What is a PhD and what does it involve?
A PhD is the highest level of degree a student can attain - it demonstrates that you've made a meaningful new contribution to a research field.
A PhD degree typically involves independent, original and significant research in a specific field or subject, and producing a publication-worthy thesis. While some doctorates include taught components, PhD students are almost always assessed on the quality and originality of the argument presented in their independent research project.
A PhD is a big commitment - you’ll spend at least three years full-time as a doctoral researcher, or longer if doing the PhD part-time. There will be great demands made on your time, finances and dedication.
However, a PhD offers the opportunity to do a completely original research in a topic you are passionate about, while earning a prestigious qualification.
In addition, PhDs today are versatile qualifications that develop a wide range of your transferable skills, and can include placements and opportunities for networking and professional development. While some PhD graduates go onto careers in research and higher education, others take their experience and skills into the private or public sector.
The nature of a PhD requires you to take responsibility for your own learning, requiring that you plan and manage your work effectively and proactively. Unlike taught degrees, you will have full control of your own project and progression, though your supervisor can help provide some direction. There are a host of comprehensive guides on each step of the PhD research process and about different routes through PhDs.
Webinar: Use Geography: Careers in Research and Further Study
Watch our webinar on PhDs and careers in research with panellists Prof Jo Sharp, Prof Chad Staddon, Prof Tariq Jazeel and Dr Alistair Anderson.
How do I find a PhD?
When choosing a PhD, you will need to consider a range of factors – including the subject you want to research, the institution, and the type of doctorate you're looking for. You need to make sure this is the right project for you. Do you want to develop your own project? Do you want to undertake a project that is already defined and funded?
Selecting an appropriate supervisor and building a good working relationship is especially important. Your supervisor should be an expert in your subject, if not in your actual PhD topic, and should guide you in your research and professional activities. As you think about a PhD, topics and institutions, do take the time to research supervisors too.
The best first step is to talk to your tutor, your course instructor, and PhD students in your department. Consider joining an Society's research group, or contact the staff in the Research and Higher Education Division at the Society for advice and guidance.
Eligibility, options and funding
Most institutions require PhD candidates to have a Master’s degree and a Bachelor’s degree at 2:1 or above. However, some universities demand only the latter. Self-funded PhD students or those with significant professional experience may be accepted with lower grades.
You may need to initially register for a one or two-year Master of Philosophy (MPhil) or Master of Research (MRes) degree rather than a PhD, which can then lead on to a PhD programme – it is also possible to complete a Master’s then choose not to continue to a PhD programme.
PhD fees are usually lower than for undergraduate and Master’s degrees. However, the full cost of a PhD will include to the cost of supporting yourself for at least three more years of study.
The simplest way to cover this is to acquire funding for your PhD. Options include pre-funded projects, individual scholarships and doctoral loans. These may come from UK Research Councils, academic institutions, charities or other sources.