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Applying for Your Postgrad Degree: A Guide

February 17, 2021

Photo by Laura Kapfer

I get so excited when people (especially womxn of colour) want to do a postgraduate degree. I get excited not only because of what it can do for them, but what it will do for their local and global communities… and how it can inspire others to do the same. But there are many obstacles to getting there, and one of the first is the application process. South African universities sometimes have a bad rap when it comes to supporting their prospective students while they apply. I get many emails from people outside my institution struggling with the administrative and confusing hassle of applications. The issue is, many faculty members don’t prioritise these emails; there can be a general air of “not our student, not our problem”.

So I thought I would give some advice about applying for your Masters or PhD degrees, based on common questions I get, and my own experiences. If it’s too much to take in right now, scroll through and check out the Big Tips! in blue throughout the article to read some easy helpful tips. But if you’re ready, buckle up, and digest it section by section.

Types of application
Most of the university institutions in SA (UCT, Wits, UJ, UP, Stellenbosch, UKZN, etc) all require online applications for postgrad degrees and do not accept any other type of application. This can add a bit of stress to the process, but considering Covid and its effects, I believe it should be the only way. I also believe this because I know of horror stories about physical applications being lost or damaged, damaging peoples’ education prospects in the process. Also, it’s eco-responsible.

The educational qualification necessary for a PhD is usually a Masters degree, related to the field you’re applying for. For a Masters, it’s usually an Honours degree or an undergrad degree inclusive of Honours. More rarely, a good amount of research experience, or even lots of work experience, can qualify you. This does differ from institution to institution, so make sure to read all the application guidelines thoroughly and, if you can, to pick up the phone or send an email to ask about exceptions.

Most institutions’ deadlines are usually stated as towards the end of year (September to November). But let me let you in on a little secret. If you are applying specifically for a full thesis/dissertation, i.e. no coursework/modules are involved, I consider the application period open throughout the year. Why? Because it’s fully research, you work the degree at your own pace. Sure, if you apply after the deadline they may only consider you with the next round of applications, but you can still do some work in the background. Here’s a Big Tip! Speak to faculty members (any faculty, anywhere) if you need help with the proposal. Find a professor or lecturer in that field and ask for advice. If they don’t respond, find another one. It’s possible that they may be too busy, or on leave, or not interested. But do you know what’s never too busy, or on leave, or uninterested? The library! I don’t necessarily mean go comb through shelves of books. I mean spend some time on Google Scholar. Do your research in the meantime, on the topic you are interested in. By the time your application’s up for consideration, you have more solid ideas; you’re not starting your degree from scratch. Another Big Tip! Do think about starting the proposal on your own, long before your application is reviewed. Faculty might even be impressed by the ground you’ve covered. It’s a smart move. Stay ready, so you ain’t gotta get ready 😎

Once you reach the online application for your university, there’s typically a pane with sections. The order and naming differs from institution to institution, but they usually include Personal/Demographic Information; Degree/Major Selection, Previous Education and Work Experience, and so on. Big Tip! To stay on track, take all of that and make it into a checklist to refer to throughout the process of your application. 

Motivation letters
This is where you get to tell the university why you want to do the degree and why they should accept you. A young sales pitch. My advice is to make this three-fold, with the three main areas of focus being you, the institution, and the real world. The real world part gives you an advantage, so don’t neglect it.

  • With the institution, take time to research the institutions you’re applying to. What are their core principles? What do they value most? What types of graduates do they seek? I’m not saying be a parrot. Chances are, as a potential postgraduate student, you have similar values as they do anyway. So just find where they meet and highlight those areas, with a personal touch. Which brings me to the next focus.
  • You. Highlight skills about yourself that show why you see them as a good fit, why you are able to complete a postgraduate degree, and what that would mean for you, your family, your social circles…
  • Thirdly, what it means for the real world. Do you want to bring change to corporates, or the health system? Are you going to create knowledge so you can help inform regulation and policy? Do you want to uplift a community? Give some real though to your reasons for pursuing a postgrad degree before writing this. If you need help considering this, check out “To PhD or not to PhD?” for food for thought.

Another important thing to note is that university staff use your motivation letter as an example of your writing capabilities, so write it well. Put in effort and thought, check for spelling and grammar errors, and maybe run it past someone you know who can give you honest feedback. Big Tip!: Do not reiterate what’s on your CV because, chances are, they’ve seen all that. Just give more layered and creative ideas about why you should be accepted. But be sure to highlight not just what value you can give them, but also what value they will get from you. Do you bring industry experience? Do you bring teaching or academic assistance? Diversity (in your identity, your experiences, your research directions)? A fresh perspective? You definitely have value to add, and highlighting that should work in your favour.

Reference letters
Not all institutions require these. And even in the institutions that do, not all faculties or departments request them. But if they do – take them very seriously. Find good referees (professors, previous employers or lecturers – people who have some level of clout. Try to aim for at least one to be academic). Big Tip! Do not be afraid to let your referees know what you would like them to say in the letter. A common approach is to draft your own letter, showing how you meet the criteria of the institutions you’re applying for. It’s not cheating, I swear, I’d never mislead you. The thing is, your referee most likely has 100 other things on their plate. Taking their time to write you a letter is very kind, so try to make it easier for them. Write what you would like said, send them a draft, and tell them to alter it as they see fit. After all, they’re signing their name on it; they have to be comfortable with what it says. But it’s best when they don’t have to start from scratch. Help them help you.

