How to Apply for a PhD or Other Doctorate

Studying at postgraduate level is always a big commitment, but applying for a PhD or other doctorate, which will take a minimum of 3 years, is a major decision.

What types of Doctorate are available in the UK?

In the UK, the most common model for a doctorate is a ‘traditional’ PhD where a substantial original piece of research is carried out and ‘written up’ into a thesis. Completing a PhD can take over 3 (sometimes 4) years if study is full time, or up to 6 or more years if studied part-time. 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 about other European countries?

In other European countries, PhD candidates are usually salaried employees, whereas in the UK they are normally students. The ‘Viva Voce’ or defense of the PhD in the UK is usually done in private with a set number of examiners (usually 2 or 3) whereas in other countries, especially in Europe, the ‘defense’ may take the form of a public session with an examination panel.

Here are some of the things you may want to consider when thinking about committing to studying a PhD or other doctorate:

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

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 and can help you make a more informed decision.

Do you have funding for a doctorate? 

You can now apply for a Postgraduate Doctoral Loan in the UK. More information on funding, including where to find funding from universities and charities, can be found on PostgraduateStudentships.

Should you do a masters before applying for a PhD?

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. There are, however, PhDs in these subjects that now incorporate substantial research skills training as part of the PhD where a masters may not be required.

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?

We would recommend visiting the University beforehand if possible; Postgraduate Open Days are a good way to do this. If you are unable to visit ahead of time, you can call the university and speak to a potential supervisor who may be able to answer any questions or concerns you may have. If you need to submit a research proposal as part of the application, then speaking to the supervisor before you start may be helpful.

You may also be able to speak to other research students currently working within the group or department, either over Skype or online chat sessions, if the university offers these.

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 have guidelines on the form that they expect you to follow. If you are unable to locate any guidelines, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification of what is expected. They may even be able to provide you with past examples.

How long does it take to apply for a PhD?

PhD funding and opportunities are advertised throughout the year. You may end up applying for a number of different PhDs as they are very competitive, particularly where funding is involved. We would suggest making sure you have enough time for each application as well as applying for funding.

Read Sroyon’s experience of applying for a PhD in the Law department at the London School of Economics. 

Will I definitely get funding for my PhD?

For many students this is the most important question, but it’s one of the most difficult to answer. You can help maximise your chances of getting funding by setting aside plenty of time to apply. It also helps to establish good relationships with the supervisors in the research groups you are applying to and doing your research before you contact the University. Be prepared to persevere!

Looking for PhD Funding? Next Steps…

  1. Search PostgraduateStudentships for PhD funding opportunities offered by universities, charities and trusts.
  2. Meet leading UK Universities with funding on offer at our annual PhD Funding Fair in December.
  3. Register to receive email updates on the latest PhD and master’s opportunities and funding as they are added to PostgraduateStudentships and MastersCompare.

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