the go ahead to submit my application.
  • December 14th: Wasting absolutely no time, I hit that glorious ‘Submit Application’ button and my fate was in the admissions team’s hands. I also let my two references know they would likely be contacted in the coming weeks, to give them a head’s up. I received an automated acknowledgement from the university to confirm that they would aim to notify me of a decision within 4-6 weeks if I’d applied for a taught postgraduate degree but if I’d applied for a research degree it may take longer. As I’d applied for a research degree, I buckled myself in for the long haul.
  • January 17th: I received the other email I had been waiting for! I read the words ‘MA by Research in the Department of English Literature (FT): UNCONDITIONAL OFFER’. In my offer letter I discovered my start date was set as February 7th 2022. On this date I also completed my student loan documentation and was told I could expect an update in around 14 days.
  • January 19th: I completed my online registration with my university.
  • January 25th: I received the invoice from my university for my fees for the 21/22 academic year (due the day I started my studies).
  • January 31st: I began a ‘study skills week’ I designed for myself to get back into the swing of studying and brush up on some academic skills like note taking.
  • February 2nd: I received the first of three instalments of my student loan and paid my 21/22 fees.
  • February 7th: The day had finally arrived – I was officially a student and my studies began!

So, there you have it, all of the key dates on my application journey. I’ve included everything from the day I seriously decided to apply to the day I started, which was a time period of just over five months. If I zoom in a bit and look at the time between contacting a potential supervisor and applying, that was just over two and a half months, and then the time between submitting my application and receiving my offer was just over a month – which was shockingly speedy, especially considering Christmas took place during that month. The time between receiving my offer and starting my studies was three weeks, and it took just over two weeks for the first instalment of my student loan to hit my account after applying for it.

I have to conclude with an unhelpful disclaimer that turnaround times really will vary depending on which institution you approach, your supervisory team, the course you apply for, and the time of year you apply. Although your timeframe will likely differ from mine, I hope these timeframes are helpful as a ballpark figure to help you factor in things like handing in notice at any jobs you won’t keep once you start your studies, applying for student finance in enough time, and how long to set aside to write your research proposal.

If you have any questions at all about application timelines please feel free to leave a comment below or drop me a DM on Twitter and I’d be happy to help however I can. Good luck!

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