A PhD or Doctor of Philosophy (or Ph.D. if you’re finicky about full stops) is a postgraduate degree. It doesn’t just apply to the study of philosophy, but rather uses the word ‘philosophy’ in the Greek sense, meaning “a love of wisdom”. The diversity of PhDs in the UK shows that this love of wisdom can be explored in a variety of subjects, from hammer horror movies to cell biology.
What is a PhD?
Doing a PhD is all about devoting several years of your life to researching a particular subject. A student is awarded a PhD upon the completion of a substantial project, thesis or dissertation on a specialist topic, which is based on a body of original academic research. This doctoral thesis can be between 40,000 and a staggering 120,000 words.
There is also a new kid on the academia block called the ‘New Route PhD’ (a.k.a. the professional doctorate). This is a PhD for the more vocationally-minded student, combining professional skills with academic knowledge. Professional doctorates are often taken to further people’s careers. Whilst it still involves completing an original piece of research, there’s also a taught or directed study element to the doctorate.
A PhD usually lasts three years, although there are some which incorporate taught modules and last four years.
How do you apply for a PhD?
Applying for a PhD is a whole different ballgame compared to undergraduate courses. Usually, universities will admit PhD students on a case-by-case basis. Broadly speaking, there are two types of PhD: one devised by a university staff member and those where a student will propose a research subject to the university (effectively devising their own PhD).
For the first type, it’s up to the student to find the right project and impress their suitability for the role upon the academic in charge of the project. In the second type, it’s up to the student to come up with their own research project and find the right university department (and a suitable supervisor) for their proposed PhD topic. The student will then have to formally apply to the university with their research proposal and hope they are accepted.
Students are often provisionally taken on as MPhil students and transferred to a PhD if they perform well during the first year.
The ease of securing funding for your PhD will usually depend on your subject. In engineering and science subjects, securing funding tends to be less problematic and you’re far more likely to find existing funded projects to apply to.
One source of funding comes from the seven research councils. Most of the funding takes the form of studentships, e.g. postgraduate places with funding attached. The maximum amount (or stipend) you can receive is £13,590 a year. The seven research councils are:
- Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
- Medical Research Council (MRC)
- Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
- Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
Funding at PhD level isn’t only offered by research councils and universities, but commercial companies, public sector bodies and charities too.
Another popular way to help fund your PhD is through graduate teaching positions and assistantships. Students who undertake an assistantship usually get the equivalent to the research council stipend and get their tuition fees waivered. In return, they usually have to commit to 120-180 hours of teaching time over the university year.
For more information about PhD funding, see our postgraduate funding article.