If you are considering doing a PhD here is the advice I would give myself a year or so ago: start early. It is tougher than you might think to organise funding and a supervisor at the same institution. If you are doing a masters degree now, you need to be sorting out the PhD proposal and funding before you start your masters research proposal.
The first thing you should do is chew the ears off the relevant research staff at your university. They will tell you where the best places and people are for your area of interest. You need to be very open minded about what they tell you and when they suggest Prof X at some university in the outer reaches of northern England, don’t immediately dismiss it. Follow up every opportunity, to see where it goes.
Academics are a funny bunch with a weird network structure. Some have direct connections with each other, but others only know of each other through reading published papers. If you follow up the suggestion of Prof X you may find that he isn’t interested in your research but knows someone closer to home that is. This really is one resource I found in abundance. Academics know it is tough to find supervisors and more often than not are happy to point you in the right direction.
If you don’t have access to academics to help you face to face, you need to get started by trawling through university websites. This can be quite painful as academic websites are disorganised. What I found was the best way to search was to use the “ site: “ operator in Google search with the website domain of the university. For example, when searching for social science supervisors at LSE I used “social science” supervisor professor site:lse.ac.uk
Don’t be blinded by funding. There is no point applying where there is money available if you do not fit in with the research area specified. No amount of bending the truth will make your research into recycling in the Paris suburbs sound like it is related to health outcomes amongst the rural poor. You will either be found out in interview of you will waste your time applying. Otherwise you might find that you end up doing research that isn’t your own and doesn’t really interest you.
Have a research proposal of no more than 200 words ready and a paragraph that succinctly summarises it. Send the paragraph, not the proposal to the contacts you uncover. If they want more they will let you know and it gives you the opportunity to monitor for feedback and incorporate it into your proposal. Don’t bother with anything longer at this stage as you will need to rewrite and expand your proposal for every application anyway later.
Focus on the research council funding. It is your best chance at getting your fees paid. Funding is released around December and then throughout the following year. There is usually a really short period from when it is announced to the deadline. You can use jobs.ac.uk to get alerts as funding in your area becomes available. The research council websites are really complex and it is worth asking your potential supervisor or the course administrator for help.
Finally, don’t just accept a supervisor because they are prepared to work with you. Evaluate their interest in your research. Think about what they are like as a person and how likely you are to still be getting on well in three, four or five years’ time. It is easy to focus on funding, but a well funded PhD with a disinterested supervisor won’t be that much fun at all.