Do your research to see if you align
You’re going to have to read. Read up on all the institutions you’re targeting. What are their selection criteria? Do they make decisions based more on academic merit, your research experience? Or do they place more importance on giving opportunities to those from disadvantaged backgrounds? Or perhaps they seek an alignment between your research idea and their goals as a department? If you’re applying for a PhD: institutions refer to your Masters thesis for a demonstration of your research and academic writing capabilities, which is also a common criteria. Make notes on each institution to see if you fulfil each one’s specific criteria. You don’t have to meet them all, but zone in on those you do.

Many institutions will ask for your funding information. In other words, they want to know how you’re going to pay the money. If you have a scholarship or plan to apply for one, they want that highlighted. If you are privileged enough to have a sponsor such as a parent, or employer or mentor, or are able to pay for it yourself, they’d request that information. Institutions usually have their own funding available for various degrees, and so there may be an option (within the application process) to apply for funding. You would then need to follow due process there. But the format in which this information is required differs across the board. In some departments at UCT, for example, it can simply be a text document in which you state “This is to certify that [insert name here] will be responsible for the payment of this degree”. Slap some formal things on to it. A date, an address, a ‘to whom it may concern’, and that should be enough. Sidebar: When I applied abroad, they wanted declarations of income, bank statements and expenses, to really prove that I can afford to be there. It’s a lot. But if your institution wants it, give it.

Research outline
Have you ever heard of a mini-dissertation? Now think of a mini-proposal. Now, think even more mini. There is typically 500 word limit but, again, it differs across institutions and departments. The idea of a research outline can get overwhelming real quick. It can feel like you have to have it all figured out – your topic, your methodology, your problem statement, your analysis. You don’t! Truth is, from the moment you decide on a topic, your direction will change a number of times before you finally settle on a final proposal anyway. Your direction may even change after your proposal has been approved! As a faculty member, I can tell you for free, we don’t want you to have it all figured out. But what we do want is an indication that you can do research and you know what it entails. Big Tip! For your research outline, your topic doesn’t have to be final. It can even be the complete opposite of what the final will be. But we do need to see that you know how to define a problem you want to address, that you can point out its significance, that you know what research questions are best suited to investigate it, and what methods are best suited for that. Big Tip Again! Look online for some good proposal templates. Or even for previous theses. Most introduction chapters of a thesis are essentially a proposal, so take that and make it small scale.

Ah, the admin 🙃
You will be asked for a number of attachments. Your CV, motivation letter, reference letter(s), research outline, academic transcripts, etc. Make a checklist of ALL the attachments. I cannot tell you how many applications we receive in our faculty where they have a great academic record, but there’s no research outline so we have no idea how to place them. Or someone has a great research outline but dololo transcript, so we don’t know if they meet the academic requirements to be accepted. Make a list of every document that needs to be uploaded, and scratch them off the list only when the system gives you confirmation that the document is uploaded (technology can be tricky; I have been dribbled). Usually they offer a preview option, so you can open that and check if indeed it is the correct file. There will also be institution-specific requirements in terms of what types of files you can upload (Word, PDFs, PNG, etc) and how large the files must be. So make sure you convert and compress and all that.

Not all institutions, faculties, or departments invite you for interviews. But if they do, you’ve already made it through the hard part. An interview will just serve to cement what you’ve already told them through your application, and to meet you in person. I can’t speak too much about what they will ask you because that will differ. But my advice is to enter knowing that you deserve to be there, and make sure to let them know that. Fake the confidence if you have to. See that research you did on your goals aligning with theirs? That could come in as a huge help here.

Common pitfalls
Okay, now that I’ve gone on forever, let me go on just a little bit more 😊

Watch out for these common mistakes that I see too often:
1. Incomplete applications. This is why the checklist is essential; most institutions tell you they will not consider incomplete applications. Believe them. It’s true.
2. Incorrect department. I’ve seen applications come in to Commerce when they were clearly meant for Law, or Engineering. Check and double check that you select the right one.
3. No motivation/cheating the motivation. Can you imagine the amounts of applications that these institutions get? They don’t need to hear (again) about your academic and work achievements. Spend some time with your motivation, and write more about who you are than you what you’ve done.

Be okay with rejections
This is easier said than done, I know. We’re emotional beings, of course we want acceptance. Otherwise we wouldn’t go through this whole process. But, true story: if you do not get accepted by your chosen tribe, it’s never the end. It’s just the beginning of another way in or around, or elsewhere. Rejections are also a lot more common than you think. Last Big Tip! There are way more rejections than acceptances. To give you perspective; I was rejected not once, not twice, but three times by UCT before I got accepted for my Masters degree. I also applied for my PhD at six different institutions, and got rejected by five. Rejections are not usually a reflection of you and your capabilities. Reasons could be that the department just doesn’t have enough supervisors; or the competition really was that tight and you were a close call, or perhaps they think your topic may be more suitable for another department/faculty. Apply to other institutions. Cast your net wide. And if you only want the one institution and you won’t budge, that’s also fine. Adjust your application. Try again.

*This is all written with South African universities in mind, as applying abroad can be a different ballgame. We’ll get there.

Yours in glamorous intelligence,