Applying to an advertised project or writing your own proposal?



I'm writing a blog discussion post on whether supervisors should stop advertising projects for students to apply for, and let students reach out to them with their own proposals. I would be great to hear some thoughts and anecdotes! Thanks in advance!

Avatar for rewt

Hi, I am doing an engineering PhD with a pre-defined project in the UK.

I think it would be unfair to expect all PhD students to develop good research projects. In my field in the UK, there is a general expectation that even if the project doesn't work you will have enough data for a PhD. Expecting a PhD student to create their own proposal even with academic support, will result in more bad projects and longer finishing times. Writing your own proposal is great if you have a great idea but I think you should consider what happens if the project goes wrong. The application process will become a trade off between research ability and a killer idea, with more people being accepted/rejected for the wrong reasons.
Also, experienced academics are more likely to write better project proposals that are of the right size, if you find out too late that the project is too small or too big, it can cause issues.

However, I do think it is fair for students to write a research proposal based on the project title & description. As part of my application I had to write a mini-research proposal based on the project description. Allegedly I was chosen based of that proposal alone but I have also been allowed to make the project my own. As within a fixed project PhD their is usually scope to allow the PhD student to develop the research by themselves. I think there can be a happy balance between fixed projects and student lead proposals.


Can't add much more than rewt has just said.

The average brand new PhD student is simply not going to be effective at coming up with an idea worthy of a PhD. They lack the experience.
The best solution is to start them off with the broad terms of their project specified for them and then allow and encourage the student to gradually branch out after a year or two when they have the safety of a paper or two under their belt.

PhD funding lasts 3 years (ignoring the 1+3 thing where the first year is lectures and assigned mini projects). A new student could easily waste a year figuring out what to work on. Then they would have just 18 months of actual research work before taking the 6 months to write their thesis (it is unethical to expect a thesis to be written without any income). I don't think you can produce PhD standard work in 18 months.

By all means, by the end of the PhD, the student MUST be able to do their own thing but in my opinion, it is inefficient and unfair to throw a young person straight into the deep end on day 1 and personally I can't understand why the system would advocate that.