The following contents have been extracted from “The UK Doctorate” which is a publication of The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). QAA mission is to safeguard standards and improve the quality of UK higher education.

A doctoral degree (doctorate) is the highest degree awarded by a university for completion of a specific programme of study. In most countries it represents the highest level of formal study or research in a given field.

Throughout this guide we refer to those registered on a UK doctoral programme as 'doctoral candidates' rather than doctoral students. The consensus is that this is the most suitable term to use, even though in some institutions a distinction is made between 'student' and 'candidate' depending on whether the individual has successfully completed some kind of transfer of status stage. Some institutions may use different terms, for example, ‘researcher' to describe an individual undertaking a research degree

Estimated launch is December 2013

Part of the doctoral experience is about how concepts evolve through research or how the practice of research translates into a contribution to knowledge. Sources of information that doctoral candidates said that they had used to inform their decisions during various stages of their study included

  • Supervisors and other academic staff
  • Librarians, and other university staff
  • Professional and subject discipline websites
  • Professional peers and senior colleagues
  • Books on doctoral study
  • Other current and prospective doctoral candidates.

The UK doctoral qualification

What is a doctoral degree?

A doctoral degree is the highest academic qualification that an institution can award following an agreed programme of study. Registration periods for a UK doctorate are typically four years full-time or six to eight years part-time. A candidate is examined on the basis of a thesis, portfolio, artefact(s), clinical practice or other output which must demonstrate the research question, critically evaluate the extent to which it has been addressed, and make an original contribution to knowledge. In the UK a doctoral qualification is awarded by reaching or exceeding the required level of achievement

Original contribution to knowledge

Doctoral degrees are awarded to students who have demonstrated:
  • The creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship, of a quality to satisfy peer review, extend the forefront of the discipline, and merit publication.
  • A systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge that is at the forefront of an academic discipline or area of professional practice.
  • The general ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project for the generation of new knowledge, applications or understanding at the forefront of the discipline, and to adjust the project design in the light of unforeseen problems.
  • A detailed understanding of applicable techniques for research and advanced academic enquiry.

What is the difference between a doctorate and other types of Higher Education qualification?

The experience of undertaking a doctorate varies for every candidate; however, doctoral candidates all share the experience of creating knowledge through the practice of independent research and scholarship. This creation of new knowledge or of applying existing knowledge in a new way is not expected in the same way at undergraduate or taught postgraduate level. Doctoral candidates operate at a level of independence and self-direction that would not be expected of an undergraduate or taught postgraduate student.

Doctoral candidates learn about research - the means by which knowledge is created and extended through undertaking independent research, under the guidance of one or more supervisors, and normally within a wider institutional, professional or subject-based research community.

Holders of a doctoral qualification would be expected to be able to continue to undertake pure and/or applied research and development at an advanced level contributing substantially to the development of new techniques, ideas or approaches. They would also be able to make informed judgements on complex issues in specialist fields, often in the absence of complete data, and be able to communicate their ideas and conclusions clearly and effectively to specialist and non-specialist audiences.

Why are there different doctoral qualifications?

Doctoral degrees fulfil a wide range of purposes. Whereas originally the purpose of acquiring a doctoral degree might have been seen solely as a way of gaining entry to the academic profession this is now just one of the many options available to doctoral graduates. To accommodate this diversity different doctoral qualifications have evolved. Doctoral qualifications awarded in the UK include the PhD, the professional doctorate, the practice-based doctorate and the doctorate by publication.

How do I apply to do a doctorate?

There is no national application scheme for doctoral degrees. Normally, prospective doctoral candidates apply directly to the institution(s) of their choice. Every institution sets its own requirements for entry and application, which may differ somewhat across subjects, and these are clearly published (for example on institutional websites). Some institutions accept doctoral applications all year round, while others have application deadlines linked to specific start dates, typically October, January and April.

Candidates often have to find their own fees and maintenance funding, and demonstrate evidence of adequate funding before taking up their place. However, some institutions can award doctoral funding.

In particular, some subjects may have a bursary or finance system integrated within the application process; if this is the case specific deadlines usually apply.

