A PhD, or Doctorate of Philosophy, is the highest level of degree that a student can achieve
PhD students independently conduct original and significant research in a specific field or subject, before producing a publication-worthy thesis typically 80,000-100,000 words in length.
While some Doctorates include taught components, PhD students are almost always assessed on the quality and originality of the argument presented in their independent research project.
How long is a PhD in the UK?
Full-time PhDs typically last three or four years, while part-time PhDs last six or seven. However, the thesis deadline can be extended by up to four years at the institution's discretion. Indeed, many students who enrol on three-year PhDs only finish their thesis in year four.
Most PhDs begin in September or October.
Do I need a Masters to do a PhD?
The majority of institutions require PhD candidates to possess a Masters degree, plus a Bachelors degree graded at 2:1 or above. However, some universities demand only the latter, while self-funded PhD students or those with significant professional experience may be accepted with lower grades.
You may be required to initially register for a one- or two-year Master of Philosophy (MPhil) or Master of Research (MRes) degree rather than a PhD. If you make sufficient progress, you and your work will then be 'upgraded' to a PhD programme. If not, you may be able to graduate with a Masters degree.
If you need an MPhil or MRes before enrolling on your PhD, search Masters degrees.
What does a PhD involve?
A standard PhD is typically split into three stages. By way of illustration, a three-year PhD may follow the following pattern:
- First year - You'll meet with your supervisor to discuss your research proposal and agree an action plan with deadlines. You'll then complete your literature review, in which you'll evaluate and critique existing works to inform the direction of your project and ensure that your research will be original.
- Second year - Your focus will shift to gathering results and developing your thesis, and potentially begin writing chapters of your thesis. You may also present your results and ideas at academic conferences, gain teaching experience, collaborate with other students on similar projects, communicate the benefits of your research to the general public through workshops, lectures and presentations, or submit work for publication in an academic journal or book.
- Third year - This phase primarily involves writing your thesis, though your primary research may still be in progress. After your supervisor gives their approval, you'll submit your thesis before undertaking a one-to-three-hour oral exam (viva voce) in which you'll discuss and defend your thesis in the presence of at least one internal and external examiner.
Other types of Doctoral degree
Alternative types of PhD include:
- Higher doctorate - These are usually granted on the recommendation of a committee of internal and external examiners, which assesses a portfolio of published, peer-reviewed research that you've undertaken over the course of many years. This type of Doctorate is usually for those with several years of academic experience. Common award titles include the Doctor of Civil Law (DCL), Doctor of Divinity (DD), Doctor of Literature/Letters (DLit/DLitt/LitD/LittD), Doctor of Music (DMus/MusD), Doctor of Science (DS/SD/DSc/ScD) and Doctor of Law (LLD).
- New Route PhD - This four-year course is offered by selected universities, and involves taking a one-year MRes before studying a three-year PhD. It combines taught elements with independent research, allowing students to learn different methodologies while building their transferable skills.
- Professional Doctorate - Geared towards students of vocational subjects such as medicine, education and engineering, this route has a teaching focus. Professional doctorates normally involve smaller research projects and a smaller thesis component. They're often favoured by those aiming for a career outside of academia, and are usually supported by employers. For more information, see Find a Professional Doctorate.
How much does it cost?
Tuition fees vary, but usually fall between £3,000 and £6,000 per year for UK and European Union (EU) students. However, non-EU students may pay considerably more.
Despite this, many PhD students are part or fully funded. Scholarships and bursaries are widely available, and particular attention should be paid to Research Council grants and the European Social Fund. PhD studentships and assistantships - which involve a mixture of research and teaching - are also common, with scientific studentships usually paid at a higher rate.
For more information, see funding postgraduate study.
How do I apply?
Some students propose their own research area and apply for funding, while in some cases a supervisor may already have funding for a project and advertise it like a job. When making an application, you'll typically be asked to submit:
- an academic CV;
- your academic transcripts;
- two or three academic references;
- a personal statement;
- a research proposal.
Students from outside the European Union (EU) studying certain courses in medicine, mathematics, engineering and material sciences are required to comply with the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS). This involves undergoing a security clearance process with the Foreign Office. International students may also have to prove their English proficiency.
For more information, search for PhD courses.
What can I do with a PhD?
Your ability to critically analyse, display intellectual maturity, and research independently and honestly is highly valued within academia and the workplace.
Many students who undertake a PhD get an academic job or become an industry researcher, possibly following the PhD with postdoctoral study, then a fellowship or lectureship.
Other career options depend on your study area. For more information about what a PhD can lead to, see your PhD, what next?
You can expect to earn more and enjoy a faster career progression if you have a PhD. Three years after graduation, 72% of PhD graduates were earning more than £30,000, compared to 56% of Masters graduates and 22% of undergraduates (Vitae, 2013).
The ultimate guide to postgraduate study
The essential guide to funding, choosing and applying for your ideal postgraduate programme.