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Application for PhD

Malaysia Higher Education


If you are thinking of applying for a PhD, you will usually be required to have or expected to obtain an upper second class degree, or a lower second class degree with a postgraduate Masters degree.

These are normally the standard level of qualification needed, although you may wish to contact the department you are applying to and check, as sometimes they may be willing to be flexible if you do not meet the minimum academic requirements.

If you are applying from abroad, you will need to contact the institution(s) you are considering applying to and ask whether they will accept the equivalent undergraduate/postgraduate qualification you hold.

General application advice

  • If you are considering applying for a PhD, it's a good idea to start researching programmes up to a 18 months before you intend to start the course. For example, if you wish to start your PhD in October 2011, begin your search in May 2010.

This will give you plenty of time to thoroughly investigate all the PhD projects that you think are potential candidates, and to narrow down your choices and make your final decision.

  • For any application you make, be sure you have included all the necessary information before sending it off - this includes your personal statement, references, undergraduate degree transcript, English language test results, and any relevant funding application form(s).

  • Double check the application requirements for all courses you are considering applying to, as sometimes they may not be wholly clear, and therefore confuse you as to whether you meet the institution's criteria. If this is the case, contact the admissions team for the programme and ask them to clarify the entry requirement

  • Be considerate of your referees and make sure you give them plenty of time to write you a reference. Remember they are busy with their own lives, and you can not expect them to clear their schedule to write you a reference if you've only asked them a week before the application deadline.

Ideally, ask them at least a month before you are planning to send off your application - tell them a bit about the PhD you are applying for, and why you want to do it. A copy of the project description, your personal statement and your CV may be helpful to them to write you a good reference.

  • For some universities, you are able to fill in and submit your application online - however, if you have to post your application off, make sure you complete it in plenty of time for the mail service to deliver it before the application deadline.

It's worth contacting the institution you have applied to a week or so after mailing your application to make sure they have received it, as it could end up being lost or delayed in the mailing process.

  • Make sure you get your application in well before the deadline, as places to a PhD are generally quite limited, and you don't want to miss out on being considered for a place because they are already full.

Choosing a university

General factors

When deciding which university to attend, there are a few general things you may want to consider before researching more specific factors. These might include:

  • Whether you want to attend your local university or move way from home. If you choose to leave home, how far away do you want to be?

  • Does the university have all the facilities you require, such as a gym, outdoor sports grounds, car parking, etc? 

  • What are the university's resources like? Do they have a good library with plenty of online journals, and copies of the necessary specialised textbooks?

  • How big is the university itself, and how many students attend? Would you prefer to go to a larger or smaller institution?

  • Where is the university located? Do you want to go to a university in a big city or somewhere quieter? Remember that the cost of living will be higher in large cities, which may affect your budget significantly.

Student support and services

Check whether the university offers all the necessary support to postgraduate students to maintain their well-being Ė this includes careers advice, a personal tutor system, counselling, a safety bus, and a union society.

Some universities have dedicated resources, societies, etc. for postgraduates, so take a look at what each institution has to offer.

Be wary of universities that are dominated by undergraduates, as this may mean the university places less emphasis on the well-being of their postgraduate population, so research carefully exactly what amount of support you can expect to receive.

Social activities

The social side of university is a very important part of student life, so it's important to make sure the range of social, sports and cultural activities and clubs offered by the university match your requirements.

Studying for a PhD doesn't mean you need to be chained to your desk all the time Ė you need to balance your life as a student with some fun! It may take you a little while to find the right balance between working and socialising, but you will find your feet eventually.

Making a final decision

Having already decided the course you want to do will make narrowing down a university to attend easier, so it may be best to make a list of PhDs that interest you, then exclude choices by looking at the factors above.

It is also worthwhile visiting the universities you are thinking of applying to by going to one of their Open Days.

These will be advertised on their website, and will allow you to get the feel of a place by going on a tour with one of the current postgraduate students, as well as offering you the opportunity to ask questions about the social environment, facilities, and any other aspects you wish to know more details on.

