Postgrad queries

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The Independent Online

Q: I have an idea for a topic I’d like to study, but I’m not sure it’s suitable for a research degree. What’s the best way to develop it further?

A: You are treading a path well worn by past postgraduates, many of whom have gone on to complete outstanding pieces of research that have left their mark in their chosen corners of academia for decades. So fear not, there are plenty of sources of help out there, many of them provided by the universities. Few of their applicants have any prior experience of writing research proposals.

So, ask around within your current university department, or renew contacts with your old university if your first degree was a while back, and find out if they can offer any help. If not, search around other university websites, because the advice is pretty generic. The starting points are these: you must demonstrate a solid understanding of your intended research area; you need to frame an interesting research question, which, in being answered, will produce new knowledge; you need a clear idea of how you’ll conduct the research; and you need to show previous research experience within a previous degree course.

Q: I’m a first-year undergraduate who, after ill-health, has some debt problems and have been advised to apply for a debt relief order. Will this be an obstacle when I try to secure funding for a postgraduate course in the future?

A:Applications to banks, for loans of various descriptions, will always trigger an investigation into your credit history and financial behaviour. So if you acquire a debt relief order (a sort of bankruptcy-lite process) on your record, you are right to think that it could make these sorts of applications difficult.

On the plus side, it should not affect your chances of securing grants and awards from research councils and other bodies who fund postgrads. The same goes for your chances of getting a place on a course. Your financial past is unlikely to concern the academics, who will be looking at your academic performance and potential alone.

Q: When are the deadlines to apply for scholarships or studentships for postgraduate courses?

A: This is a timely question, because most universities publish in October and November their various sources of funding for postgraduates starting next autumn. But don’t assume that, once you’ve looked at a particular university’s studentships list, you have the full picture. It’s common for new sources of funding to be agreed between autumn and spring and to be published as and when they are finalised. So keep your eyes peeled, and check the funding sections of university websites frequently.

Send your queries to Steve McCormack at