PhD FAQS - Common Questions About Postgraduate Study

PhD FAQS - Common Questions About Postgraduate Study

Written by Mark Bennett

PhD research is about answering new questions, but what about the questions you have about researching a PhD? Whether you want to know how a PhD works, how long the degree (or thesis) is, or simply what ‘PhD’ actually stands for, this page can help.

Below you can find some of the most frequently asked questions about studying a PhD. We’ve divided them into sections, introducing PhD study and the types of doctoral degree, explaining how to choose, apply for and fund your PhD as well as career prospects for people with a doctorate.

How to do a PhD

Not sure what studying a PhD involves? The questions in this section will help explain how PhDs work, what they involve and how you actually get one.

For a more detailed description, see our guide: What is a PhD?

What is a PhD?

A PhD is a postgraduate doctoral degree, usually completed after an undergraduate Bachelors and / or a Masters degree. PhD students carry out independent research towards an original thesis in their subject and receive the title ‘Doctor’ upon successful completion of their degree.

What does PhD stand for?

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. The term PhD come from the Latin: Philosophiae Doctor. It may also be written as Ph.D or DPhil.

What level is a PhD?

A PhD degree is a third-cycle postgraduate qualification, above both Bachelors and Masters degrees. It’s normally the highest level of academic degree someone can earn. In the UK education system, a PhD is known as a level 8 qualification (a Masters is level 7, unsurprisingly).

How long is a PhD?

In the UK, full-time PhDs last for three to four years depending on your programme / funding. This is typical for most countries, but there are exceptions. For example, PhD programmes in the USA are rather longer, lasting for six or seven years full-time, including a significant taught component.

How hard is a PhD?

A PhD is the highest academic qualification you can get, so you shouldn’t expect it to be a walk in the park. Involving at least three years of concentrated research, you’ll need to produce a genuinely original contribution to your academic field.

Additionally, a PhD requires a great deal of motivation, grit and psychological fortitude. It’s not just about your intellect – it’s about your ability and determination to use that intellect to good use over the course of several years.

The difficulty of a PhD doesn’t result from the complexity or technicality of the material you study, so much as the need to commit to and manage such a substantial project. PhDs also require a different approach to learning. Unlike undergraduate study where you learn what is already known, a doctorate challenges you to find solutions that are not yet known – if there is a solution to be found, that is.

How many hours do you need to work?

Doing a full-time PhD is a comparable commitment to a full-time job (funded projects even come with a sort of salary, usually referred to as a stipend or studentship). You should assume a minimum of 35 hours per week, which will often increase (particularly when you are writing up your thesis).

How long is a PhD thesis?

A PhD thesis (or dissertation) is usually around 70,000-100,000 words. They are generally divided into multiple chapters, including the introduction, literature review, results, discussion and bibliography.

Do PhDs have exams?

Yes, but not the sort of exams that you are used to. Instead of a traditional ‘written’ test, a PhD ends with an oral examination called a viva voce (Latin for ‘living voice’).

This requires you to answer questions face-to-face with academics who are experts in your subject and have read your thesis. They will explore the direction you have taken with your research, query your results and ask you to justify your conclusions. The aim is to prove that your work is your own and that your thesis is up to the standard of a PhD. The viva voce is sometimes known as a ‘PhD defence’.

Many PhDs also include a miniature version of this process as part of the process of upgrading or confirming students at the end of their first year.

Can you work during a PhD?

It’s not a good idea to work full-time while studying for a PhD on a full-time basis, and you can’t normally do so if you are receiving full funding (such as Research Council funding from UKRI). You are allowed to work part-time, but you should get your supervisor’s advice before you commit to an additional workload.

Can you study part-time?

Yes. Many students choose to study part-time, particularly when they are self-funded. A part-time PhD usually takes between five and six years in the UK (you’ll have half the workload of a full-time one). However, it is likely that the majority of funded PhD positions will require a full-time commitment. Some study abroad destinations may only award visas to full-time international students, for example.

Why is PhD research important?

Completing a PhD is about creating new knowledge and discovering new things as well as developing skillsets. As such, doctoral research is a key part of the wider research and investigation work undertaken by universities and PhD students alongside academic faculty on projects of equivalent complexity and significance. By doing a PhD you are gaining the research skills needed to advance human understanding of life, the universe and everything.

What's it like to do a PhD?

The million-dollar question! No two PhD experiences are exactly the same, but you can read a wide range of real student stories on our blog. In general, you can expect to work much more independently than you have in previous degrees (or in many jobs) with the need to manage your own progress and deadlines. At the same time, tackling a completely new research topic and developing genuinely new knowledge can be an exhilarating experience that few other occupations offer. For a little more detail, check out our guide to the daily life of a PhD student.

