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PhD Study in the UK – A Guide for 2021

The United Kingdom is home to some of the world's oldest and most respected universities, but there's more to PhD study than age and reputation. Thankfully, British research programmes are also innovative and world-leading, with a modern approach to doctoral training and generous funding available to students from all backgrounds.

This guide covers everything you need to know about studying a PhD in the UK in 2021. We've explained how British PhD programmes work, what they cost (and how to pay for them) as well as advice on applying successfully.

PhD opportunities in the UK – what's on offer for 2021?

UK universities carry out research in all major subject areas but recent years have seen increasing investment in priority areas such as AI, Machine Learning and related fields such as Health Science and Bioinformatics.

Alongside this, the UK Government is working to attract and support talented international researchers with the launch of a new three-year post-study work visa and the extension of PhD studentships to overseas students in 2021.

Here are a few reasons to consider a PhD in the UK this year:

  • Historic universities – the British university system dates back to at least the eleventh century and has nurtured some of the most important developments in western science, medicine, art and philosophy.
  • Global reputation – A British PhD commands respect around the world as the hallmark of the ability to conduct rigorous research and scholarship at the cutting edge of a student's field.
  • Innovative training and support – UK universities increasingly deliver PhDs within structured doctoral training programmes, offering additional opportunities for academic and professional development that equip candidates for a range of careers.
  • A wide range of funding options – The UK invests heavily in doctoral training, with studentships from dedicated Research Councils as well as a government doctoral student loans system and a range of support for international candidates.
  • Priority research areas – On top of all the support the UK already provides for PhD study, additional funding is currently being made available for pioneering work in AI and related fields.
  • New post-study work visas – A new Graduate Route visa will be available to international students completing a PhD from summer 2021 onwards. It will allow you to stay in the UK and work (or seek work) for up to three years.

The UK is also home to some of Europe's (and the world's) most famous theatres, museums, heritage sites. . . and pubs. All of which may be available to visit during your doctorate. For research purposes, of course.


PhD Study in the UK - Key Details
Universities 164
Oldest University University of Oxford (1096)
International Students 435,734
PhD Length 3-4 years
Representative Fees £4-5,000
Academic Year September to June

UK universities

There are over 150 universities in the UK. The vast majority are public universities, meaning that they receive funding (including budgets for PhD studentships) from the UK Government. All British universities are free to pursue their own research objectives, but the amount of funding each institution receives is partly based on regular assessments of its performance as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

A small number of private universities also operate in the UK. They tend to specialise in specific subjects, such as Business or Law.

UK countries

The four parts of the UK each have slightly different higher education systems:

  • England is home to the majority of the UK's universities, including the two oldest (Oxford and Cambridge)
  • Scotland is home to 15 of the UK's universities, including four 'ancient universities' (St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh) dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
  • Wales has 8 universities, all of which are public institutions, dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Northern Ireland has 2 universities, each of which operates multiple campuses

The governments of each part of the UK have powers to decide on higher education policy, including fees and funding. But, in practice, PhD research works pretty similarly across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The country that's best for you will depend on the research opportunities available at specific universities.

UK university groups

Some UK universities are organised – officially or unofficially – into different groups. Here are some of the more common ones you may come across, together with what they mean:

  • The Russell Group is an association of 24 universities across the UK. The group is self-selecting (it decides on its own members) and positions itself as representing the country's leading research universities. In practice this is broadly accurate as the Russell Group includes some of the best ranked British universities and – perhaps more importantly – awards the majority of UK PhDs.
  • The ancient universities are a group of 7 institutions that date from the sixteenth century or earlier, including Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh as well as Trinity College Dublin (in Ireland). 'Membership' of this group isn't based on anything other than chronology (unsurprisingly, new universities can't join) and the ancient universities don't collaborate as such, though some are members of the Russell Group. Of more importance is the fact that some ancient universities award their doctorates as a DPhil rather than a PhD. The degree and its recognition are fundamentally the same.
  • The red brick universities are another informal grouping based on history rather than collective organisation. They include nine civic universities founded during the nineteenth-century industrial revolution with the aim of providing education and training for their cities. In contrast to the medieval buildings of the ancient universities, their campuses were built largely from red brick – hence the name.
  • The term 'post-92' is sometimes used to describe universities that were originally polytechnics (higher education institutions focussing on teaching and training rather than research) before being granted full university status in 1992. Many of these 'ex-poly' universities actually have long and proud histories and are now some of the UK's most innovative research centres.

There are a few other formal and informal groups, including 'plate glass' universities (founded in the 1960s – the UK has a thing for associating universities with building materials) as well as membership organisations for newer universities such as MillionPlus and GuildHE.

You don't generally need to worry about which group your prospective university is or isn't part of. It's true that some groupings confer a degree of prestige, but universities are invited intro the Russell Group because of their research performance and reputation, not the other way around. There are also many excellent universities which haven't chosen to join particular associations.

Accreditation and research quality

The UK takes quality assurance for universities very seriously, with several levels of official recognition and accreditation.

