U of Nott CS & IT COL Research Lab


Last Update: 14 October 2019

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Advice for Prospective Postgraduate Research (PGR) Students

Making an Enquiry About PhD Supervision

Enquiries from those interested in doing a PhD under my supervision are always welcome. Moreover, it is important to make such enquiries before making a formal application to the PhD Programme in the School of Computer Science at the University of Nottingham. In the application for a place in our PhD programme, you will be asked to give the name of potential supervisors according to the proposed reseach topic. Discussing your application in advance with those potential supervisors will help to prepare a stronger application and also for the application to be processed in an expedite manner.

The key points to cover when discussing your interest in applying for a PhD are:

  • Motivation for Doing a PhD. A PhD is a programme in which you are trained to become an independent researcher. Although there might be some taught components as part of your training, the majority of the time is dedicated to acquire/practice scientific research skills and to execute high-quality research, i.e. research that is original, novel, significant, rigorous, etc. It is therefore essential to discuss your understanding of what PhD study means and your motivations for embarking in such journey.

  • Academic Record. A track record of strong academic performance is also essential. This can be complemented by closely relevant experience in the topic that you want to investigate in the PhD. For example, relevant work experience in the specific topic can help (but not guarantee) to make your application stronger. Successful execution of individual projects (BSc, MSc, etc) during your previous studies and evidence of excellent academic writing skills are also key elements to consider. Although the PhD involves you acquiring state-of-the-art knowledge in the research topic, it is also expected to have sufficient background knowledge in the general area of research. For example, if you want to do a PhD in 'optimisation models and/or algorithms' but have absolute no academic track record on this topic, the application is not likely to be strong enough.

  • Research Experience. It is often the case that applicants to PhD studies already have experience in conducting research and even on writing and publishing research papers. Although this helps, it is not essential and it does not guarantee the application to be successful. The quality and relevance of that previously conducted research and published papers needs to be assessed. Even when there are not previously published papers (usually most cases), a good understanding of what is research and experience on doing some of that (e.g. MSc projects) is an essential point to consider.

  • Source of Funding. PhD students fund their studies in different ways. Some have studentships from the Universities where they are doing the PhD. Others have a studenthsip from an external sponsor (e.g. government agency, educational organisation, company, NGO, etc.). Some students fund ther PhD with their own funds. Although the offer for a place in a PhD programme of study is based on academic merit and independent of the funding, it is also important to discuss the source of funding when preparing the application. Unless a studenthsip has been advertised, it is not usual that funding is available to support applicants. Studentships offered by the host University are usually very competitive and supervisors would only support the application of one or two top-quality applicants. For example, every year the School of Computer Science advertises a number of PhD studentships. Prospective applicants need first to secure the support from potential supervisors well in advance and before even applying, otherwise their application will not be considered. Applicants that have already secured a studentship for PhD studies (e.g. from their government or employer) should not assume that this will guarantee an offer, academic merit, suitability of the research topic and supervision arrangements are the key aspects on which a decision is made. Applicants that need a conditional or unconditional offer letter in order to apply to some studentship, should contact potential supervisors well in advance. It can take up to some weeks to issue an offer letter for a PhD place from the initial contact.

  • Research Topic. For a supervisor to consider a PhD applicant, there needs to be a clear alignment between the proposed research topic and the research expertise and interests of the supervisor(s). It is absolutely not the case that I would even consider supervising a PhD student on a topic not related to my research. For example, asking me to supervise your PhD on "Information Systems for Education" or "Networks for the Internet of Things" does not reflect good understanding of what PhD study is and the crucial role of the PhD supervisor. Then, please make yourself a favour and ensure the topic that you propose is actually within the expertise and interests of the supervisor(s) you contact. You do not have to define the proposed research topic on your own (see below for a more detailed discussion in this) but at least having a clear idea of the area of research that interests you is essential.

    Identifying Potential Topics for PhD Research

    It might be that you have defined the area of even specific topic that you want to propose in your PhD application, perhaps because it is defined by the external studenthsip you have been awarded. This is fine but you still need to discuss the area/topic with me to ensure I can support your application. It might well be the case that you are interested in the wide area of 'optimisation' but have no specific topic you would like to propose, this is also fine but at least I would expect some familiarity with my research before I can suggest some topics. Potential PhD supervisors will always have research topics for PhD projects but at least for me it is essential to be convinced that there is a good match between the applicant, the topic and the supervisor. These are some of the things you can definitely do in order to gain some familiarity with my previous research and hence the potential areas of research I would be interested in supervising:

  • Published Papers. In particular, recently published papers will reflect my most recent research and they usually suggest future research directions.

  • PhD Supervisions. Past and present supervised PhD projects also represent good sources of ideas for research topics. There are usually more research ideas generated from a completed PhD but also there might be exciting opportunities to do a PhD on a topic closely related to an ongoing PhD.

  • Grants Awarded. Past an present projects might be the source of ideas for PhD project topics. In particular because completed projects might have not exhausted the potential research or might have uncovered new research directions (hence no publications about some topic have been produced). My projects have often been in collaboration with industry and our focus on scientific research with impact beyond the scientific community is fertile source of ideas.

    Then, please contact me if you want me to consider supervising your PhD. An initial overview of your motivation, academic record, research experience, source of funding and research topic of interest will be very useful. If I am interested, I will usually have a face to face (can be online) conversation to discuss further. Guiding you to write the research proposal for the agreed research topic will be part of the help I can offer in preparing your formal application.