What is a PhD?
Are you considering a PhD degree? We take a look at what a PhD is, how long it takes and how you can go about getting one.
A PhD is the highest postgraduate-level qualification offered by universities in the UK. It’s for those who are looking to build on what they studied during their master’s degree, or for those currently working who wish to research a particular area within their field.
PhDs are research-based degrees. The student comes up with an original research question, often in collaboration with a university professor, and explores that topic in depth. At the end of the degree a final thesis is produced that could range from 40,000 to 120,000 words.
The number of students enrolling in PhD degrees is increasing year-on-year. From 2015/16 to 2019/20 enrolments increased by 2.9%, according to 2019/20 HESA data on student enrolments. This highlights the growing interest in and demand for the postgraduate qualification.
PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. You’ll often find this abbreviated to just ‘Doctorate’ as a PhD falls under the umbrella of doctorate degrees.
They vary in length, based on what you decide to research and whether you choose to study part-time or full-time. Full-time PhD students often take three or four years, with part-time students taking up to seven. Some universities even offer deadline extensions of up to four years.
You can expect to pay anywhere from £3,000 to £6,000 per year. This applies to all UK and EU students, with other international students paying more. Most PhD students fund their degree through scholarships, bursaries, and grants. Many UK research organisations also offer studentships through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which can be another form of funding.
Having a strong interest in a particular subject is the first step to a PhD. You’ll either be applying for an already funded project being offered by a university, or you’ll be pitching your own research proposal. Admissions teams want to see your dedication and enthusiasm, so make sure you’re passionate about the subject first.
Universities tend to list available research projects and who’ll be supervising them on their website. Don’t hesitate to contact any professors you know that are doing research in an area you’re interested in. They may have a PhD position available they haven’t yet advertised.
When applying, you’ll need a:
- Cover letter
- Research proposal (if pitching an original research idea)
- Reference (may be asked to provide three people, who know you in an academic setting or can comment on your research capability)
Use your application as a chance to really convey your passion for the subject. It’s important to expand on your interest, explain why you have that interest and cite examples of you pursuing this interest through past experiences. You’ll be studying for at least three to four years and the admissions teams will want to make sure you’ll be dedicated.
Yes, but this will depend on the course you’re applying for and what previous experience you have. Most PhD degrees will require you to have completed a master’s degree or equivalent, but exceptions can be made if you can demonstrate your capability. Universities want to see that you’re passionate, hard-working, and determined.
This is up to you and your career aspirations. Consider how important it is that you have a doctorate degree and what contribution it’ll make to your future.
Boost your employability
Many choose to do a PhD because it’ll increase their chances of employment. This’ll depend on what you want to study and what industry you want to work in, but doing so could increase your job prospects. Recent data from HESA on graduate activities by level of qualification found that 78.9% of doctorate students were employed upon graduating in the academic years 2017/18 to 2019/20. Only 3.4% were unemployed.
Helps you pursue an academic career
Many students use a PhD as a pathway into academia, progressing into full-time roles at a university or other higher education institution. This could be as a professor, researcher, or other role. PhD students are often employed by the university while they study, helping in lectures, labs, tutorials or as research assistants.
Make a significant contribution to your field
Doctorate degrees offer the opportunity to explore an original research question and advance your knowledge in your chosen field. It's a satisfying position to be in and comes with recognition from your peers. This could also open up a wealth of further research to be explored by either you or your peers.
Develop a range of transferrable skills
Through a doctorate degree you’ll learn a range of invaluable skills, transferrable beyond your studies. These can include:
- Project management
- Time management
- Writing and presentation skills
- Communication skills
- Research skills
- Teaching others