Are PhDs graded?

Not in the way you’re used to. Instead your result comes down to your performance in the viva voce exam. At the end of this your examiners will recommend one of the following outcomes:

  • Pass – you are awarded the PhD degree with no further work required
  • Minor corrections – you will be awarded your PhD once you have made relatively small edits to your thesis (usually to fix small bibliographical or presentation issues)
  • Major corrections – you will need to make more significant additions or alterations to your thesis, such as revising or replacing a chapter and will receive your PhD once the examiners are happy with this work
  • Revise and resubmit – you must substantially revise large sections of your work and submit the new thesis for another viva voce exam
  • Receive MPhil – your work is not judged to be at PhD standard, but you can be awarded the MPhil (Master of Philosophy) degree instead
  • Fail – your work is not of sufficient standard to award a degree

In practice, the majority of PhDs either pass or pass with minor corrections and it is exceptionally rare for a student to get as far as the viva voce exam and fail outright.

When do you graduate from a PhD?

In the UK, you usually graduate during the winter graduation ceremony after you have submitted your thesis and successfully passed your viva voce.

Types of doctorate

The PhD is the most common type of doctoral degree, but there are several other kinds of research degree, some of which you may never have heard of. This section will help clarify some of the terms you may come across during your search.

Find out more information on the types of PhD.

What is an MPhil?

An MPhil (Master of Philosophy) is a shorter research degree that usually takes two years rather than three to four and produces a less ambitious thesis.

Most UK universities require PhD students to start their studies by registering for an MPhil. The student is usually required to produce a report at the end of the first year and undertake an upgrade exam to convert to full PhD status.

Some students also register for an MPhil as a standalone degree.

What is a professional doctorate?

A professional doctorate is a programme that aims to find novel approaches to integrating professional and academic knowledge. Like a PhD, you will complete an original piece of research, however, this research usually relates to a particular area of professional practice, including reflecting on real world case studies and workplace projects.

What is a postdoc?

A postdoc (or postdoctoral fellowship to use the full name) is a paid fixed-term research position (usually 1-3 years) that follows the completion of a PhD. Postdocs allow PhD graduates to gain experience as early career researchers.

Can you do a PhD after an MBA?

Yes, you can do a PhD after an MBA. It isn’t the most popular route to take but if you are interested in research then doing a PhD is for you.

Some universities also offer a DBA (Doctor of Business Administration). This is a professional doctorate that involves more extensive research than an MBA. Students usually choose one or their other, however, rather than going from an MBA to a DBA.

What is a 1+3 PhD?

A 1+3 PhD is a scheme that provides you with funding for one-year research training at Masters level, followed by three years of funding for a PhD. By studying a 1+3 PhD, it’s possible to apply for a PhD without already having a Masters – this pathway is most common in the STEM subjects.

Choosing a PhD

Wondering where to study your PhD, or whether university rankings matter for a doctorate? These might answer your questions.

Find more information on choosing a PhD.

The most popular PhD subjects in the UK are: Biological Sciences, Engineering and Technology, Physical Sciences, Medicine and Dentistry, and Social Studies.* Of course, a PhD isn’t necessarily constrained to a single subject area – many are multidisciplinary. The nature of a PhD – the fact that it must form an original contribution to academic knowledge – also means that your research may focus on an incredibly niche sub-topic, so don’t worry if you can’t see a subject that fits your aims exactly.

*Based on data published by the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Do rankings matter for a PhD?

Overall rankings are based on broad university-wide criteria and don’t necessarily say how good the research expertise and infrastructure will be for your project. One option is to use specific subject rankings to look more closely at the department you will be based within. Generally speaking, if you find a supervisor who is a renowned expert in your research area but who works at a university which is lower down the rankings, your PhD will benefit from working with them rather than at a higher-ranked university that doesn’t have the same staff expertise.

Once you have your PhD, the quality of your research will matter as much as (if not more than) the ranking of the university you completed it at.

Should you do your PhD at a different university?

Studying at a new university can provide the opportunity to increase your academic network by working with other academics than those you studied your Bachelors / Masters with.

However, you should ultimately do your PhD at the university with the best resources for your project, or at the university that is advertising the project you find the most interesting. These factors may be easiest to gauge at a university you are currently studying at, but it’s always worth browsing a wider range of PhD projects and programmes.

Is it worth going to a postgraduate study fair?

If you aren’t sure whether you want to study a PhD, are confused about funding, or want to meet a wider range of universities to discuss their research, then a postgraduate study fair or an open day can be a great way to get more information. These events happen all year round and are free to attend.

