Find out how to apply for a PhD in UK

Studying at postgraduate level is always a big commitment. Applying for a PhD or other doctorate, which will take a minimum of 3 years, is a major decision. So here are some tips for how to apply for a PhD.

What types of Doctorate are available in the UK?

In the UK, the most common model for a doctorate is a ‘traditional’ PhD. This is a substantial original piece of research that is carried out and ‘written up’ into a thesis. A PhD course takes over 3 years full time, or up to 6 or more years if studied part-time.

Some PhD programmes allow the student to complete an intermediate qualification, such as an MRes. In other words, if they are unable to complete in time, then at least they will have a qualification. When they are able to continue they can pick up from where they left off.

There have been instances of students starting their PhD and then coming back to complete it many years later. Brian May, the guitarist from Queen is an example of this. There are other models of the PhD offered in the UK and in other countries, which include PhDs judged by a portfolio of published papers.

What is a Professional Doctorate?

It is also possible to take a ‘professional’ doctorate. These are usually studied part-time whilst the student continues to work, and the professional context forms a key part of the PhD. The candidate undertakes two or more substantial pieces of research rooted in their professional area and their work.

Examples of this type professional Doctorate include EdD (in Education), EngD (Engineering) and DClinPsy (Psychology) and DBA (Business). Many others have also been developed in recent years, often in health and social sciences related areas.

Here are some of the issues to consider when thinking about applying for a PhD or other doctorate:

Is Research the life you want for the next 3 years or more?

Success in an undergraduate or masters project can give you some idea of whether research would suit you in the long term but it’s not an infallible guide. Undertaking research as part of a module in your undergraduate degree will give you a flavour of what to expect but the real thing is quite different. Talking to both staff and current PhD students, especially about the realities of daily life as a doctoral student will help you understand more about what is required before you apply.

Do you have funding for a doctorate?

Check out our articles on where to look for funding from both Research Councils and charities.

Should you do a masters before applying for a PhD or other Doctorate?

In some subject areas, including social sciences and arts, undertaking a research based masters is either a requirement or something you would be strongly advised to do before embarking on a PhD. This type of masters will teach you valuable research skills and it will enable you to complete a recognised qualification as part of your journey towards your Doctorate. There are however PhDs in these subjects that now incorporate substantial research skills training as part of the PhD. If you are at all uncertain as to whether a PhD is right for you, whatever your subject area, a masters that includes a substantial piece of independent research may help you make up your mind.

Should you visit the University before applying for a PhD in the UK?

It’s great if you can, but of course it’s not always possible. We would definitely recommend reaching out to your potential supervisor, email or call. A discussion over Skype if you can manage it. Anything that gives you a feel for the research environment at the University or that research group is good. Taking an opportunity to communicate with the person who would be your supervisor is a good idea. Some UK universities have step by step guides, and you can find these through a simple Google search.

You may also be able to speak to other research students currently working within the group or department. If you need to submit a research proposal as part of the application then agree this with the supervisor before you start. Check with the relevant advisor at the University first.

How do I write a research proposal?

If the University requires you to send in a research proposal as part of your application, they may well have guidelines on the form they expect it to take. If you can’t find any guidelines, don’t be afraid to ask, and they may even be able to send you some past examples. Many of these guidelines will be available online.

How long does it take to apply for a PhD?

PhD funding and opportunities are advertised throughout the year – some have deadlines of just 3 weeks, or if might be 3 months. You may well end up applying for a number of different PhDs as they are very competitive, particularly where funding is involved. We would certainly suggest making sure you have enough time for each application. Think of it as if you were applying for a job and prepare accordingly.

Will I definitely get funding for my PhD?

For many students this is the most important question, but there are no guarantees. You can improve your chances by setting aside plenty of time to apply, establishing good relationships with the supervisors in the research groups you are applying to, and doing your research before you contact the University.

Next Steps

Looking for a Masters? Search and compare Masters courses now on MastersCompare

Looking for PhD Funding? Meet leading UK Universities with funding on offer at our annual PhD Funding Fair in December.

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