Some institutions will advertise for a doctoral candidate to be attached to a specific project or to undertake relatively specific research within that project. Doctoral studentships of this kind are likely to have fees and maintenance funding attached. Criteria for application will be described in the advertisement for any such studentship.

If you do not intend to apply for a specific studentship you may need to find out if the institution you wish to apply to can offer doctoral supervision in the particular area in which you wish to undertake your research. Institution staff research profiles are often available on institutions' websites.

Applicants for doctoral study may be asked to supply any or all of the following in support of their application:
  • A research project outline or statement of intent
  • Evidence of ability to be able to undertake independent research
  • Degree transcripts
  • Academic or professional references
  • writing samples or a portfolio of creative work.

Interviews for admission to doctoral programmes are commonplace. Individual institutions will make clear what is required for their own application process. You may be required to upload the relevant documentation in support of your application via an online application process.

What are the entry requirements for doctoral degrees?

Individual institutions specify entry requirements for their doctoral degrees. Increasingly, doctoral candidates possess a master's degree but in some subjects it is usual to begin a doctoral programme with a bachelor's degree or, in some circumstances, its professional equivalent.

Some institutions offer a combined master's and doctoral award (sometimes known as the '1+3' model) that enables a candidate to undertake a master's degree and, subsequent to satisfactory progress, enter directly into doctoral research at the same institution.

It is not always necessary to hold an undergraduate degree in the same subject as that applied for at doctoral level and, although a minimum standard for admittance to doctoral study will be required, there may also be some flexibility depending on a candidate's experience, background and preparedness for doctoral research. Prospective doctoral candidates need to check with individual institutions about the specific requirements at the institution at which they wish to study.

Can I study part-time or as a distance learner?

Different modes of study are possible for different doctoral programmes. It will depend on the institution, intended subject of study and the qualification for which you are registered. You will need to explore whether part-time or distance learning is possible at your preferred institution(s), and how these modes of study affect the form your doctoral programme will take. You may need to look into a number of programmes before you find one that suits your specific needs.

Can I switch institution? If so, will the research I have already be done be recognised?

Sometimes circumstances may change: a doctoral supervisor may move institution and a doctoral candidate may wish to follow, or for other reasons a candidate may wish to change the institution at which he/she is registered. Transfers between institutions and recognition of research already undertaken are possible but subject to negotiation and agreement between the candidate, his or her supervisor(s), the institution at which he/she is registered and the institution to which he/she wishes to move.

Institutions may have generic rules and policies governing transfers, but most likely these requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Permission for transfer of intellectual property might be required.

What difference does it make if I am an international candidate?

The UK welcomes applicants to doctoral programmes from all over the globe, and most institutions can offer a truly international research environment. International applicants need to be sponsored by an approved education provider. A list of approved providers is available on the UKBA website.

How much will the doctorate cost?

The fees charged for various programmes of doctoral study are variable, but are usually clearly published on institutional websites. International candidates can in most cases expect to pay more than candidates not domiciled in the UK or in other EU member states. Some institutions will levy further fees, such as lab bench fees, beyond the basic tuition fee. For a specific programme at a particular institution you would have to ask whether these additional fees would apply and how much they might be.

Doctoral candidates will also need to pay for maintenance as well as fees, and this will vary in different parts of the UK depending on the cost of living. Individual institutions will be able to advise you in more detail.

Will I be able to access funding for the doctorate?

Availability of funding for doctoral study depends on subject discipline, institution, and nationality/residency. You should check eligibility criteria for any advertised funding source or studentship.

Many doctoral candidates do find sponsorship of some kind or another, but others have to pay for everything themselves.

The most common sources of doctoral funding in the UK are as follows.

  • Research council funding (usually obtained through institutions). Details can be found on Institutional websites or the website of the relevant research council for the subject discipline.
  • Institution funding. Institutions may have full studentship, fee waiver, and bursary or scholarship schemes, usually allocated via an open application process. Details should be available on individual institutions’ websites.
  • Charitable or private funding. Details about organisations and trusts that offer doctoral funding may be harder to come by, unless the funding organisation is a large and well-known one such as the Welcome Trust or the Lever Hulme Trust. Academics or practitioners in the discipline or profession may have specific advice.
  • Collaborative funding arrangements. In some cases doctoral studentships are offered in partnership between an institution or research organisation and an external body, for example an industrial company. Details of such arrangements are likely to be provided in particular studentship advertisements.
  • Employer. Some employers will co-fund employees to undertake doctoral study, either as part of an organisation-wide staff development policy or on an ad-hoc basis.
  • Self-funding. Self-funding is more common in some disciplines than others. Self-funded doctoral candidates may fund their study through private loans, savings or paid employment.

