Uni Compare  · Apr 13th 2023

Now, we’re not talking about the PhD diet whey protein powder, but more of the mastery of a particular field or subject by achieving the highest academic rank available.


What is a PhD?

A PhD degree is an abbreviation of the Latin term, Philosophiae doctor, with the word ‘philosophy’ referring to the Greek meaning of Philo (friend or love of) and Sophia (wisdom).

It’s a postgraduate doctoral qualification that is awarded to those who complete an original thesis - or dissertation - that contributes new knowledge in their chosen subject. It can be taken in all subjects and is the highest degree someone can achieve.

A doctorate is when someone obtains a doctoral degree, and in order to qualify for this, students produce work that makes a significant contribution to their field. Afterwards, they earn the title ‘Doctor’, which is where it gets its name. All PhDs are doctorates, but not all doctorates are PhDs.

To further explain, a PhD is a type of doctorate - the most common - but there are other doctorate degrees, which can be found in specific areas or for more practical subjects, such as Master of Philosophy (MPhil), Masters by Research (MbyRes), Engineering doctorate (EngD), Master of Surgery (MS) or Doctor of Medicine (MD). Candidates on other courses at this level will walk away with the Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD).

Essentially, most PhD students do not get paid, and this is down to the PhD funding in the UK.

How to get a PhD?

Firstly, the most common way to obtain a PhD after extensive years of study is to already have an undergraduate and Master’s qualification. These allow you to undergo similar areas of study, as well as learning the discipline and hard work it takes to achieve university qualifications. However, not all Master’s require students to hold an undergraduate, and the same can be said for doctorate degrees. Universities may not ask for a Master’s qualification, although it would help, instead they may take on a candidate’s in extreme circumstances that show great potential and ability to work.

You’ll have to apply via the university or research council with your proposal and outline what you expect to work on for several years. PhDs can be done full-time or part-time and take a lot of dedication and perseverance. Candidates can then look at funding, PhD loans and PhD studentships or PhD scholarships - which we get into more detail below.

If you’re interested in teaching, working with your supervisor on your research, public speaking, presenting, and compiling together a 60,000 to 100,000-word thesis, then a PhD is perfect for you.

University PhD

Why do a PhD?

For anyone considering completing a PhD UK course, they should determine whether it’s something they truly want to do. They offer great academic achievement, as well as becoming an expert in a chosen field (being called ‘doctor’ is also quite fun), but before you find a PhD course read about why you should study one below.

Although it is quite challenging and many find it difficult, a PhD will take at least three years of hard work - this is on top of any previous university degrees you may need to achieve beforehand. Students have to support themselves during those three years, alongside meeting with their supervisor and department, but it’s a personal journey that takes a lot of dedication.

The positive aspect is that completing this postgraduate degree is highly rewarding, as it offers the chance to make a new contribution to the extensive knowledge in a particular field that you’re interested in. Your work will be used, read and referred to in years to come.

Once you obtain it, it is something that you should be immensely proud of, as fewer people achieve a PhD level compared to other degrees at university.

To find out more about the value of a PhD degree, speak to your lecturers, tutors and academics at your university. Or if you are not currently a student, reach out to one of the institutions you’d be interested in taking on a PhD for advice. Read about programmes, advertised projects and speak to current doctorate students to gain an insight into what it’s really like.

The completion date is subject to change based on when you begin your PhD. Therefore, asking how long is a PhD in the UK, can vary per person.

How to find a PhD?

Any person on a mission to find PhD opportunities should work out what type of research they’d like to do. As mentioned above, there are a few different degree options:

  • Higher doctorates: These are granted to individuals on the recommendation of a committee of external and internal examiners, who assess your portfolio of research. It’s usually handed out to people with several years of academic experience and can be in particular subjects, like music, civil law, divinity, literature, letters, science, and law.
  • New route PhD degree: This is a four-year qualification that is available at around 30 UK universities. Students will spend one year on an MRes (Master’s of Research) before embarking on a three-year PhD degree.
  • Professional doctorate: This is aimed at candidates of vocational subjects, like, education, engineering and medicine, with the route also having a teaching focus. These PhDs tend to have less research focus but are focused on careers in academia.

Uni PhD

How long does it take to do a PhD?

So, how long is a PhD? Full-time doctorates can take between three to four years, but part-time PhD degrees may be up to seven. Universities will be able to provide a more accurate time frame of when they expect you to finish your work, whether that be on a full or part-time basis.