How do you approach prospective supervisors?

Identifying and choosing the best supervisor is an essential part of the search for your future PhD. The best way to contact a potential supervisor is via the email address on their university staff page. Keep initial messages brief, saying what you are interested in researching and why you are interested in working with them in particular. It’s not usually a good idea to attach your research proposal or other materials at this point.

Applying for a PhD

PhD applications work a little differently to Bachelors and Masters degrees. Here are the answers to common questions you may have about applying, from entry requirements and eligibility to deadlines and research proposals.

For more detailed guides, see our PhD application section

What qualifications do you need for a PhD?

The minimum admissions requirement for a PhD is normally a good undergraduate degree, usually a UK upper second-class honours degree (2.1) or equivalent in a relevant subject. A Masters is often – but not always – a requirement, depending on the subject. You’ll usually need a Merit or a Distinction in your Masters (the two highest grades). Find out more in our guide to PhD entry requirements.

Do you need a Masters to do a PhD?

If you’re applying for a PhD in the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences, a Masters is usually part of the entry requirements for a doctorate. In STEM subjects, however, things work slightly differently. It’s more common in these subject areas for students to complete an integrated 1+3 PhD, which includes a Masters. If you’re doing an integrated Masters / PhD, the main entry requirement is a good undergraduate degree. In some instances you may be able to apply for a PhD without a Masters. You can read one student's experience on our blog.

What qualifications are equivalent to a 2.1 degree?

A British 2.1 degree (referred to as an 'upper second-class honours degree' or a 'Two-One') is the second highest mark available for an undergraduate Bachelors degree (the highest being a 1.1 or a ‘first’). Find out about qualification equivalencies.

Can you do a PhD without a Masters?

It depends on your subject area. Students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) will often have received enough research training at undergraduate level to be able to move straight to a PhD. Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences students will normally need to have gained additional research experience through a Masters. A well-graded Masters can also help compensate for a lower undergraduate degree in application.

Do you need a TOEFL / IELTS score for a PhD?

If English isn’t your first language and you haven’t already studied at a university in an English-language country, you may need to provide proof of your language proficiency in the form of a TOEFL or IELTS exam. Your prospective university will be able to advise you on whether or not you need to take an English language test.

What should you put in your application?

Applications for advertised projects should typically include:

  • An up-to-date CV
  • A personal statement (providing information on your relevant experiences and research interests)
  • A covering letter (demonstrating your interest in the project). You may also be asked to include a sample of your written academic work.

If you are putting forward your own PhD project you will need to submit a detailed research proposal along with your CV and other materials.

How many PhD programmes should you apply to?

Technically there’s no limit to the number of PhD programmes you can apply for. That said, PhD applications take time and you should make sure you tailor each application to the specific project you are interested in.

When should you apply?

Application deadlines for PhD study depend on the type of project you are interested in.

  • Most advertised projects are listed between September and March (though some application windows may be much shorter than this) ready for students to begin in the following autumn.
  • You can propose your own PhD at any time, though universities will generally prefer to enrol students at the start of the academic year.

PhD study is generally much more flexible than other levels of study though, so it’s worth keeping an eye on advertised projects all year round. Similarly, you can contact a university or supervisor to discuss your idea at any point.

Do you need to write your own research proposal?

It depends on your subject area. If you are interested in studying a STEM project it is very unlikely that you will have to write a research proposal, since funded projects in these areas have already been thought up by a supervisor and peer reviewed.

However, in Arts, Humanities and Social Science areas you will likely find yourself producing your own research proposal. In this case you'll benefit from the support and input of a prospective supervisor (if you’ve established one) or another leading academic in your field of interest.

Who should you ask to provide reference for your application?

At least one of your referees for a PhD application should be an academic tutor who has good experience of your work at Bachelors or Masters level (a dissertation supervisor is ideal). You can also include references from employers or others who can speak to your general character and achievements.

What happens at a PhD interview?

Interviews are required for almost all PhD applications (the exception would be if you were staying at the same university with a supervisor and department who are already very familiar with your work).

You will be invited to discuss the project in question with prospective supervisors and other staff at the university. They will ask questions to assess your understanding of the work in question and confirm that this is the right PhD and university for you. Some interviews also ask candidates to give a short presentation on their project idea or on the direction they would like to take for an advertised project.

When do PhDs start?

Most PhDs start at the beginning of the autumn semester (usually around the start of October). However, some PhD projects have the flexibility to start at any time of the year.

Funding a PhD

There are many ways to fund a PhD, including full university studentships and other grant schemes as well as student loan systems. We’ve covered a selection of the most frequently asked questions about how PhD funding works below.