The right to use a university title is protected by law in the UK and can be granted by royal charter, Act of Parliament or similarly official means.

The right to award degrees is also protected. A university must either be a 'recognised body', in which case it can award its own degrees. Or it must be a 'listed body' in which case a recognised body must award degrees on its behalf (listed bodies are often newer universities or specialist colleges with qualifications accredited by more established neighbouring universities).

You can use the UK Government website to quickly check if a university is officially recognised.

UK universities' research quality is separately monitored through an exercise known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This examines the research a university is producing as well as its impact on society in general. The environment and support provided for PhD students is also considered as part of this process. The most recent REF results were published in 2014. The 2021 REF has been temporarily delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UK university rankings

The UK is currently home to the top-ranked university in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (Oxford) and several other British institutions also place within various global top tens.


Top 10 UK Universities in 2021
University THE 2021 QS 2021 ARWU 2020
University of Oxford 1 5 9
University of Cambridge 6 7 3
Imperial College London 11 8 25
UCL 16 10 16
London School of Economics and Political Science 27 49 151-200
University of Edinburgh 30 20 42
King's College London 35 =31 47
University of Manchester =51 =27 36
University of Warwick 77 62 101-150
University of Bristol 91 58 64
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Do rankings matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

UK university cities

There are excellent universities located across the UK, from London and the South of England to the Scottish Highlands and Islands (no, really). With that said, here are a few of the UK's most popular student cities:

PhD structure

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 (see below) 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.

Supervision

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.

PhD structure

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 quantitive 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 rsearch 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).

Fees and funding

UK PhD fees range from between £4,000-5,000 per year for UK students to between £15,000-20,000 for international students.

Universities may charge additional bench fees for resources and consumables in certain subject areas, but these usually only apply to self-funded students.

PhD funding

The main funding body for UK PhD research is UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). UKRI is made up of seven individual Research Councils, each covering a specific academic discipline. They provide full studentships covering fees and living costs.

Other organisations also offer substantial scholarships and studentships, including individual universities as well as independent charities and trusts.

UK students can also apply for a doctoral student loan to contribute to the cost of a PhD (though this cannot be combined with UKRI funding.

Students from outside the UK are eligible for all of the above funding, except the UK doctoral loan. There are also some PhD funding awards specifically for international students.

PhD funding guides

Check out our introduction to PhD funding, or visit our selection of detailed PhD funding guides for more information.

Applying for a PhD in the UK

You should apply directly to a university for a place on a UK PhD project or programme. There are two ways to do this:

  • Some PhD projects are advertised by universities with set aims and objectives. These are most common in STEM subjects and often have funding attached. You can browse UK PhD adverts here on FindAPhD.
  • Other PhD projects are designed by students who put forward a research proposal for the work they would like to do. These are more common in Arts, Humanities and some Social Science subjects. You can browse UK PhD programmes to apply within here on FindAPhD.

It's often a good idea to contact a prospective PhD supervisor before applying, but this isn't usually a necessary step. Universities will usually pair students with the most appropriate supervisor for their project.

Admissions requirements

You will normally need the following to be accepted for a PhD in the UK:

  • A suitable undergraduate degree (equivalent to a UK 2.1 or higher). A Masters may also be required in some subject areas.
  • Evidence of language proficiency (if English is not your first language).
  • Evidence that you possess the necessary materials to gain a UK student visa (for international students).
  • Other application materials including a research proposal, personal statement or references.

Actual requirements vary between projects and programmes.

Interviews

Not all UK PhD applications require a formal interview, but this is more common for funded positions or programmes with limited space.

Interviews can often be conducted online. You may be asked to answer some questions about your application and / or give a short presentation on your intended research.

Student visas

From the 2021-22 academic year, all international students will require a visa to study a PhD in the UK.

You should apply for a PhD visa through the new student route. This is a points-based system that assesses applications according to three key criteria:

  • Whether you have been accepted for a PhD at a recognised UK university
  • Whether you have the necessary English language skills to carry out postgraduate research
  • Whether you have sufficient financial resources (including funding) to support yourself during your PhD

You can begin your visa application six months prior to your PhD start date. The fee is £348 (to apply from your home country) or £475 (to apply from within the UK).

Health insurance

International PhD students will need to pay an immigration healthcare surcharge in addition to their visa fee. This entitles you to access health services and treatment whilst you are living and studying in the UK.

PhD visa guide

Read our full guide to UK visas for PhD study for further information on applications, fees and post-study work options.

Next steps

The UK is one of the most popular destinations for international PhD study and a British doctorate is respected around the world, leading to great career opportunities in academic work and other fields.

Can I work in the UK after my PhD?

The UK is introducing a new Graduate Route visa from summer 2021 onwards. PhD graduates will be able to live and work (or seek work) in the UK for up to three years, with the option to apply for a full work visa at the end of that period.

Find a PhD in the UK

Decided that the UK is the right destination for your PhD? Why not get started browsing some UK PhDs? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 30/10/2020

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