Donít forget to contact the university for a postgraduate prospectus, or grab a copy on the open day, as this will have information on all the courses available and the institution in general.

Looking at the factors above, it's important to realise that you should consider many things when deciding on your university Ė thereís no point making a decision based on one or two characteristics, as you are likely to find it doesnít meet all your needs.

Each university is unique, although wonít appeal to every prospective postgraduate student Ė it may take a bit of research, but hopefully you will find a university that attracts you more than others, and you will know this is the right one for you.

Choosing a project

It is likely there will be more than several PhD projects that will take your fancy when you start researching what is out there, though having an idea of which areas in Malaysia you would like to be based will make this step significantly easier.

We recommend making a list of topics or general areas you are interested in within your field, which you can then narrow down.

Next take a look at departmental websites, where you will find more detailed PhD listings. This will take less time if you already which universities you are interested in applying to.

Bear in mind that details of individual PhDs will be released at different times, so itís best to get in touch with the postgraduate admissions tutor, and start preparing your application as early as possible before your intended start date.

For projects starting in September, deadlines are usually as early as the previous October or November.

However, you will find for a majority of PhDs in the arts and humanities or social sciences, specific subject areas are not advertised on websites.

Therefore you should conduct a general search and find out which departments appeal to you. This is so you can approach any prospective supervisors and/or find out the general research direction of the department to see if it suits your needs.

It may be worthwhile contacting potential supervisors directly, with details of your research interests and background, and ask whether they might be able to offer you an appropriate environment to carry out your PhD.

Make sure you find out about funding at this point too, as what is available in terms of scholarships may have an impact on whether it is feasible to apply for a PhD at a particular department.

Choosing a supervisor

Selecting the right supervisor can make a huge difference to how successful you are in your PhD - your research can become a frustrating and lonely process if you do not have a good supervisor to support you when you need help.

Make sure your supervisor is a good fit academically, and is interested and enthusiastic about the project you are undertaking.

Be aware that although a potential supervisor has spent the past 15 or 25 years researching and writing about a particular topic, does not mean they will always be keen to guide you through your PhD on it for the next 3 or 4 years.

It is also important that your personalities do not clash and that you get on reasonably well with your supervisor. This doesn't mean becoming best friends, but if there are fundamental differences in your personalities, it will not be a pleasant experience for either of you.

Therefore we recommend you meet in advance with prospective supervisors if at all possible, since they will be playing a significant role in your life over the next few years.

Make sure they have the time and dedication to supervise you properly, and that any criticism and help you receive with your work is constructive. Some supervisors prefer to let the student proceed on their own and not get involved with how their research is progressing.

In the worst case scenario it may be possible to transfer to a different supervisor, but this is a situation you should try and avoid by putting a bit of time and effort into finding the right person to supervise you from the start.

Also keep in mind that your supervisor will probably be your primary referee when searching for postdoctoral jobs, as well as a stepping stone into your chosen career.

Having someone who knows the extent of your abilities and can vouch for your good character can make a significant difference in getting your first job.

Writing a research proposal

The success of your PhD application largely depends on the quality of your thesis proposal.

Writing a research proposal may seem like a daunting task when you are used to writing essays, reports and other short coursework pieces for your undergraduate degree.

What should I include in my proposal?

Overall your proposal needs to explain what exactly you want to research for three or four years, and the reasons why.

However, you will also need to include other details, such as why your area of research is important, what gap(s) in the literature you hope to fill, and what broader relevance your ideas have to your chosen field.

You will need to make your application stand out from the crowd with a well-written proposal, so they will be more likely to consider you for the place over someone else.

The task of writing a proposal is very different from writing an essay. You need to think about the questions you want to answer through your research, rather than putting forward an argument.

Consider how the data you will gather may lead you to a particular line of argument to answer your research questions.

How should I structure my research proposal?

This varies a great deal from institution to institution, and between different subjects. This means you need to find out in advance what the guidelines are for the departments you would be interested in studying at.

For example, the faculty of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Malaya require prospective PhD students to write a statement of research from 500 to 1000 words long, whereas the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Science Malaysia do not ask for a formal research proposal, just a statement of why their programmes are of interest to you and the particular areas of research that appeal to you most.

