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Guide to PhD study in the UK

PhD is the abbreviation used for ‘Doctor of Philosophy’. Commonly known as a ‘doctorate’, it is the highest postgraduate degree level a student can obtain. Courses to study for a PhD are available for overseas students at a number of British universities, and make for a great way to build on your academic success.

What are the entry requirements?

To study for a PhD in the UK, you will need at least an undergraduate degree and this must be of a high standard. Some courses require a master’s degree as well.

Overseas students must have a high proficiency in the English language. If you have gained work experience following your undergraduate degree, this will be considered when reviewing your application. It helps to have had some original research work published too.

You will be expected to present a proposal for the research you intend to do for the PhD qualification. If this requires facilities or specialised equipment, students need to apply to a university that has these facilities.

What’s the course length?

PhD courses can last for three to four years. Courses known as New Route PhD last four years and combine taught subjects with a dissertation requirement.

What does a PhD course involve?

PhD courses normally have two elements: research, and a dissertation or thesis based on research. The research must be original and aim to provide new knowledge or a fresh perspective on a specialist topic.

Some courses will accept students on an MPhil course, which is a slightly lesser standard than a PhD. After a year or two, if their work is of a high standard, their course can be converted to a PhD. A student on a PhD course who is considered to be producing work of lower than the PhD level standard may have their course downgraded to MPhil.

There is little in the way of lessons or lectures on a PhD course. Students are expected to work independently and be self-motivated, although they can discuss their work with supervisors or department heads.

Students will be encouraged to submit academic papers to journals and attend conferences. They may also be asked to give presentations about their research findings to people interested in their subject areas.

The complexity of research projects can often lead students to work long hours, and because there are few fixed lesson times like with undergraduate degree courses, some initially feel that a PhD course lacks structure. They quickly learn that they need to create their own structure, but also be flexible to deal with unexpected events.

PhD students are often faced with long periods when they need to work on their own, such as when writing their thesis or designing research processes. They need to be able to cope with this, perhaps by remembering that UK universities always offer plenty of opportunity for an active social life.

What are the main PhD subject areas in the UK?

There is a wide range of subject areas for PhD research. Some of the top ones are:

  1. Accounting, Economics and Finance
  2. Psychology
  3. Medicine
  4. Business
  5. Music
  6. Law
  7. Literature
  8. History
  9. Education

Where should I study?

Most PhD students who graduate will have reached an excellent standard in their chosen subject. The choice of university is not crucial to how a PhD is valued, but Oxford and Cambridge are regarded as the top universities in Britain, so a PhD obtained from either of them has an added level of prestige.

How much does it cost?

A PhD course can cost up to £18,000 a year for overseas students. Some research councils will provide financial help or funds for the research part of the course. For European residents, the European Research Council provides finance and there are similar organisations in other countries. Many universities offer scholarships that pay some or all of the course fees.

Aside from your studies, it costs between £800 and £1,200 a month to live in the UK, however this can be more in London.

Visa requirements

Non-European Economic Area (EEA) citizens need a Tier 4 student visa to stay in the UK while on a PhD course. The visa requires a sponsor, which will normally be the university you are attending. You also need to prove that you have the finances to pay for the course fees each year, as well as enough to afford your living expenses.

Visa applicants need a good grasp of English, but you probably would not be accepted on a PhD course in the first place without a high proficiency in the language.

If you have children, they may be allowed to stay with you as long as you have the money to support them.

Overseas students are also advised to take out health insurance and G8way membership. The latter protects you in case you have to interrupt your studies and return home because of a family emergency. It goes without saying that taking a PhD course is an expensive investment, and G8way membership can help protect that investment.

What can I do with my PhD?

After successfully completing a PhD course, many students are employed by academic institutes on postdoctoral research or as lecturers. Others obtain highly paid posts in business.

Research has shown that a third of PhD graduates work in academic jobs. In the UK, only 4.6% of graduates are unemployed within six months of leaving their course.

A PhD is highly regarded internationally. UK salaries for people with PhD qualifications start at around £28,000, but can soon rise to £50,000 or more. As you would expect, salaries for PhD graduates will generally be higher than those for undergraduates.

Salaries and job prospects vary throughout the world. If you want to work in your home country, it’s useful to check on your job prospects and expected salaries before investing in a UK PhD course.

Many PhD students do not enter jobs directly related to their study area, with employers instead taking them on because of the qualities they develop on the course. PhD students will have developed good communication skills, be creative thinkers, have management capabilities and be adept at problem solving. These skills can be relevant to just about any career.

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