The completion date is subject to change based on when you begin your PhD. Therefore, asking how long is a PhD in the UK, can vary per person. For example, most PhD studentships begin in September or October but funded and self-funded research degrees can start at any point during the year, meaning, a group of PhD students may complete their work at different times.

Looking at the characteristics of a PhD, it tends to include various stages throughout the three years; a literature review, original research, results, thesis, dissertation submission and an exam. Although they can vary between subjects and universities, most tend to follow the same sequence.

A PhD tends to fall between £3,000 and £6,000 per year for UK students.

How to do a PhD?

In regards of how to complete this type of degree, it depends on the PhD student and what research they are completing.

It’ll include research, such as working in a laboratory or reading a pile of books and several other articles, or conducting a literature review. But this isn’t all there is, some students may find themselves in archives with historical texts or analysing rare source materials out in the field or even overseas.

Students will have a supervisor that they’ll discuss their work with regularly to ensure they are on the right track, as well as offer guidance and support throughout the several years a PhD can take.

There may also be teaching involved, where you’ll work with undergraduates, or mark papers and conduct seminars - this is not part of every single PhD degree but can be a condition of securing a studentship or scholarship at a specific university.

How to apply for a PhD

When using a PhD finder or choosing where you want to study, the entire doctorate application can seem daunting. From wondering what PhD interview questions will be asked of you, to the PhD personal statement you write.

Each institution will require an application that features different aspects as this isn’t the case of a ‘one size fits all’. However, they should feature similar things, like a PhD cover letter, and a PhD personal statement example.

Studying a PhD

What a typical PhD application includes:

  • A PhD cover letter
  • An academic CV (undergraduate and Master’s degrees)
  • Qualification transcripts and grades
  • Academic references
  • PhD personal statement
  • Your research proposal

Most universities ask for a Master’s degree and a bachelors degree (2:1) as a prerequisite, but this is subject to differ depending on the institution. Some admission offices may ask for one of the above, or significant professional experience. It’s best to check with your chosen university before applying to ensure you meet the entry requirements for the PhD degree.

How to write a PhD proposal

A PhD proposal is the same for the cover letter or application - they will all be different, and they should be! A research proposal is an outline of what you want to study (and it’ll be for a very, very long time). A PhD media degree that hopes to research how 14-18-year-olds use social media to explore their identity will feature a very different proposal to a PhD application investigating the patterns of GDPR difference of an eastern European country for the past 20 years.

A PhD proposal is typically between 1,500 and 3,000 words and must articulate what you want to research, why, as well as convey your understanding of the existing literature already out there. It needs to define, coherently, at least one original research question and how you’ll go about answering it.

It should also allow some flexibility to accommodate changes throughout your degree as well as via advice from the university or your supervisor.

A PhD proposal should include:

  • Title page: usually ten words in length, indicating the area of study and your approach. It features personal information, such as name, academic title, nationality, date of birth and contact details.
  • Aims and objectives: A short summary of the project, including two or three broad statements emphasising what you want to achieve via the steps you’ll take to answer the research question(s). Outline how your research will address gaps in the existing knowledge, how it will contribute to the subject, how it links to the department you’re applying to and the significance of your questions.
  • Literature review: the most important and current theories and models, as well as older texts that influence the subject and your research questions. Show how they affect your awareness of the key issues in that field. It can also prove the gaps in knowledge that you mention in your aims.
  • Methodology: how the data will be collected and the analytical techniques you will use, basically, how you will answer each of your research questions.
  • Timetable: Identify how long you’ll need for each step, using weekly or monthly timeslots. Be realistic and evaluate how much time you will have to finish each part.
  • Bibliography: provide a list of significant texts you’ve read for the proposal and as part of the literature review, as well as attaching your academic CV.
  • Check, check, check it again!: before submitting your PhD proposal, complete the final checks and re-read and get a peer to do the same, to ensure that all the finicky things are done and it reads well. From pages being numbered to correcting spelling errors, you want to prove you’re worthy.
The UK government now offers PhD loans for anyone wishing to study for a doctorate degree.

How long is a PhD thesis?

The final big project - where you write up all your research and how you did it - is known as the PhD thesis. It’s up to 100,000 words (depending on the university and subject) and it’s where your results go. There is no defining way on how to write a PhD thesis but it will be similar to a research project - just incredibly longer.

The PhD viva is part of the final project but not the thesis. A Viva Voce is an oral test, which when translated, means ‘with the living voice’. It’s a discussion on your PhD thesis and allows you to defend aspects of your work in front of a panel of academic experts.