However, the things you need to include in the proposal are usually very standard. These include:

  • A clear statement of your research topic and hypotheses, plus any questions and sub-questions you wish to try and answer.

  • How your research fits in with the existing key literatures, including an awareness of current developments in the field.

  • How you aim to make an original and necessary contribution to the current literature and details of the gap you hope to fill with your own research.

  • Explain why is it important that this gap is filled both in academic terms and in terms of general public knowledge.

  • An outline of the methods you plan to us to answer the proposed questions in your research topic.

  • An idea of the timescale involved, including the stages of your research.

  • What resources you intend to use.

You do not need to have full details of the methods you will use to answer your research questions but you need to demonstrate that you have already given some thought about how you will do things.

The important thing is that you show the institution you are applying to that your project is feasible in the time period available - it's good to show ambition, but make sure you have thought about the methodological issues.

If your proposal is too elaborate and not feasible within 3 or 4 years, your application is likely to be unsuccessful.

If you are asked to submit quite a long proposal, make sure it is sub-headed so it is more readable for potential supervisors.

Tips to help you start writing your research proposal

As it's pretty difficult to try and formulate some sort of proposal from scratch, here are a few tips to help you start putting it together:

  • First of all, think about your main research question, and how it could be broken down into a chain of manageable chunks that are all connected. Drawing a flowchart or spider diagram may help you with this initial step.

  • Since your proposal is likely to go through a significant number of drafts, itís best to give yourself as much time as possible to write it.

Obviously, if you start only a week or 2 from the application deadline, it's unlikely you will write something good enough to get accepted. From getting down your first ideas to completing your final draft can take up 2 or 3 months if youíve done it to the best of your ability.

  • Ask your tutors who taught you during your undergraduate degree to help you, as usually they are only too happy to encourage good students to pursue doctoral study.

Taking a draft of your proposal to a tutor who will give you some constructive advice can help you develop your ideas and guide you with the structure and formatting.

If you have any friends who are also looking to apply for a PhD, a few group sessions on looking at each otherís proposals and suggesting improvements could prove to be very useful.

Talking to people who are currently studying for a PhD will also help, as they can explain about their experience of the application process and what they wrote for their research proposal.

Hopefully they will provide you with some useful tips on how to make your application successful and general advice for getting together that final draft of your proposal.

  • Try not to worry about your proposal as you continue to re-draft to it.

Supervisors know that the course of your research will change as your studies progress, so donít panic about what you write in the proposal will be exactly what you will do over the next 3 or 4 years.

The most important thing is that you are able to demonstrate a well thought out idea and evaluate how you will contribute to the current knowledge and literature.

You need to make sure you are able to show this first time in your proposal, as there are no second chances to prove you are good enough to study at a particular institution.

How to write an academic CV

Once you've decided on the department(s) and supervisor(s) you are going to contact and apply to, it is likely you will need to submit a CV as part of your application.

For a PhD place, an academic CV is usually required to demonstrate your current achievements. An academic CV is basically a detailed subject break down of your undergraduate and postgraduate (if you have any) degrees. Most applicants also include a brief summary of their SPM, STPM or A level results, although this is not mandatory.

As a general guideline, your academic CV may include the following:

  • Personal details and contact details

  • Education and qualifications

  • Relevant work experience (including all full or part-time jobs, both paid and voluntary)

  • Interests/hobbies, activities, posts of responsibility

  • Skills (e.g. IT and languages)

  • Referees

It also looks good if you are a member of an academic society and include any relevant journals you read to keep abreast of new developments in your field in the interests/hobbies section of your CV.

Make sure you list any publications, prizes and awards you may have, too.

If possible, try to tailor your CV to each PhD you are applying for, and try not to make your CV longer than 2 sides of A4. You can find examples of academic CVs on the web using a search engine such as Google or Yahoo.

Academic CVs are different to other types of CV you would normally use to apply for a job.

