PhD Rejections-where am i going wrong?


Hi everybody,

Im hoping someone could give me some idea of whats happening with my applications. I have applied for about 15 phd studentships now if not more and have been rejected by everyone and Im not entirely sure why I havent even received one interview. It is so demoralising.

Funny thing is I had great A Levels and GCSEs and consequently managed to enter Medicine (MBBS). Due to some unforseen extenuating circumstances, I had to terminate my medical studies after 2.5 years. At 23 I got married following certain disturbances in my life to an island with no universities. I didnt want to give up on my studies after showing such potential. So I decided to do a BScHONS in Life Sciences with Open University and got 2 years credit transfer from my medical degree. However, I had 2 young children while studying and working but managed to attain a very high 2:1 with all but one module mark nearing 80% or more. For some strange reason, while most universities would award first class for anything above 70-75%, Open University only award a 1st above 85%!! Anyway then I went onto do an MRes in Medical & Molecular Biosciences from the reputable Newcastle University and got a distinction yet again showing my academic potential.

Despite all this, I am being rejected over and over again and I really dont know what to make of it. Now Im thinking is it because my BScHons was with Open University? Or is it because I am now 29 and 'too old' for a PhD? With the MRes I also got 6 months oncological research experience at a research institute. I thought after getting into a reputable university like Durham initially and then finishing off with a MRes at another reputabel university like Newcastle, this would make up for any doubts they might have for Open Uni.

I would really appreciate if someone could tell me what is going wrong here. Has everyone being offered a PhD studentship got a 1st in their BScHons but even then my marks are similar to people who get a first.

Please help somebody!


Hi Natalia. Welcome to the forum.

Firstly, the state of the job market might not be helping your case. A few years ago I think you would have found less competition but I gather there has been an increase in the number of applications for postgrad study these days.

I suspect that it’s not anything to do with your credentials that is holding you back, perhaps just how you are presenting them. Have you spoken to a uni careers department? They may be able to give guidance on how best to construct your CV. I would also seek advice from friends/classmates who have applied for academic jobs/PhDs. Also, get someone to proof read applications and make sure that everything makes sense – that can be a non-science person with a fresh pair of eyes.

Emphasise the most recent achievements and those most relevant to research. Really push your research experience – that is the thing that is going to show potential supervisors whether you’re cut out for a PhD. Though good A Levels, GCSEs and decent unis do give a certain academic pedigree, what will help you most is your understanding of how practical research differs from structured study.

Given the gaps in your CV it is worth acknowledging this briefly in a covering letter without going into extensive detail. That you have returned to study after personal difficulties show resilience and perseverance but without acknowledging why the timeline is how it is, a potential supervisor may be left wondering what happened. Again, get advice from a careers service as to how best to present this. You may also wish to list your course grades somewhere in your application if you feel that your BSc award undersells your achievements.

Be careful to make sure you tailor applications to the specific project – avoid generic covering letters. If there is a named supervisor in the advert, send them an email of enquiry before applying – use it as an opportunity to find out more about the project/department and also get yourself on their radar. Make sure you show an interest in the specifics of the project in the covering letter.

Finally, if some of your applications were very recent, contact the departments in question and ask for feedback as to why you were not successful – they may be able to tell you something useful.


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Firstly I don't think you can argue that your OU marks are equivalent to 1st elsewhere. The OU has its own percentage grading scheme, which should mean that what it marks as 1st class honours is equivalent to 1st class honours elsewhere, and 2.1 etc. You can't equate percentages at universities with different grading systems. You have come in firmly with sub-1st class honours levels for your BSc(Hons), and that will be recognised by people considering your result, who won't think you got 1st class + level. Please don't argue that it was 1st class honours level when you apply. Doing this won't help your application at all.

I agree that you need to present your application as strongly as possible, and career gaps may be a concern. But your OU degree should not be a problem. I was originally a computer science PhD student, but had to leave that after MS-like illness struck. I started studying with the OU, one course at a time, and soon had a BA(Hons), 2.1. I was accepted for a taught Masters degree, and got that, with distinction, then I applied for AHRC funding. AHRC funding applications at that time had a success rate of about 1 in 5, and only the best applicants ever applied. So it was very hard to get. But despite my dropping out (for medical reasons) from a funded (EPSRC) PhD before, and my OU degree, I got it.

So it can be done! Oh and I was 31 when I won my AHRC funding, so age wasn't a problem there either :p

Definitely get advice from your student careers service, perhaps from Newcastle university where you did your Masters. They should help see if you can improve your applications.

Good luck!


Hi there,

It certainly isn't your qualifications or age. I have a 2:1 from the Open University and I am 39 in the first year of PhD.
With so many people now going to university the job market for graduates is very competitive and so more now consider PhDs.

Are you selling yourself sufficiently in your applications?
You are excellent at time management having studied while working. (Don't mention children in application - leave that for interview where you can explain your multitasking skills having family - in interview I then used the reason "I am returning to study as my daughter is older and needs me less: I can now devote myself to what I want to do")
As an Open University student you have a self reliance that undergraduates normally don't get because they have their tutors on their doorstep. This is like research where your supervisor is often very busy and so contact is often emails or the odd face to face meeting.

Avatar for sneaks

Applications have gone up - at my uni there were 40 applications last year for the department PhD funding - this year this went up to 150!

Realistically, the vast majority of PhD students get their PhD by already knowing someone in the university. So the ones you see advertised are more than likely going to have someone lined up for the position already, they just have to advertise to ensure they went through the 'proper' process.

To get round this you need to get your foot in the door - perhaps approach some potential supervisors and ask for a face to face meeting - that way they'll keep you in mind rather than some random applicant, when they have a position that comes up. You could also apply for short term research posts (that don't need a doctorate) to get your foot in the door of a department (this is what I did and the supervisor of my project then applied for ESRC funding and I got the PhD).


Agree with what as already been said. Maybe get someone at your University's Careers service to read your next application and CV and maybe give you a mock interview. Maybe one of us on here can also read your application/CV?


Thanks for all the advice everybody. I have tried to cover all angles. I contacted a careers advisor who gave some great advice etc, I try to make my applications specific to each individual project and I have been told by the careers advisors that my application and CV are strong which is why I am feeling worse because I really cant see where Im goin wrong. The only thing I havent done is gone to visit the labs because I live in the British Isles and would have to fly over and that is expensive. Although im planning to pay a a few lab visits now but theres not many PhDs of interest at the moment and Im worried I'll may have to wait till the next academic year with this one coming to an end, taking my age to 30!

One of you kindly suggested that you guys might be willing to check some of my applications. If anybody can do that, I'd be grateful if you can provide an email address to contact you on as I'v got a deadline coming up next Thursday.



Firstly, Sorry for the rejection :(
This is unfair if they're not coming back to you. I believe you need at least one supervisor who knows the literature on your topic If they've not got that expertise, then however good the candidate, that PhD is a road crash waiting to happen. Even if the dept has an expert, that person usually has an upper limit of how many people s/he can supervise, and if you're unlucky that person might not have any spaces. That's why it is helpful to contact a potential supervisor is advance as if they can't, they can usually suggest other people elsewhere to ask. They are also usually willing to look at a proposal and tell you if it looks feasible or not, which helps avoid any mega-mistakes.