A PhD is the highest level of degree; during it, you will pursue unique and independent research to make a meaningful contribution to your chosen field. It is much more than a qualification as it requires a deep commitment to the academic field and a drive to produce large-scale research.

A PhD is typically the qualification that follows a master’s degree. However, there are some exceptions, as some universities accept students directly from an undergraduate degree where you achieved a 2:1 or higher. Unlike other degree-level qualifications, there are no classifications; you either gain your PhD or you don’t.

The duration of PhD varies hugely from person to person depending on factors such as funding, other work commitments and your supervision. The most common length of a PhD is three/four years full-time and six/seven part-time, although it is not uncommon for PhD students to get an extension of up to a few years. It’s clear that a PhD is a significant commitment and requires dedication beyond any other level of degree qualification.

The years spent doing a PhD consist of independent research to produce a publication-worthy thesis or 60,000-90,000 words. This thesis must bring something new to the field and offer further evidence, arguments and reflections on your chosen topic. During a PhD, many students also spend some time teaching; they often tutor an undergraduate seminar and produce smaller collaborative projects with other students at the institution.

Although it is rare, there are some taught PhD programmes on offer around the UK, instead of a sole research qualification. This is most common when a PhD is upgraded to an MRes/MPhil. A Masters of Philosophy or Master of Research is a one or two-year programme which emphasises independent research. You can easily convert your first year of an MRes into a PhD with an extra three years of study.

PhD Funding

There are two routes you can take regarding funding a PhD. The first and less popular choice is to self-fund your research. This will require you to do your PhD part-time and work for the rest of the time. This might be the right choice for you if your family or a partner can financially support you, and you would prefer the freedom of self-funded.

The more popular choice is to find PhD funding. There are a few different options here, and it can feel confusing at times. Here is everything you need to know about finding PhD funding:

UK Research Council Studentships

There are seven UK Research councils run by an organisation called The UK Research and Innovation. They are:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

These councils fund PhD students research by paying for their tuition fees and also offer financial support for living costs. These studentships are awarded to the best applicants each year. It is a considerable achievement to be awarded a studentship.

UK PhD Loans

English and Welsh residents can now apply for loans of up to £27,000 to study a PhD anywhere in the UK.

University scholarships and bursaries

The university that you are applying to do your PhD with will have a scholarship and bursary scheme which might be able to provide some financial support. There tend to be two main types of scholarships. The first is awarded for academic merit; universities want to bring in the best students from around the country to do their research with them. The second type regards the needs of the student; universities must ensure all capable students get the chance to study for a PhD and aren’t held back by their financial background.

For more information on further study, visit our postgraduate pages.