Common questions around the DPhil (PhD) programme

An interview with DPhil Coordinator Professor Pepper Culpepper

In the Admissions Team, when we speak to potential applicants to the DPhil in Public Policy, we tend to hear a lot of the same questions coming up. So, for this blog I decided to sit down with our DPhil co-ordinator Professor Pepper Culpepper to chat through some of those common queries. 

The Blavatnik School of Government
The Blavatnik School of Government and Oxford University Press. Photo: ©Hufton+Crow

Pepper, thanks very much for taking some time out to speak with me. Let’s start with a more general question, but a very important one: who should consider applying to the DPhil programme at the Blavatnik School?

The DPhil at the School is aimed at people who have a strong interest, grounded in a scholarly literature, in answering a question related to government and public policy and broadly defined. So our students are similar to those in a disciplinary department in terms of anchoring themselves in the literature, but what we think is unique about them is the interest in engaging with pressing policy questions of the day.

So there’s a common thread across all the work undertaken at the school, and that’s improving government globally. The school has a very interdisciplinary approach to answering those key questions of governance and policy making – what does this mean for students and potential applicants? Do proposals have to be cross-discipline?

That’s a good question, because everyone who comes to the Blavatnik School comes with a certain intellectual background, and that’s typically in a discipline. So we don’t expect everyone to be interdisciplinary. What interdisciplinary means is that we are people doing research from a range of different disciplines. I, myself, am a political scientist; my colleagues are economists or political theorists, or those working elsewhere in the social sciences. So when we look at applications to the School, what we care about is that you have a research question that relates broadly to the sort of policy concerns (i.e. making government work better) that are at the core of the School’s mission. You don’t need to sell yourself as an interdisciplinary person because we expect people to come here anchoring their research in a particular discipline. Of course, if you really do come from cross-disciplinary literatures, then highlight that in your application, but it’s neither a plus nor a minus. We evaluate the question and the candidate. We don’t score people on interdisciplinarity per-se.

When applicants are formulating that research question and putting together their proposal, how detailed do they need to be? Are we looking for an idea of the broad area in which their interest lies or do we need a much more specific and focussed research question?

Your proposal allows us to see the broad area in which you want to work, and we expect you to pose the question in a way that shows you already have access to some of the relevant scholarly literatures and are thinking about how to design the research. We expect people to come with some research training background and so we expect you to have some view of how you want to turn your broad interest into a specific question.

Having said that, what we’re evaluating is the interest of the question and the intellectual interest of the candidate who poses it.

So is there also scope to change the focus of your research question at a later stage, should you be admitted to the programme?

Professor Pepper CulpepperNo one is bound to do research on exactly the question that they write about in their proposal. Often it’s the case that someone is doing a master’s degree and then they propose something which is a further development of their master’s work, and that’s fine. But you’re not committing to do exactly the proposal that you send us, because part of what we do in the first year is we work on turning that proposal into something researchable; and that sometimes involves changing or tweaking the question or the design. So, you’re not giving us a contract – ‘I will try to answer question x’ – what you’re giving us instead is a way to see your mind at work so we can evaluate if you do the sort of work that would be interesting to our scholarly community.

Speaking of those who teach at the Blavatnik School of Government, a key aspect of any doctoral study is the relationship between a student and their supervisor. We don’t require students to identify a supervisor at the point of application. Can you tell me a bit about why that is and how supervisor allocation works within our assessment process?

You don’t choose a supervisor. A supervisor chooses you. Every file is read by the admissions team and then members of faculty are called in to provide specialist expertise, and they can express interest in those files. So we allocate supervisors based on an expressed interest by the supervisor and a core fit with the supervisor’s area. If you’re particularly interested in working with someone, then you’re welcome to express that, but that’s not the dominant way in which supervisors are allocated. Supervisors are allocated according to interest and also capacity. Some of our faculty are heavily engaged and this is particularly true of some of our most well-known faculty. Some of our more junior, but just as stellar, faculty have fewer obligations and are more interested in supervising so we create that possibility as well. Of course, supervisor allocation can be something which is discussed once you get here. It’s not written in stone, but that’s the way that we think about it, at least at the admissions stage.

Turning a bit to eligibility, we’re very explicit about the need for applicants to already have research skills training at master’s level – why is that so crucial for DPhil candidates at BSG?

We’re a three-year programme, so we expect you to finish in more or less three years. In some other programmes, particularly in some of those offered by peer universities in the United States, you have a longer programme which involves more immersion in the literature after which you start working on writing your dissertation. Here you start right when you get here. So we need you to have research training because you’re not going to have time to acquire all the skills that you need if you haven’t done any research beforehand. That’s not to say that you can’t continue improving your skills, develop new methodological skills or refine skills that you already have. That certainly is welcome and encouraged and almost everyone does it, but in the first year you’re already writing a proposal. So we expect people to have that training because we expect people to broadly know what sort of research design they can set up and be tracking towards getting going with it by the end of the first year.

So are there any taught courses as part of the DPhil or opportunities to undertake further training?

We have some taught courses at the doctoral level within the School and we have many courses available across the university, both through other departments and through the doctoral training centre that is run by the Social Sciences Division. So, if you like, we take advantage of all of Oxford’s strengths. We offer some particular courses and we allow you to take other courses. Because we’re interdisciplinary, students wind up taking a range of different courses in different departments, and many of those courses are not necessarily offered here.

How about the opportunity to teach or work as a research assistant on other projects within the School?

There are opportunities, yes. It’s not, so far, structured into being a necessary part of your programme. We don’t encourage this in particular in the first year, as this is when students are working on their what’s called ‘transfer of status’, which you can read about on the Blavatnik School’s website. But there are possibilities, and people are actively recruited from the DPhil programme to be involved in teaching certain courses. Because we don’t have any undergraduate students at the School there’s not necessarily the same demand for teaching that there would be in a large undergraduate institution. We are mainly teaching its MPP students, and teaching in those programmes is available. Becoming a research assistant is a little bit dependent on whether there’s a project with which you fit and have time to get involved with. But if those conditions are satisfied it’s certainly a possibility.

It sounds like, given the limited opportunities to teach or get research assistance work within the school, securing sufficient funding is especially important for DPhil students. Do you have any advice for DPhil applicants on where they should be looking for funding?

Well, we don’t fund all our students, and indeed we have a very limited amount of funding available. So we urge you to look at the many outside opportunities that are available. Those students that apply to BSG and are successful are absolutely top calibre. They’ve been very successful in the past in external competitions, as well as competitions internal to the university, for funding. So I urge you to check out the resources on our website. If you don’t have any outside funding, that doesn’t mean you should not apply; definitely apply! But applicants should know that our funding is extremely limited. We’d like to have more funding available in the future, but the current state of play is that we generally expect people to come with outside funding or to be able to provide their own funding.

There are certainly a lot of funding opportunities out there and applicants can find further funding advice on our website. Well, that covers the most common queries about the course so thanks again for your time Pepper.

I hope that this blog will be useful to those considering applying to the DPhil. Plus, please remember for any questions you have that aren’t covered here or on the website, you can always email the Admissions Team ( and we’ll be happy to help.

Image copyright Hufton+Crow.

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