find your perfect postgrad program
Search our Database of 30,000 Courses

What is a PhD?

A PhD is the highest postgraduate qualification level that can be awarded in academic study. This is usually completed over three to four years of full-time study, and involves research into an original contribution in your chosen field. 

PhD is an acronym that stands for Doctor of Philosophy. The name for PhD comes from the Latin term “Philosophiae Doctor”, which roughly translates to “Lover of wisdom”.

Whether you’re finishing up from an undergraduate degree, on a masters course or even just looking to get back into education, you’ll have seen people talking about getting a PhD.

Most people know vaguely what a PhD is – it’s a university course that means you can call yourself ‘Doctor’ without having to do medicine, right? Whilst that is surprisingly close to the truth, we’re here to answer the oft-asked question of ‘what is a PhD?’.

This guide covers everything you need to know about a PhD.

Search for PhD Courses

What does a PhD involve?

A PhD will typically take three years to complete. If taken part time, then it will be separated into three different stages:

Year 1: This will involve you speaking with your advisor about your research ideas, finishing your research proposal and beginning to put deadlines in place for your research. You’ll also complete your literature review in this stage. During this, you’ll review the existing research done on the topic that you’re planning to research to help you determine the gaps in the research that you can target

Year 2: During this stage, you’ll begin to conduct your research to gather data. You’ll document this whole process for your thesis and begin to attend conferences where you will have the opportunity to present your current research to other professionals and researchers in the field. You can take this further and take steps to educate the public on the benefits of your research.

Year 3: The final stage of a PhD involves using the data you’ve collected and the documentation of your research to write your thesis. You may still be conducting research at this point, and that’s OK. Once you’ve finished your thesis, you’ll justify your research and decisions in a viva.

How long is a PhD?

A typical PhD will take three to four years to complete when studying full time. Studying part time can take up to six years. The good news is that the thesis can be extended by up to four years. This means that if you haven’t gotten anywhere near finishing your research by the end of the second year, you can apply to extend your thesis and continue your research for up to four more years. Many PhD students will complete their thesis in the 4th year.

How is a PhD different from other degrees?

To start with, describing a PhD as a university course can be a bit misleading. Whilst it is a course offered by a university, it’s incredibly different to most courses. Unlike the undergraduate level, you won’t be covering your subject broadly you’ll be focused on one very particular area. Whilst a masters degree, especially a research one, may be focused, it won’t be nearly as focused as a PhD.

That said – don’t expect this focused level of research to necessarily be groundbreaking! Though part of doing a PhD is the intent to produce original research, it’s also primarily there to train your research skills and to prove yourself as a capable researcher.

A PhD is research focused

One of the main differences between PhDs and other types of postgraduate degree is that PhDs are heavily research based. PhDs involve a lot of independent research time, where you'll study your topic in detail using academic resources – such as the university's online library and online materials. This format is different to taught postgraduate degrees, which involve a lot more taught aspects such as lectures and seminars.

Do you need a masters to study a PhD?

In order to study a PhD, you’ll need to have a masters degree and a bachelors degree with a 2:1 or higher. Though self-funded students and students with professional experience in the field may be admitted with lower grades

Some students may begin with a MPhil (Masters of philosophy) or a Mres ( Master of research) and upgrade to a PhD by the end of their studies.

Where can I study a PhD?

Most universities offer PhD programs across a variety of disciplines. It is possible to study a PhD at almost any university and in almost any subject. Since a PhD is an independent research-based program, there is a lot of flexibility in regard to what you’ll study. 

PhD students often choose their own study topics and carry out independent research into that topic. This makes it possible to study your intended PhD at almost any university. 

Although, it is important to check which specific subject areas the university specialises in. For instance, if a university specialises in linguistics, then it would be a good idea to complete a linguistics PhD at that university as opposed to one that specialises in another subject.

It can be difficult to find the perfect course at the right university. That’s why we’ve put together advice on how to find a PhD.

It’s important to remember that a PhD is different from a typical university course. Rather than going to lectures, you’ll be conducting independent research, and so the application process will be quite different. Learn how to apply for a PhD with our expert guide.

A PhD means attending ‘optional’ lectures and conferences

PhDs do involve some aspects of taught study, including lectures and conferences, although these are often optional and take place less often than on lower level courses.

Now of course, the university doesn’t just accept you, your project and tell you to have fun. You’ll work with a supervisor, and there will be conferences, lectures, and other such things that you can attend. Unlike lower level courses, however, although you won’t necessarily be examined on these things that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! Conferences are a great way to meet people, get your name out and network. For any career, but especially one in academia, networking is well worth it.

A PhD is a high standard qualification

But what does having a PhD show, other than the fact you spent three to four years working on research and can now call yourself Dr [Your surname here]? 

A PhD is a globally recognised, high standard qualification. This means that if you choose to move elsewhere in the world, your PhD will be recognised as a credible postgraduate qualification.

In addition, a PhD can open up a whole world of new job opportunities! This includes academic roles, such as postdoctoral research posts, or even possibly fellowships. 

Regardless of which career path you choose to take, a PhD is regarded as the highest level postgraduate qualification – reflecting your impressive work ethic, knowledge, and workplace skills.

How to get a PhD

Getting a PhD is not easy by any means. But, if it’s something you truly want to do, it’s well worth it. So let’s take a look at just how to get a PhD!

Choose your research area

Before getting started with your PhD, you want to make sure you know what area you’d like to do it in. Don’t just pick something on a whim – this is something you’re going to be studying for the next four years of your life, and something that, once you finished your PhD, you’ll have your name attached to. So, for arts and humanities students, find an area of your subject that fascinates you enough that you’ll want to spend the next few years writing about it. For scientists, find an area you’d be happy to be working on in a team, and wouldn’t mind moving into as a career!

Find a good supervisor

Once you’ve selected your topic, it’s time to start looking for a supervisor. Depending on what you’re currently doing, asking tutors for contacts or recommendations can be well worthwhile, but if you can’t do this, check out what research your potential supervisor has done. 

In addition, try and arrange an in-person meeting – or at least, a phone conversation. Email can make communication difficult and given this is the person you’ll be working under for the foreseeable future, you want to ensure you get on.

Then, assuming you’re accepted and have appropriate funding, you’ll be considered a probationary PhD student. At the end of your first year, you’ll be expected to prove you’re capable of the full course, so you’ll be tested in the form of writing a report. Once you pass this, you’re good to go!

Your next few years will be spent attending conferences, working on the research and your thesis. Your thesis will talk about what you’ve spent your time doing, how you dealt with any difficulties that arose, and generally show what your contribution to your subject is! Once that’s out the way, you get the fun job of having a viva – that is, talking about your thesis to a bunch of academics.

Pass the viva? Then you’ve succeeded.

So that’s how to get a PhD!

UK Research Councils

There are a selection of UK Research Councils, each of whom are part of the  UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) organisation. Collectively, these UK research councils provide an average of £380 million in PhD studentship funding every year – acting as the largest PhD funding body in the UK. 

Here’s an overview of UK research councils:


Related articles

Dos And Don'ts Of A PhD Interview

Are You Ready For A PhD?

How To Get The Most From Your PhD Supervisor

Common PhD Myths

Alphabet Of PhD Study

What Is A Postgraduate Degree? A Definition

Postgrad Solutions Study Bursaries