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Guide to PhD degrees

An PhD, short for the Latin philosiphiae doctor, is a research-intensive qualification and the highest level of academic degree that you can get. 

Read on to find out more about PhD degrees, what they could lead to, and decide whether they’re right for you. 


What is an PhD degree and why study for one? 

An PhD is a level 8 qualification in the UK, meaning it’s higher degree than other postgraduate qualifications like a master’s degree or PGCE, which are level 7 qualifications. Completing a PhD will allow you to use the prefix ‘doctor’ or ‘Dr.’ with your name. 

It’s the most common type of doctorate degree, differing from other doctorates like the Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Doctor of Education (EdD) in its focus on research, rather than applied preparation for a certain career. 

Your PhD degree will train you to operate as an expert researcher or practitioner at a professional level, and usually involves completing a research project that significantly contributes to your field. 

During your PhD you might complete taught modules, such as seminars and tutorials, as well as delivering teaching yourself to undergraduate students in some cases. In most cases, you’ll be working towards the creation and publication of a thesis that summarises the outcomes of your research. 

PhD programmes are significantly longer than undergraduate or master’s degrees in most cases, lasting between three and six years. You’ll be working without direct peers or close academic support in most cases, reflective of your transition towards professional research work. 

A PhD is a very common way for students to prepare for a career in academia, or other research-intensive roles across government and industry. It will prove your ability to work at the forefront of your field and independently generate and complete a research project. 

What PhD courses are there? 

There are a number of different types of PhD course that you can choose from. The best kind of PhD for you will depend on your previous education and experience, the subject or topic you want to research, and the kind of career you wish to pursue afterwards. 

The PhD by Thesis is the most common type of PhD completed by students in the UK. This course normally takes three years, where you’ll research and write up a thesis based on your submitted proposal with support from a PhD supervisor. Your thesis could be anywhere from 60,000 to over 100,000 words in length, and will typically include an oral presentation or viva. 

During an Integrated PhD, sometimes called a New Route PhD, you’ll first complete an MRes degree over a year before moving onto the PhD element of the programme for three further years. These are offered at relatively few universities currently, but they are becoming more common. This PhD has more taught elements and is focused on building subject-specific skills, practical research experience and advanced theoretical knowledge. 

You might pursue a Professional Doctorate if you’re pursuing a particular career in fields like medicine, education, engineering or business administration. They typically have more of a focus on taught modules and professional skills, and may involve a minor research project. You’ll usually progress into a professional role rather than an academic post after completing one of these. Many people complete these part-time with support from their employer. 

A PhD by Publication is also possible, where you can be awarded a doctorate based on work you have previously published. This might be previous research publications as a graduate student or in research roles, or a book that you’ve written. This qualification is typical for academics who have progressed in their career but not been able to complete a PhD course. 

How long is an PhD degree and when do they start? 

A full-time PhD usually takes between three and four academic years in the UK, but they can last longer in some cases. Part-time courses normally take between six and seven years, depending on the study pattern that you choose and the progression of your research project. 

The most common starting time for PhD degrees is in the autumn, especially September and October. However, some programmes may also offer start dates at other points in the year, particularly if you are a self-funded student. 

What are the entry requirements for an PhD degree? 

To get onto an PhD degree you’ll usually need a master’s level degree, such as an MA or an MSc. You may also need to have achieved a 2:1 or higher in your undergraduate degree in some cases. You might get able to get onto a PhD programme with just a bachelor’s, but you’ll usually need a first-class degree and strong research skills. 

Getting onto a PhD with lower grades than this is possible, but usually requires significant professional experience in a related area. Pursuing an integrated master’s that starts with an MRes component, or just applying for an MRes degree, can also be a first step towards a PhD if you don’t have the required grades for direct entry onto a PhD. 

How much does an PhD degree cost? 

You’ll pay less in tuition fees per academic for your PhD than your bachelor’s or master’s degrees, in most cases. Average tuition fees for a PhD course in the UK typically range between £3,000 and £6,000 per year.  

