Well it does depend on where you reside, but in my case, I basically went searching for potential PhD placements on the relevant websites and made enquiries. There is nothing stopping you doing that to at least make contact with potential supervisors but I can't see anyone offering you a place until all your results are in i.e. they may informally offer you the post but you would have to follow the set procedure before starting.
I'd agree with jouri that it is possibly better to start as early as possible, but one thing - don't rush! Make sure the project is right (funded, correct facilities and most importantly, an interesting topic). Take your time - you'll be 3-4 years doing the PhD so don't rush
Sorry for sounding a bit airy fairy before but main point is that there is nothing stopping you contacting possible colleges now and initiating some level of contact between yourself and potential supervisors. But no college or supervisor will allow you to start until all results are in (regardless of how good results are to that point). My advice would be two-fold.
a. Make finishing the Masters to the best of your ability priority
b. In the meantime, draw up a provisional academic CV and send to possible supervisors (thro' advertised placings or general areas of interest). Your enthusaism (sic) will not go un-noticed.
I applied for a named (i.e., i didn't write the proposal) and funded phd in february 2007, was interviewed and offered the post in march 2007. handed in my msc dissertation on a friday and started my phd on the monday. originally they wouldn't release my funding until i gave them my results but then my supervisor agreed that even if i had failed my msc they weren't going to kick me off/take the offer back so they released the money. it was internally funded though (of sorts). not sure the same would apply with research councils.
my advice, start looking now! funding applications can take 1 year+.
i started applying in march and i was expecting to finish my MA in november. i applied with a research proposal to several advertised positions, got taken at my first interview and my funded position is starting in september. now i'm rushing through my exams to be ready in time for september i think you should start applying for positions about 6 months in advance, then you might be lucky and not have a gap between MA and PhD.
And what exactly would make the difference? I still don't understand why it is luck not to have a gap (apart from financial reasons). Sometimes a break can help to let things sink in and to be mentally and physically ready for a new challenge. And a PhD is certainly a demanding task, so why the rush. A gap of 6-12 months on the CV will certainly not trigger any ackward questions, will it?
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