The British PhD follows a format that's recognisable around the world (partly because many parts of the world have copied the British PhD format!).
At its core a UK doctorate is an independent research qualification. Right from the beginning, the focus is on your own individual research project with the ultimate aim of producing an original thesis that contributes to the understanding of your field.
Unlike in some countries (such as the USA) there isn't any formal taught component for a UK PhD. You probably will have some additional training and development opportunities during your doctorate (such as teaching undergraduates, attending conferences and publishing papers) but your performance in these won't affect your final degree result.
UK doctoral degrees
Most UK universities award their academic doctorates as PhD qualifications. However, some institutions award a DPhil instead. The two degrees are effectively the same; in fact, they even stand for the same thing ('PhD' is an abbreviation of the Latin philosophiae doctor, whereas 'DPhil' is an abbreviation of the English 'doctor of philosophy'). Rest assured that, for all intents and purposes, a DPhil is the same as a PhD.
Other UK doctoral degrees do differ. Some universities award specialised professional doctorates in particular subjects. Examples include the Doctor of Engineering (Eng.D), Doctor of Education (EdD) or the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). These tend to include more practice-based research and reflection, being designed for experienced professionals.
The length of a UK PhD (or other doctorate) is fairly standard. You'll normally be expected to spend a minimum of three years researching towards your thesis, with most universities allowing students to extend for a fourth year if necessary. Around six to eight years are normally allowed for part-time PhDs.
The UK academic year runs from September to June, but the lack of formal teaching on British doctoral programmes means that PhD students can, in principle, start at any point in the calendar year. Be aware that your university may prefer a September start where possible, however, in order to line up with induction and orientation.
At the start of your degree you'll be partnered with at least one PhD supervisor. They will be an expert in your specialism with some relevant experience of the kinds of material you intend to research and the methods you expect to use. It's their job to guide your project and provide advice on the best direction for your research as you progress. Your supervisor will also support your professional development as a researcher and – potentially – as a future academic.
It's actually common for students in the UK to have two supervisors:
- Your primary supervisor provides expert academic advice on the best direction for your project and offers feedback on drafts and other work in progress. This person is sometimes referred to as a 'director of studies'.
- Your secondary supervisor provides more pastoral support and general mentoring. They may not be as closely in your research, but will help with professional development and training.
Sometimes the split in supervisor roles and responsibilities isn't as clear as this, with some students being co-supervised by two academics who both offer academic advice and more general support.
The UK PhD is traditionally a pure research degree, with no taught classes and assessments (other than your final oral examination – see below). You will normally begin with a literature review of existing work in your field, before moving on to gathering your own quantitative or qualitative data, textual evidence or other materials and eventually writing up your findings as a PhD thesis.
Some UK PhD students begin by registering for an MPhil before completing a PhD upgrade at the end of their first year (this is a short oral exam, based around a chapter draft or similar).
Some UK universities also offer a more structured PhD with timetabled training and development activities. This is most common for PhDs funded by the UK Research Councils which take place within dedicated Doctoral Training Centres.
Submission and examination
At the end of your PhD you will submit a written thesis detailing your findings and the conclusions you have drawn from them. The length of a UK PhD thesis varies by subject. Dissertations in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences tend to be between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Dissertations in STEM subjects are shorter, as much of the information is conveyed through graphs and data tables.
At least one of your supervisors will read your PhD in full before you submit it and offer constructive feedback to help improve your thesis.
Your PhD will then be submitted for oral examination in a process known as a viva voce (latin for 'living voice'). A UK PhD viva usually involves two examiners: one 'internal examiner' from within your university and one 'external examiner' from another institution. Both will read your thesis in advance and then question you about it. It is your job to 'defend' your findings and conclusions in order to prove the value of your research and confirm the PhD is your own work.
Unlike in other European countries, where the viva is often a public defence, UK PhDs are usually examined in a 'closed room' setting. Your supervisor is not usually present, but should be available immediately before and after the exam.
Immediately following your viva your examiners will recommend a PhD result for you. This may involving passing (with or without some corrections to your thesis) or other outcomes that may require additional research and / or resubmission (it's rare to completely fail your PhD after reaching the viva stage).