This can still vary widely, however. For example, the PhD in Antarctic Studies at Cambridge University will cost £9,111 a year in tuition fees, while the PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of West London costs £3,995 per year for tuition. 

Fees can be significantly higher for non-EU PhD applicants. 

What funding is there for PhD degrees? 

Funding options for PhD courses includes additional options compared to bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but competition for funding sources can be intense. 

  • UK government loans for doctorate studies have become available, offering up to £27,892 to students starting a course from 1st August 2022. It will be split evenly across your years of doctoral study. 
  • PhD studentships are specific to this kind of study and are one of the more sought-after funding options. They are typically offered by Research Councils, but universities or other organisations like trusts and foundations may also support them. Tuition studentships might cover your fees only, while full studentships include stipends for maintenance and research costs. They may be attached to specific research projects or programmes that you can apply to, or you might apply for the studentship in parallel with the submission of your own research proposal. 
  • A range of other scholarships and bursaries are available to apply for as a PhD student. These might be from your university, private organisations or other organisations. Eligibility criteria and award value will vary. 
  • Part or full self-funding is also an option for doctoral study. 

Go to: Read the ULTIMATE Guide to Postgraduate Funding

What jobs can you do with an PhD degree? 

Getting a PhD qualification will allow you to access research-focused positions in academia, but an increasingly wide range of jobs suited to doctorate holders are appearing in industry or the public sector. 

Your PhD will be evidence of your professional research skills and commitment to your field, allowing you to access teaching and research roles in universities, industrial research positions in sectors like pharmaceuticals or engineering, as well as clinical or other medical roles. 

They are also increasingly valued in applications for technical or senior social science, natural science and physical science research roles, across the public sector or charitable organisations. 

If you’re looking to build a career in academia, focusing on areas like networking, publications and post-doctoral research opportunities will boost your career prospects. 

Which PhD degrees are in most demand? 

PhD degrees in engineering disciplines such as chemical engineering, electrical engineering and biomedical engineering are particularly valued in today’s job market, and industry partners offer a large amount of funding to PhD and post-doctorate students. 

Computer science and software engineering are also popular PhD level courses, with broad employment opportunities across the public and private sector available. 

PhDs in clinical or other medical disciplines, as well as in medical technology and pharmacology, are often linked to further research or employment opportunities with the NHS, health trusts or charities focusing on areas like cancer research, for example. 

When to apply for an PhD degree 

In most cases you’ll want to start the application process for a PhD as early as possible to give you time to develop a strong thesis application or m ake other applications if you’re unsuccessful, maximising your chances of success. You’ll normally want to get in touch with prospective supervisors at first, to discuss your ideas and determine their feasibility. 

In some cases you’ll also need to submit a separate application for studentships, scholarships or other funding. 

Some PhDs may have deadlines for particular entry points, while others may accept applications at any time. You should check the deadlines for your chosen courses before planning your application.  

How is an PhD degree graded? 

A PhD programme will contain different forms of assessment during its course. A PhD is usually marked as a pass or fail, rather than being subject to the grade boundaries typically used at undergraduate or master’s level study. 

During your studies you might have reviews with your tutor where your performance will be discussed, or chapters of your thesis reviewed, and feedback given. This is just for your development and to maximise your performance leading up to the submission and defending of your thesis. 

After the submission of your thesis, you could receive a pass or fail grade as well as a ‘resubmission’ grade, which will require you to make minor or major corrections and submit it again. 

Following your thesis submission, you’ll need to do an oral presentation in front of an expert panel and defend your thesis – this is normally called your PhD viva. This is usually a presentation followed by questions about the context, methods and conclusions of your research. 

The different elements of your PhD, from your written thesis to your oral presentation, will normally be assessed according to criteria that focus on: 

Your understanding of your work’s academic or industrial context 

  • The originality of your work 
  • The contribution of your work to the field of research 
  • The written quality of your work 
  • Use of sound techniques and methods to reach your results 
  • The capacity for your work to be published 

However, assessment criteria may differ according to the institution you’re studying at and your assessors. The grading of a PhD usually involves at least one internal and one external assessor. 

Next: Search for PhD courses


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