For more information, see our funding guide.

Can you self-fund a PhD?

It is possible to self-fund a PhD, either by applying for several smaller grants to create your own package of funding, using personal funds or a combination of both. Self-funding is not always easy and will require careful financial planning. Having your own funding is also no guarantee of a PhD place. You will still need to fulfil entry requirements and to find a supervisor willing to take you on.

How much does a PhD cost?

PhD fees in the UK are typically between £4-5,000 per year. However, some subjects also include additional ‘bench fees’ for consumables and other research expenses. For indicative fees and other costs, search our database and then consult individual institutions’ websites.

Remember that projects that are advertised as fully funded don’t charge fees to the student.

Are PhD students exempt from council tax?

In the UK, yes. You will need to be fully enrolled and provide evidence of this to your local council. You can get this evidence from your university students advice office.

What are the types of funding available?

There are multiple ways in which you can fund your PhD, including support from one of the UK's Whether that be from Research Council, a University Scholarship, from Charities and Trusts, or with a PhD loan.

Are PhD studentships tax free?

In the UK, yes – student stipends provided by Research Councils and universities are not normally taxed as income.

What is a PhD stipend?

A PhD (or doctoral) stipend is a regular sum of money paid to students for living costs during a PhD. This money forms part of a full Research Council studentship in the UK. Depending on university, stipends may be paid monthly or quarterly.

What is a PhD studentship?

A PhD studentship is a package of funding linked to specific research project. Most provide full funding (covering the cost of tuition, material and a maintenance allowance) but some are fees-only (covering the cost of the tuition fees only). Applications for studentships, or projects with studentships attached, are generally very competitive.

Are PhD researchers university employees?

PhD researchers in the UK carry out some similar work to academics in their department, including teaching undergraduate students (and being paid for it). However, they are not normally classed as university employees.

The situation is different in some European countries where PhD researchers are staff, rather than students, with entitlement to sick pay and benefits in return for fulfilling additional responsibilities alongside their project.

Do PhD students take classes?

Most PhD students will have the opportunity to teach undergraduates during their doctorate, but this isn’t usually a requirement of the programme. Instead, it’s seen as a good chance for them to gain a new skillset and increase their confidence. It can also be a source of funding – particularly in the case of graduate teaching assistantships.

What is a Graduate Teaching Assistantship?

Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTA) are a combination of PhD study and formal teaching responsibilities within your university. You will be paid a regular salary for this work, essentially being a form of funding for your PhD. GTAs are most common in Canada and the USA but can be found across the world (including the UK).

Career prospects

There are many reasons for considering PhD study, but you may be wondering what you can do after you receive your doctorate. You don’t necessarily have to stay in academia! This section will help answer any questions you have about post-PhD careers.

Find more information about PhD careers.

Will a PhD help your career?

If you want a career in research (in academia or in industry), then a doctorate will almost certainly help your career. After all, a PhD demonstrates that you are a highly capable researcher. Other employers may not specifically seek out PhD graduates, but they will often recognise the transferable skills you gain from a PhD.

Will you earn more with a PhD?

Having a doctorate can allow you to access some potentially high-paying jobs, particularly in industrial research, but a PhD doesn’t automatically guarantee a higher salary. Government statistics do suggest that PhD holders go on to earn higher salaries than their Bachelors or Masters counterparts. You can find out more in our guide to PhD employability and earnings.

Does the time you spend on a PhD affect its worth?

Not particularly. In the end you will have the same level of education and a longer PhD may provide more time to attend training courses and undertake career development opportunities. Some employers (particularly universities) may want to know why a PhD was longer than average and what you did during the extra time, which is a good way for you to talk about any possible extenuating circumstances.

Can a PhD leave you overqualified?

Technically, it shouldn’t do. If you apply for a job that doesn’t require a PhD, then they will pay you the salary for the job, not for your qualification. But PhDs come with a lot of transferable skills; you can apply the skillset you acquired during your PhD into any job.

What can you do if your PhD goes wrong?

Research rarely goes completely smoothly and part of succeeding on a PhD involves managing the difficulties you encounter. The important thing to remember is that there is always someone to talk about your problems. The first port of call should be your supervisor (unless they are the problem – in which case you can talk to the PhD programme director or manager of graduate school). Our guide to PhD problems has more detail on some of the potential hurdles you may have to tackle during a PhD.

Looking for more information?

Hopefully we’ve managed to answer the main questions you might have about PhD study. You can check our advice, funding and study abroad sections for more detailed guides.

Ready to do a PhD?

Search our project listings to find out what you could be studying.

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Last Updated: 01 September 2021