A PhD, or Doctorate of Philosophy, is the highest level of degree a student can achieve, demonstrating that they've made a meaningful new contribution to their chosen field
PhD students independently conduct original and significant research in a specific field or subject, before producing a publication-worthy thesis of typically 60,000-90,000 words in length - although a number of institutions, such as the University of Cambridge, have set an upper limit of 80,000 words.
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.
While most PhD studentships begin in September or October, both funded and self-funded PhDs can be undertaken at any point during the year.
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 degree 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 - 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.
How do I find a PhD?
As a PhD is different to other degrees, you're committing to more than simply an advanced qualification. You've chosen to engage in a large-scale independent research project and so you'll need to take into account a range of factors that will drive your search.
A methodical approach to the process is required and you'll need to consider the subject you're interested in carrying out research in and the type of Doctorate you're looking for, making sure this is the right project for you. Only when you're fully prepared and have a good idea of your research proposal should you search for PhD opportunities.
What other types of Doctorate are there?
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 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 around 30 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. For example, taught modules at the University of Warwick involve developing a student's professional skills in areas such as teaching, advanced IT, media, business and languages.
- 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 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 a PhD 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 involving a mixture of research and teaching are also common, with scientific studentships usually paid at a higher rate.
Explore this in more detail at funding postgraduate study.
How do I apply for a PhD?
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 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.
What can I do next?
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 will depend on your study area. To discover what a PhD degree can lead to, see your PhD, what next?