While most of those studying for a PhD take the PhD by thesis pathway, there are five viable routes to achieving a Doctorate degree
PhD by thesis
This is the most common means of getting a Doctorate degree. Over the three or four years of research at university, your PhD supervisor will support you as you aim to produce a thesis based on your research proposal.
A thesis is typically 60,000-90,000 words in length - although this can vary between institutions. For instance, the University of Glasgow's College of Social Sciences expects a thesis to be 70,000-100,000 words including references, bibliography and appendices, while the University of Cambridge has set an upper limit of 80,000 words.
Once completed, you'll need to defend your PhD thesis in front of a panel of examiners during your viva voce.
PhD by publication
This route involves submitting previously published work - such as books, book chapters and journal articles, which together form a coherent body of work and show evidence of an original contribution to a particular field of study.
It's often taken by mid-career academics that haven't had the opportunity to undertake a standard Doctorate degree.
Generally, a minimum of five to eight published pieces are required, but this varies between institutions and depends on their length. The published work will be assessed to the same rigorous standards as a traditional PhD by thesis.
You must also provide a written supporting statement, which can range from 5,000 to 20,000 words, and present your work to an academic committee. A supervisor will assist you with selecting which publications to submit and with the supporting statement.
Some universities accept only their own graduates for a PhD by publication, while others restrict this route to their academic staff. In general, you should have graduated from your first degree at least seven years ago to be eligible.
For example, The University of Manchester has published its own Guidance for the PhD By Published Work, with eligibility only extending to current members of staff.
Geared primarily towards current professionals in vocational sectors such as healthcare, teaching and education, and engineering and manufacturing, this type of Doctorate degree includes a significant taught component and a smaller research project.
Professional Doctorates are often taken on a part-time basis and can last between two and eight years. Like their standard PhD counterparts, they usually begin in October or January.
While you won't typically be looking to get an academic job, your research is expected to contribute to theory as well as professional practice. Projects often revolve around a real-life issue that affects your employer.
Several professional Doctorates, such as the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy), are accredited by a professional body - for instance, the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) and The British Psychological Society (BPS) - and may also lead to a professional qualification.
Common titles for graduates of professional Doctorate degrees include:
- Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Doctor of Education (EdD)
- Doctor of Engineering (EngD)
- Doctor of Medicine (MD).
Unlike many professional Doctorates, the EngD is typically offered as a full-time course and is aimed at young engineering graduates with little or no professional experience.
Explore what's currently available at Find a Professional Doctorate.
This four-year qualification, also known as the New Route PhD, involves studying a one-year research Masters degree (MRes) before progressing onto a three-year PhD.
Offered by a select number of universities across the UK, integrated PhDs are supported by the government and the British Council through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Visit Research Council funding for further information on research and funding for different types of PhD.
The integrated PhD involves a combination of taught materials, practical experience and advanced research. This allows you to learn subject-specific methodologies, while building the transferable skills that will enable you to become a leader in your chosen profession.
Institutions can also develop personalised integrated PhD programmes to meet each student's needs. For example, universities may offer you the opportunity to gain a postgraduate certificate (PGCert) in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education - perfect if you're considering a career as a higher education lecturer.
As PhDs are based primarily on independent research rather than time spent in lectures and seminars, distance learning has always been a viable route for many Doctoral students.
PhDs by distance learning offered by course providers such as The Open University are therefore a good option to consider if you've got family or work commitments or are an international student - as this gives you the chance to undertake Doctoral research without having to live close to your chosen institution. It's also a suitable mode of study if your subject requires you to be based in a specific location away from the university.
For the most part, you'll be in touch with your supervisor by phone, email or Skype/Zoom. You'll need to bear in mind that even if you opt for this form of research, you'll generally still need to attend university for one or two weeks of each academic year for meetings and to receive research skills training. Your final examination may be undertaken either face-to-face or virtually.
With online PhDs, you can usually register as a full or part-time student. The level of fees you pay varies between institutions - some charge the same as for a standard PhD while others offer a reduced rate.
Check that any funding you plan to apply for is available to distance learning students, as this isn't always the case.
Find out more
- Explore what is a PhD?
- Sort out funding for postgraduate study.
- Consider what to do after completing your PhD.