So I'm currently enjoying the struggle that is getting a PhD application together. Every year IRCSET run a programme for funding shiny fresh-faced wannabe PhD students (it's called the EMBARK initiative, you can find it here). Like many other funding bodies, it has reduced the number of places available, going from two calls in a year to one. However, it's certainly still worth having a go off, the stipend is quite reasonable (althought it only covers three years) and the grant also throws eight grand towards fees and supplies.The toughest part is the personal statement. You have 1200 words in which to say how awesome you are, why you have the relevant skills, and what you want to do with your life (there's actually a bunch of questions in the guidelines, but that's broadly it). So at the beginning it's hard, you throw together some lines about your skills and experiences, and you don't oversell yourself. Then your supervisor points out that you really do have a bunch of strenghts, so you have another stab at it, it's easier and you spill out loads of awesome words on to the page. Then it gets hard again, you *have* to stay under the word count, the webform just won't accept the superfluous words. After you've been reminded how great you are, cutting out the words of awesome is difficult, but eventaully you succeed.
Finding a supervisor is both hard and easy, you might get lucky or you could spend quite a time trying to find someone in your field of interest who'd be happy to take you on. In general, they say if you can turn up to a potential supervisor with your own funding, it makes you look super (because you did all the legwork, and stuff). I was lucky in that one of my masters lecturers was interested in taking me on, and I have a big interest in applied immunology.
So you have a statement and a supervisor, now you need a project proposal. Again here, you could find that your supervisor already has a project they have in mind, or you might be able to approach them with ideas of your own. Either way, you need to condense the project into 800 words and point out all the marvellous things you will learn by undertaking the work.
So, statement - check, supervisor - check, proposal - check, next you need to grapple with the IRCSET website. Most of it is easy enough to deal with, although the subwindows with their own scroll bar is rather frustrating. The main issue I had with the submission process was that they didn't seem to take ladder degrees into account (the ones where you get a cert/ordinary degree/honours degree, and not always in the same college). There's only one box for entering undergraduate results, and likewise only one for postgraduate results. Maybe they don't expect people from the IT's to want to do further research.
After that you just have to chase up your supervisor and referees to make sure they say lovely things about you. It's never a bad idea to get on to a referee before you use them, to ask politely to use them (they rarely mind) and also to remind them you exist and how you were awesome.
The relieft at completing the application is massive, as it involves a fair bit of your brain time, but after that it's still back to studying hard and getting that result you told them you're expecting....