Viva PhD tests are common, and they’re similar to interviews for employment. They tend to have at least one internal and external examiners who will complete a report based on recommended corrections you should make to your thesis. The main objective is to ascertain that you wrote the thesis and you are well versed enough to talk through the work you completed, how you put it together and your experience.

You shouldn’t worry, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the experience as well as feel proud about what you have achieved - you might even enjoy it! Further, the examiners are there to help you decide on how and where it should be published.

The best tip we can give is that you should know your PhD thesis inside and out, although it isn’t a memory test, you will be discussing key concepts and ideas that you mention in your work so be prepared. Questions will most likely feature on: how original your contribution is, the main research questions you address, the strengths and weakness of the work, if you did it again how would you do it differently, how would you follow on from the PhD thesis if funding wasn’t an issue, and what are your plans for the future.

Study a PhD

How hard is a PhD?

This depends on the subject you choose and the type and amount of research you need to complete. However, most candidates choose topics that they're passionate about and typically hold relevant degrees which means they have experience in that subject area. The PhD degree will be tough, because it’s the highest academic qualification you can achieve, but it isn’t impossible. It tends to ask for a lot of dedication, perseverance and hard work from its students.

How much does a PhD cost?

A PhD tends to fall between £3,000 and £6,000 per year for UK students. Many PhD students are part or fully funded, either by PhD studentships or PhD scholarships and bursaries which are widely available.

For anyone considering completing a PhD UK course, they should determine whether it’s something they truly want to do.

What is a PhD studentship?

PhD studentships are common and are usually awarded by the UK’s seven research councils as grants. They can be handed out by individual universities as PhD scholarships and bursaries.

Charities and organisations can offer funding opportunities, like; Action Medical Research, Alzheimer’s Society, British Federation of Female Graduates (BFWG), British Heart Foundation (BHF), Cancer Research UK, Diabetes UK, Rosetrees Trust, The Leverhulme Trust, and the Welcome Trust.

Students can receive tuition-fee grants, as well as associated project and training costs, or be awarded a full PhD studentship, which are non-repayable tax-free maintenance grants which can be used towards living costs as well.

How to get funding for a PhD?

The UK government now offers PhD loans for anyone wishing to study for a doctorate degree. Candidates can receive up to £25,700 for their course and can also apply after the first year of the study. The amount you receive is not means-tested (or based on your family’s income), but the Department of Work and Pensions may take the loan into account when working out how many benefits you’re entitled to receive. The PhD loan can be used to pay for tuition or living fees.

Other PhD funding is available, such as PhD studentships or a scholarship from the university.

Studying a University PhD

How much do PhD students get paid?

Essentially, most PhD students do not get paid, and this is down to the PhD funding in the UK. Candidates can receive a studentship or scholarship, which is when a university, charity or organisation offers to part or fully pay their fees and living costs while they complete their doctorate. For example, if a university offers to pay for the UCL PhD student’s tuition, one part of the condition may be that PhD student will teach undergraduate classes/seminars or work within the department.

This is dependent on the university, as a University of Cambridge PhD student may need to teach but a University of Oxford PhD student may not. So when you’re looking to find a PhD in UK universities, it’s best to find out if it’s expected of you beforehand.

Therefore, a PhD student is not essentially ‘paid’ but will work in replacement for a scholarship.

A PhD degree is an abbreviation of the Latin term, Philosophiae doctor, with the word ‘philosophy’ referring to the Greek meaning of Philo (friend or love of) and Sophia (wisdom).

Can you do a part-time PhD?

Yes, candidates can complete an Open University PhD degree, the same as any other institution. It will work similarly but will be featured all online with you finding your own facilities for your research. Students register to be an ‘external part-time or full-time student’ and will need to find a supervisor at a university themselves. Your research is then conducted at a connected institution at your own cost, which means you’ll pay for lab costs and facilities - and these will differ per university.

The student will be completing their degree via the Open University PhD degree programme but will be able to still have access to important labs and facilities to complete their work. They will also be able to receive vital support and feedback from a supervisor that they seek out themselves.

What to do after a PhD?

This is entirely up to you! But completing a doctorate degree will open many doors, whether that’s with related PhD jobs - like in academia - or to progress in your current career.

Once you can answer ‘why do you want to do a PhD’, you’ll have a better understanding as to what you can do after it.

The degree will show your ability to critically analyse and research independently, as well as display intellectual maturity. Most candidates move onto academic jobs, become industry researchers, or receive a fellowship or lectureship.

There are other career options, which depend on your individual study area, but there is also the option within the teaching and education sector. Your PhD displays communication skills, creative thinking, management ability, and problem-solving skills that are impressive to potential employers.

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