If you’re in the early stages of considering a PhD, here are the answers to some common questions to help you narrow down universities for your Doctoral degree.

How much does a PhD cost?

Home fees are generally set in line with research council rates, so you’re likely to find little variation between UK universities. These tend to rise by a small amount each year in line with inflation. For the 2020/21 academic year, fees were £4,327 per year. International fees tend to be at least three times the cost, and higher still for STEMM subjects to cover bench fees.

If you’re an EU student wanting to study in the UK, or a UK student wanting to study in the EU, your best bet to avoid paying international fees is to get in quick! As a general rule, if you start your PhD in the 2020/21 academic year, you can expect to pay the same fees as native students, but for 2021-22, you may be classed as an international student. Check the Government pages for the country in question for up-to-date information.

Is PhD funding available?

The main source of funding for UK students is from the research councils. Councils are divided by broad subject areas and form part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Universities bid for money to fund their research from these councils – and if successful – this income can also fund a number of PhD students researching the same topic. These research council funded PhD studentships cover fees and a maintenance grant.

For the 2020/21 academic year, this grant, or stipend was set at £15,285. As a general rule, these PhD studentships are more commonly found in the STEMM subjects, but that’s not to say that funding can not be found for HASS subjects. In addition to the money, PhD studentships have the advantage of a pre-defined research question.

In many respects it’s more like applying for a job than a PhD where you define your own research question through a PhD research proposal.

PhD students not in receipt of funding can access the Government’s Doctoral loan scheme. For the 2020-1 academic year, this provides £26,445. Repayment is income contingent, similar to the loans available at other study levels.

How much value should I place on league table rankings?

Universities are very good at using statistics and league tables to convey their reputation in the best possible light. If you see your career outside the world of academia, the general reputation of the university may hold some weight. Beware though; many measures which make up league tables rankings are dependent on undergraduate criteria, so may not reflect research credentials.

The most important factor to consider is the research reputation of the department in question. The last UK Government Research Exercise was in 2014, with another one due to report in 2021.

With some delving you should be able to identify the following: How much of their research is world-leading or internationally recognised? How research intensive are they, ie how many of their staff undertake research alongside other duties, such as teaching? If research is at the heart of the university, PhD students are more likely to be an integral and valued part of the university community.

Should I just consider universities which are home to the best researchers?

This is often a strong starting point for considering where to undertake your PhD, but remember, the most famous or pre-eminent academic may not necessarily be your perfect PhD supervisor. Go beyond their research and look at wider departmental research interests to consider how your PhD research proposal may fit. Whose research truly inspires you and where are these researchers based?

What PhD facilities are available?

Can all PhD students expect their own desk and laptop or will you be brushing shoulders with undergraduate students in the library? PhD facilities may vary across the university, so find out what you can expect in your department of interest. General statements about postgraduate common rooms or cutting edge facilities are irrelevant if those things are true of chemistry, but your research interests are in anthropology. Narrow down those universities whose facilities don’t match your Doctoral degree.

Do they offer PhD skills training and wellbeing support?

Universities who are serious about research usually have a Doctoral College or Graduate Research School. These normally go beyond administration and act as a focal point for PhD students by offering structured skills training to help ensure you complete your PhD successfully. Other opportunities available can include buddy schemes, sources of additional funding such as research travel bursaries, Graduate Teaching Assistantships or social activities.

Our top tip would be to go one stage further and see what’s being said on social media by PhD students already there. Are there active postgraduate-run societies offering social events or any common gripes from current PhD students?

Is there anything else I should consider?

Skip forward a year and see yourself living and undertaking your Doctoral degree at your preferred university. Are there any practicalities which may mean this isn’t the best choice for you?

Considerations could include the cost of living, how far the campus is from where you will be living and transport costs. If you’re looking to start a PhD as a mature student, you may also need to consider factors such as moving your family, local schools or nurseries. Visit university accommodation webpages to see if there are any specific options for PhD students or families.

It’s also worth approaching the university to see if part-time study, or even a PhD by distance learning, may be possible. Many may offer this flexibility, even if not explicitly stated, as the decision may well come down to how easily you can access the resources and equipment you need to undertake your PhD from your chosen location. Online resources combined with a technology step change brought about by COVID mean a PhD by distance learning may become more normal in some subjects in the future.

Conclusion

Taking the first steps towards your PhD degree can be a daunting task. With a bit of preliminary research and asking common questions to help you narrow down universities for your Doctoral degree you should soon be able to draw a shortlist.

The perfect university for your PhD degree will not only offer research expertise in your chosen field, but will provide the support, training and research community in which you will thrive.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to find a university to study a PhD?

It’s a massive decision to find the right university to study for your PhD. There are lots of things to consider such as university location, programmes on offer, funding and the universities place on the league table rankings. You need to weigh up what is right for you. Masters Compare and Postgraduate Studentships are here to help.