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PhD Study in the United Kingdom (UK)

by the FindAPhD Team and the University of Sheffield International Office

With historic and renowned universities (including the top two institutions in the world) and a range of innovative degree programmes, it's no surprise the UK is the second most popular destination for international study.

The pages in this section explain what the UK has to offer you as a PhD student and what you need to know about postgraduate study at British universities.

Why the UK?

The UK offers students the opportunity to gain an internationally recognised and respected academic qualification, whilst at the same time experiencing life in a culturally rich and diverse environment.

UK higher education is renowned for the quality of its teaching and research. Many of the leading UK universities boast world-class research facilities and produce research of the highest standard, enabling both taught and research students to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of some of the world’s most acclaimed specialists. To find out more about the UK higher education system, click here.

British universities encourage students to think creatively and independently in a stimulating learning environment, providing them with the confidence, knowledge and ability to excel in their chosen career. Employers across the world recognise and value the quality of a UK university education.

Studying and living in the UK also provides international students with an excellent opportunity to improve their English language skills, further enhancing their future employability.

Quality assurance

The quality of teaching in UK universities is rigorously assessed by the British Government's Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Subject areas and departments at each university are assessed on criteria such as curriculum design, assessment, student support, learning resources etc. Subjects are then given a rating of 'Excellent', 'Satisfactory' or 'Unsatisfactory', and departments are given a score out of 24 (with anything over 22 considered as excellent).

The strength of research activity in UK university departments is assessed in the Research Excellence Framework. The latest assessment results were published in December 2014 by panels of independent experts from universities, industry and commerce. Research is rated on a scale of “Unclassified” – “4*”, with definitions of each category as follows:

4* Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
3* Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
2* Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
1* Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
Unclassified Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

The REF ensure that UK research is of high quality, but it can also be a useful tool for PhD students. The metrics focus on important issues for PhD students, including the research Environment you'll be working in and the potential Impact of your work.

We've put together a quick REF FAQ for PhD students, plus a fully searchable set of results by university and subject.

Entry Requirements

Entry requirements differ at each university. Typically, those universities with higher rankings will have higher entry requirements. For entry onto taught Masters programmes, most universities will require a good first degree. For a PhD, you may be required to have a Masters degree in addition to your undergraduate one. In addition, you will be required demonstrate that you have a good command of English (see below).

What about Brexit?

EU students normally pay the same PhD fees as UK students and have access to some public funding (including partial Research Council studentships). It isn't yet clear how Brexit will affect this in future. However, the UK Government has confirmed that existing fee and funding arrangements will continue to apply to any students who begin a PhD in the 2018-19 academic year - and will be guaranteed for the duration of your doctorate.

We'll be keeping an eye on the possible impact of Brexit for EU and international postgraduates. Our free newsletter will make sure you stay updated too.

English requirements

Masters programmes in the UK are intensive periods of study and as such as are not an opportunity for students to learn English whilst studying. You’ll certainly improve your English language skills but you will be expected to have a good level at the start.

Students who have not been educated in English would usually be required to have an internationally recognised English language qualification such as IELTS or TOEFL before joining the university. The exact English requirements will depend on the university and the course.

Students who have been educated in English are often able to submit high school English qualifications (e.g. GCSE or O-level) instead of IELTS or TOEFL. Most universities would require the equivalent to a grade C at GCSE level to satisfy these conditions.

English Language preparation programmes

Students who do not meet the minimum English language requirements have the option of taking an English language preparation programme. Many universities offer intensive English language summer schools, specifically designed to help students to reach the required English level for their chosen academic programme. These courses usually range from four-16 weeks. Alternatively, there are several private English language schools across the country which offer English preparation courses. Students taking these courses should check that this will be accepted by their chosen university.

Pre-Masters programmes

Students who do not meet the minimum academic entry requirements for their chosen course may have the option of taking a pre-Masters programme. These programmes are designed to prepare students for postgraduate study in the UK. Some universities run their own pre-Masters programmes, while others may work in partnership with specialist colleges.

Last updated - 25/10/2017

This article was written for by the University of Sheffield International Office.

It may not be reproduced without permission.

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