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.
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:
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.
|Oldest University||University of Oxford (1096)|
|PhD Length||3-4 years|
|Academic Year||September to June|
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.
The four parts of the UK each have slightly different higher education systems:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
|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|
|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.|
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.
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:
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.
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:
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
You should apply directly to a university for a place on a UK PhD project or programme. There are two ways to do this:
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.
You will normally need the following to be accepted for a PhD in the UK:
Actual requirements vary between projects and programmes.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
Last updated - 30/10/2020