Cover letters and personal statements

PhD applicants are often asked to include a covering letter or personal statement as part of the application process, however you will find they are less common for PhD applications than those for Masters courses.

If you are asked to write a cover letter, make it sure it is brief, and you include the following details:

  • Why you have chosen this particular PhD.

  • How it fits with your skills, experience and academic interests.

You do not need to try to answer your research question, just provide an outline of why you want this place, and what qualifications, skills and work experience make you so well suited to it.


Do not underestimate the power your academic references hold Ė they are one of the most important parts of the entire application, and can prove to be key in making your PhD application successful.

Within your chosen subject area, staff from all over the world are thrown together at conferences, meaning there's a good chance at least some people in your department will know of a prospective project supervisor.

A well-written reference can emphasise your skills and abilities, as well as make up for any weaknesses in an average academic profile. Therefore it is extremely important that you choose the right people, ask them politely if they would mind giving you a reference, and make sure they have plenty of time to do you justice.

It's best to try and pick members of staff who have taught you, have read and marked work you have produced, and know you quite well as a person.

It also helps if they have strong connections with your chosen topic and if they are well-known in the field. However, finding all these factors in potentially up to 3 different people is unfortunately quite unlikely.

Therefore, help your referees as much as possible by always offering them samples of your best work, a copy of your personal statement, and pay a visit to them so you can a face-to-face discussion about your goals and reasons for wanting to undertake doctoral study. The better the picture you can provide of yourself, and more they can write about you and your good qualities!

If you are currently studying a Masters programme and you haven't had much contact with staff so far, you may have to spend a bit more and effort on finding suitable referees.

Normally you will find there is someone in the department who is assigned the task of writing references (usually the course director) if you fail to find any suitable members of staff. However, you should also consider asking personal tutors, subject tutors, staff who teach in your subject area, or any undergraduate tutors who have taught you in the past.

As long as you give yourself plenty of time, finding referees shouldn't be too much of a problem - staff will usually empathise with those who have just started a Masters and are trying to secure a good reference for their doctoral studies.

Choosing a good referee that will provide you with an excellent reference allows a selection panel to see that you are hard working, committed, and have shown significant interest in the subject area. Again, pick your referees carefully, as they can usually make or break a PhD application.


Not all PhD places will require you to attend an interview, although these days it is becoming a more common practice. While it may seem like quite a daunting prospect, a little preparation can go a long way to making you feel better about it.

What will the interview be like?

The interview will usually be in one of two different possible formats. The first is often an informal chat with your prospective supervisor, where you will have a general discussion about the project you have proposed, and perhaps discuss further details on where it might lead, and any potential problems that could arise.

The second is usually in front of a selection panel, usually consisting of 3 to 5 people, who will ask questions related to the project, and perhaps some about yourself to get a better idea of who you are and how suitable you are for the placement.

If you are applying for a place at Oxbridge, you will find things are a bit different as they tend to have individual interviews with several members of staff, who will ask you specific questions about the project.

What questions will I be asked?

One of the first questions you will be likely to be asked is why you want to this particular PhD and what has led you down the path to academic research.

You will then be expected to answer further questions to demonstrate your knowledge of the basic elements of the PhD programme, what exactly it will involve, and what contribution you hope to make to the field.

Questions from the project supervisor will usually be more specific, though if you are being interviewed by several other people too, they will probably ask more general questions to see how you deal with them and test your ability to think on your feet.

They will usually want to see more than just evidence of what work you have done so far, although we recommend you look through key pieces of work such as your dissertation, that you completed in your undergraduate degree and (if applicable) your Masters degree. Make sure you know the work well enough so you can answer questions on it.

Think about how you will answer questions on ethics and confidentiality, especially if the project is funded by an outside body and there will be a representative in the interview.

The interviewers also want to see that you possess a wider knowledge of the topic area, so it's important you read and understand all the key references as well as any other relevant texts.

You should also read up on current developments in the field and highlight any areas that you could potentially tackle in your PhD.

Remember, you are not trying to provide an answer to your project title, rather you are identifying avenues of evidence that lead to particular arguments you may wish to pursue during your PhD.


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