Updated 11 June 2020
‘PhD’ is an abbreviated acronym for the Latin term, ‘philosophiae doctor’ (which translates to Doctor of Philosophy). At some educational institutions, it is referred to as a DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy).
A PhD or DPhil is a research-based degree qualification that will provide you with the training and skills needed to become an independent researcher. It is globally recognised and the highest level of degree that can be attained.
To pass, you will need to complete a significant research project – this will usually be between 60,000 to 100,000 words in length.
There are many different reasons why people decide to study for a PhD:
Whatever your reasons for applying to study at this level, achieving a PhD qualification will demonstrate that you have carried out a research project that offers new and meaningful findings within your chosen field.
As with any course of study, everybody’s experience will be different, but here is a broad outline of what you can expect during a three-year PhD:
Below are some key points that will be relevant for most prospective PhD students.
For full-time PhD students, funding is usually available for three years, although for the ‘New Route PhD’ funding is available for four years.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to complete all of your research within a three or four-year timeframe, but if you do need additional time, you will be responsible for funding this.
If you are planning to study for a PhD as a self-funding, part-time student, it could take you up to seven years to achieve the qualification.
You should aim to submit your thesis for examination within twelve months of the end of the PhD programme – although it is preferable to submit this within the course timeframe if you can.
Studying for a PhD is likely to be quite different from your experiences of studying for an undergraduate or master’s degree.
During your undergraduate studies, much of your education will have been organised for you: there was a specified syllabus or curriculum, you were given a reading list of relevant material and your lecturers were there to guide you in the right direction where necessary.
When studying for a higher-level qualification such as a PhD, there are not many research degrees offering taught modules. That doesn’t mean you won’t have any support – you will have access to a supervisor, alongside the expertise of other academics and students working within your department.
But you will have the ultimate responsibility for planning and carrying out your research. This will include things like deciding on which discussions you will need to initiate and speaking up when you need additional help or resources.
Since a UK PhD qualification is highly regarded around the world, many people from other countries choose to come here to study.
This means that student groups tend to be multicultural, providing an excellent opportunity to learn about the background and values of other nations during your studies.
Choosing a PhD is different from applying for an undergraduate or master’s degree. Instead of simply applying for a specific course at a particular university, you will be committing yourself to a period of extended research. The outcome of this research will not only be your PhD qualification, but it will also be a major and original contribution to research and knowledge within your chosen field, so you must choose the right PhD for you.
Generally speaking, doctorates or PhDs are available in three formats:
One of the most important things to consider is exactly why you are thinking about applying for a PhD. If you enjoyed university and want to spend another three years living the student lifestyle, a PhD is unlikely to be the right choice for you. Achieving a PhD requires passion, dedication and commitment to a unique research topic. There is much less time for the social aspect of university when you are studying for a PhD.
Finally, choosing an educational establishment for a PhD will be a different experience than choosing a university for an undergraduate degree. You will need to consider how well equipped the university’s laboratory or library is, what facilities they offer to postgraduate students, and whether there are other students already working in your chosen research field.
To ensure you can make an informed decision, attend postgraduate open days and follow-up with informal visits to the universities you are most interested in applying to. Making an additional visit will allow you to arrange a one-to-one discussion with prospective supervisors and see the facilities that are on offer.
Most institutions require PhD candidates to have an undergraduate bachelor’s degree (minimum grade of 2:1) and a master’s degree. Some universities are willing to consider prospective students with only an undergraduate degree.
Some universities might also be willing to consider candidates with lower undergraduate grades if they have chosen to self-fund their PhD.
The initial step for applying for a PhD is to send a research proposal to the department you are interested in. Before sending your proposal, you may wish to explore whether there are any opportunities to discuss your research ideas with an academic who is already working within your chosen field.
Your proposal will include:
If you are applying for a PhD studentship, the aims for your research will likely be set out by the department. However, you may have the opportunity to contribute your own ideas too.
Each university will have different requirements for entry onto a PhD, but you will likely need to send your CV and a personal statement or cover letter with your research proposal and provide some suitable references.
If your application is successful, you will be asked to attend a PhD interview. The interview might be with your prospective PhD supervisor or a panel interview with admissions and the head of the department.
Your progress will be monitored and reviewed both formally and informally throughout the programme. This process will be overseen by your supervisor. The monitoring process is different for each educational establishment, so you will be given specific guidance on what to expect.
The observations made during these reviews will contribute to the assessment of your work but the main part of your assessment will be the doctoral examination.
The initial stage of the doctoral examination is the submission of your thesis (and supporting information or artefacts, if relevant) for review.
Following this, you will be required to undergo the viva voce examination. This is an oral assessment where an examiner will probe you on your research, exploring how you conducted this and what conclusions you made from the data collected.
As part of the viva, you will be expected to defend your research, so you should be prepared for some intense and challenging lines of questioning.
Your oral examination will be overseen by at least one external examiner. The purpose of this is to ensure that the examination process is in line with national guidelines and that you have met the necessary standard to be awarded a doctoral degree. Your supervisor will not be involved in the viva examination.
After completing the viva, you could be awarded an outright pass. Alternatively, you might be asked to make some minor or major revisions to your work. Failing the degree is a possibility, but the assessment and monitoring procedure offered by your institution should, in the majority of cases, help to prevent this outcome.
Are you wondering whether studying for a PhD is right for you? Read on to find out the pros and cons of studying for a doctorate:
If you’ve recently completed your undergraduate or master’s degree, you may feel unsure whether to apply for graduate jobs or further your education with a PhD.
For students who have always loved research, the PhD route can be a great choice. To succeed, you will need to be comfortable with using your initiative and working independently to reach your goals.
Studying for a PhD is likely to be a challenging experience – but it will also be very rewarding. The research that you carry out will make a contribution to knowledge within your area of interest and other researchers will be able to build on it further in years to come.
When you have a PhD on your CV, prospective employers will see much more than the outcome of your research. It will also show that you have the written, analytical and soft skills to make a positive contribution within the workplace.
Remember, if you do decide to pursue a PhD, you will be one of a small number of people who carry out academic work at this high level.
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