Check admission and application details

Once you have chosen the institution for your research studies, read the admission website and/or attend information session to find out the admission criteria, required documents and application procedure. Jot down the type of supporting documents you need to submit, work backwards from the application deadline to compile your to-do list which may include statement of research or research proposal.

Are admission tests required?

In some cases, admission tests are required. For instance, GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) for business management-related RPg, or subject-based GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) for applicants who do not have a first degree in the discipline. Check Educational Testing Service ( and Graduate Management Admission Council ( for test dates and you could find online video courses/practice tests for practicing. The common advice is to devote 2 to 3 months for the preparation.

English proficiency test score is also required by some universities for candidates whose first language is not English. To prepare for your TOEFL and IELTS examinations, you can refer to their websites on Educational Testing Service ( and British Council (
In HKU, you can make use of the learning materials in the Library and the test materials in the Centre for Applied English Studies (CAES).

Enrich your research/publication experience

RPg requires candidates to demonstrate keen interests and strong abilities to conduct academic research. Start compiling your research profile such as research work and/or publications that you have involved in, especially in your interested area. Continue to engage yourself in related research work and work closely with professors who may provide an academic reference at a later stage.

Identify a research idea

While some universities/programmes accept graduate students to submit research proposals in the later part of their first year, some require a statement of research or research proposal with the application. To explore research ideas, you may find it valuable to discuss with your professors and current RPg students in research laboratories, spot questions unanswered in previous research studies, or browse the research projects of professors with whom you share similar interest. Visit the university’s website on the details/formats expected of the research statement or proposal (see “Documents to prepare” for more information).

Search and contact potential supervisors

Once the research area is chosen, you may start by browsing relevant resources (e.g. the University’s scholars’ hub/research staff profile or conference speakers), reach out to the professors to explore the possibility of supervision. Alternatively, you could also search for professors who have received external research grants in areas which match your interest. Remember, your teachers are important resource persons, do seek their advice.

This process of communication, discussion and modification to your proposal would take months and so allow sufficient time for that. During the process, you may also assess the “fit” between you and your supervisor in other aspects such as expectation, supervision arrangement and work style.

Actually this process could begin in your undergraduate years. Build your academic network proactively through various available channels such as assisting professors in research work, attending seminars/conferences and overseas exchange.

Timeline for application preparation

For MPhil and PhD admissions, some universities do not have formal closing dates and students can apply any time. These universities usually have rolling start dates throughout the year, depending on the schedules of individual departments. However, if you are going to apply for funding or financial assistance, you might need to apply within the appropriate funding round. Also, early application (usually a year ahead) is strongly suggested for international students.

For some universities, “application deadlines” still apply. Take HKU as an example: the main round of RPg application is usually from September to early December. Clearing round applications may be invited after the main round if there are study places left, and the closing dates for these rounds will be April and August respectively in the following year.

As for timeline, every application is unique but the chart below might serve as a reference:

Time Tasks
The summer break before final year
  • Check the entry requirements of your interested programmes
  • Search for a potential supervisor
  • Start thinking about your research proposal
  • Complete the TOEFL/ IELTS/ GRE tests (if appropriate)
September to October
  • Develop your research proposal and personal statement
  • Invite academic referees
  • Apply and gather all required application documents
November to early December
  • Final proofread research proposal, personal statement and other supporting documents
  • Get all documents ready and apply online!

Documents to prepare

For most universities, the application documents for MPhil/PhD admissions are highly similar, just that PhD applications might require documents of greater depth and length in view of its high demand on originality and uniqueness. Although the application documents might somehow vary depending on your research area or the university you are applying, here are some essential ones:

Research proposal
Research proposal plays a vital part in your RPg application. It is to demonstrate your research is going to be significant and can make an original contribution. Some key elements in your research proposal are:

  • Research questions and aims: Provide an overview of your research questions and explain why these questions are significant to the field; also outline the main objectives, that is, what you wish to find out/prove in your studies
  • Literature review: Include a succinct review of the significant literature in the past and at present so to place your own proposed research in context, thus demonstrating the potential contribution of your studies
  • Methodology: Briefly describe the rationale and contents of your proposed research methods, such as the theoretical approaches preferred, the type of information and sources to be used, data collection procedures (e.g. interviews, case studies, modelling etc.) and any possible difficulties or ethical/safety issues identified
  • Chapter outline: Include a tentative chapter outline and working timeline if available. This will show that you are a well-planned researcher
  • References/bibliography: List out all cited articles and publications by using a suitable academic referencing system, e.g. MLA, APA and Chicago

Since different academic departments or supervisors might look for different things as far as a research proposal is concerned, don’t forget to check with the relevant parties before submitting your proposal. It is also not uncommon for the universities to conduct plagiarism checks. Always remember, research proposal is only a starting point. Your proposed research might change as your ideas evolve over time.

Further Reference:
HKU: How to prepare thesis proposal
University of Sydney: How to write a research proposal
University of Oxford: Writing your research proposal

Personal statement
While research proposal demonstrates the potentials and values of your research, personal statement is a short essay to illustrate your uniqueness and suitability for your particular research project. In general, a personal statement covers the followings:

  • Background and motivation: Reflect on what led you to apply for a research programme and what makes you feel so immensely interested in your research topic. An encounter with a particular professor? An inspiring course? Share some of these experiences which your resume might not be able to cover
  • Academic experience: Instead of listing out all your qualifications (as you have done in your resume), focus on how these qualifications contribute to your readiness for conducting your research, for instance, how your capstone/final year project/other dissertation projects taught you about research
  • Broader goals and extra-curricular experience: Demonstrate how your research project fits into your wider goals in life, e.g. for those research studies which might bear charitable focus or humanistic concerns; also include some relevant life experiences, achievements, personal qualities or transferable skills, such as organization, self-motivation, that can support your suitability.

In a nutshell, a personal statement is to make a convincing case for why you are a compelling candidate for the research project you propose. Relevance is key so please always write with concrete examples and evidence (for more practical Dos and Don’ts, please refer to Section 5.1.3).

Further Reference:
PROSPECT, UK: Personal statements for postgraduate applications
Columbia University: How to write a personal statement for a PhD programme application

Academic References
Almost all universities request 2 to 3 academic reference reports. Although the submission formats might look different, the rationale is pretty much the same: you have to demonstrate that your application is well supported by teachers. These teachers should be familiar with your academic achievement and be able to comment on your academic ability, potentials and research expertise. When you identify your academic references, think about these questions:

  • How well did you perform in their course(s) or research projects?
  • How well do they know you?
  • Will your referee’s reputation carry weight in your research field?

Last but not least, don’t forget to give your referees adequate time to prepare for your references. Please also support them by providing the essential information such as your resume and personal statement.

Further Reference:
UTM Career Centre: Academic references—tip sheet

Other documents
Some other common documents that research degree applications require include: an up-to-date resume, academic transcripts of your university studies to date, evidence of your English language proficiency such as IELTS/TOEFL, official score report of GRE or GMAT, etc.

Further Reference:
HKU: Documents to support an application
University of Sydney: Apply for postgraduate research