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MPhil vs PhD

Written by Mark Bennett

The MPhil is a research degree that can be part of a PhD or a standalone qualification. Compared to taught Masters programmes like MAs and MScs, the MPhil is comprised of a single independent research project, rather than a selection of modules and assessments.

This page will explain some of the main differences between an MPhil and a PhD, as well as providing advice for those unsure which qualification is right for them. If you’re interested in how the transition from an MPhil to a PhD works, our guide to the MPhil upgrade will be helpful.

What is an MPhil?

The term ‘MPhil’ means Master of Philosophy and the qualification is a purely research-based Masters degree. While more common Masters like the MA and MSc involve a range of taught units and assessments, as well as a dissertation, the MPhil instead consists of an extended dissertation (usually around 60,000 words). This dissertation is then defended by the student at a viva voce exam.

Despite the name, you can do an MPhil in any subject – not just Philosophy! An MPhil is generally considered the most advanced Masters degree you can take, while a PhD is the highest academic qualification on offer.

There are two types of MPhil:

  • Standalone qualifications
  • Those that are part of a PhD programme

A standalone MPhil takes two years to complete but if you’re doing an MPhil within a PhD, you’ll usually ‘upgrade’ to a PhD with an oral examination at the end of your first year.

For integrated MPhil/PhD programmes, you won’t have to work on a specific MPhil dissertation but will instead begin work on what will eventually become your PhD thesis.

For more information on how MPhils work, check out our full guide to the MPhil on our sister site FindAMasters. This page will primarily focuses on the differences between a PhD and an MPhil, and how to choose which one to do.

What’s the difference between an MPhil and a PhD?

The main difference between an MPhil and a PhD lies in the extent to which the project can be described as an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ – the defining factor of a PhD.

  • An MPhil is a substantial piece of research, but it doesn’t need to provide a completely new scholarly contribution to the subject in question. Instead, it needs to display the student’s comprehensive knowledge and critical understanding of its topic.
  • A PhD, by contrast, must consist of a significant academic contribution that will add to the existing research done around the subject. A PhD should also be of publishable quality – generally speaking, an MPhil doesn’t need to meet that standard.

Unsurprisingly, at two years in duration, an MPhil is shorter than a PhD, which takes between three and four years to complete on a full-time basis. It’s also worth knowing that a standalone MPhil dissertation is also shorter than a PhD thesis.

Another important difference between an MPhil and a PhD is their funding status. If you’re intending to do a standalone MPhil, you should apply for a Masters loan. When your intension is to upgrade to a PhD, you should look for PhD funding.


MPhil vs PhD – a comparison
MPhil PhD
Length 2 years (full-time) 3-4 years (full-time)
Thesis 60,000 words 80,000 words
Funding Masters loan PhD funding
Subjects All All
Level (NQF) 7 8

Should I do an MPhil or a PhD?

If you’ve identified a research topic that doesn’t quite have the same scope as a full PhD, then an MPhil could be the perfect qualification for you. You’ll have much more time and freedom than you would on a standard taught Masters to do your topic justice, without the added pressure and commitment that comes with a doctoral degree.

An MPhil also gives you the opportunity to develop valuable research skills that will be sought after by potential employers in a range of sectors outside of academia.

You may feel worried that there is some stigma attached to the MPhil and that such a qualification can be viewed as an unsuccessful PhD. While it’s true that an MPhil can sometimes be the result of an failed PhD or viva exam, this is only the case for a small number of MPhils. Needless to say, you can explain the circumstances that led to you completing an MPhil rather than a PhD in any job application you make.

There are a few other reasons why you might apply for an MPhil instead of a PhD. For example, MPhil is sometimes the name for traditional one-year Masters at certain universities – this is the case at the University of Cambridge, which offers both taught and research-based MPhil qualifications.

Similarly, in some higher education systems like those in India and Pakistan, the MPhil is a research degree that lies between a taught Masters and a full PhD.

Want to learn more about how a PhD actually works?

Our guide to the PhD journey takes you through each stage of a doctorate.

Last Updated: 14 September 2021

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