What happens if I don’t complete my degree within the time that I have funding?

In the ideal scenario, doctoral candidates complete their research within the period of funding.

However, you may hear reference to the 'writing-up' period, typically referring to the final few months of the doctoral process; for some candidates this may extend beyond the period of funding.

If this is the case, funding bodies are highly unlikely to extend funds to cover the remaining time, and funded doctoral candidates should be aware that they could find themselves without financial support in the final stages of their doctoral programme. Some sources of funding do, however, include provision for a limited amount of funding to cover an additional period. You would need to check the detail of your own funding arrangements.

Institutional practice can vary in applying fee charges and in allowing access to institutional resources during any additional periods of registration.

What is the role of my supervisor(s)?

As a doctoral candidate you have the primary responsibility for the direction and progress of your research. Your supervisors act as expert guides and professional mentors as you develop both your research project and yourself as a research practitioner. All institutions have regulations on the role and responsibilities of the supervisors; it would be sensible to familiarise yourself with these and discuss them with your supervisors to ensure a consensus of expectations.

The amount of contact you will have with your supervisors and the nature of that contact is determined in part by institutional regulation and the subject you are studying, but also by negotiation between supervisor and candidate. National consensus on good practice recommends that doctoral candidates have a minimum of one main supervisor but that supervisor will normally be part of a supervisory team. The style and approach of different supervisors will vary.

It is also useful for doctoral candidates to recognise the limitations in their supervisors' role and the value of the wider research community and systems for institutional support of researchers. Subject librarians, experts in information and communication technology, researcher developers, members of academic staff and professionals/practitioners in the field, and other doctoral candidates and early-career researchers are invaluable sources of information, advice and guidance as you progress through your doctoral programme.

Institutions also have formal systems for student support such as an international office, counselling service, provision for students with disabilities, welfare and academic advice service, students' union and finance office. The institutional induction process should make you aware of these and how to access them.

How do I learn how to do research?

Doctoral candidates learn to research primarily through undertaking research under the expert guidance of supervisors, and are supported through training in research skills and methods, which is usually provided by the institution.

Doctoral candidates are expected to develop as professional researchers in the course of their doctoral programme, and institutional support is provided for the development of a wide range of professional transferable skills such as public engagement and communication of research, enterprise and entrepreneurship, teaching, project management, leadership and teamwork skills. How you engage most effectively with this provision will depend on your experience and aspirations, and through discussions with your supervisors around your specific learning and skills needs.

Is the doctorate just about doing research?

Undertaking original research is the most important aspect of a doctoral degree. However, many doctoral candidates also engage in a range of other activities related to their subject disciplines or to the wider institutional or research environment. Such activities and experiences support the personal and professional development of researchers as well as being a formal means of developing as institutional researchers.

The way in which you engage with activities outside your research project will depend on the subject, the programme for which you are registered and personal aspirations.

Activities additional to research might include the following:
  • Extension of subject or technical knowledge through supplementary taught courses, training provision or studying another language.
  • Dissemination of research knowledge through conference and seminar posters and presentations, publication of research in journals or elsewhere, public engagement or knowledge exchange/entrepreneurship activity.
  • Paid or unpaid employment such as teaching or lecturing, professional work experience, internships, time spent in industry or similar.
  • Services to the academic or professional community through acting as a student representative to a university committee, reviewing for a journal, organising seminars, conferences or other events or engaging in student or subject societies or with a professional body.
How will my progress be monitored?

A doctoral candidate's progress is reviewed both informally and formally on a regular basis.

Institutional regulations and programme handbooks will give the detail of how this happens at individual institutions. Review and monitoring processes may involve the submission of written work, documentation of training received or a personal development review and/or a progress interview or oral examination. Usually it will be your supervisor who is responsible for monitoring your day-to-day progress but for formal annual ‘upgrade’ or review an independent assessor or committee may have oversight of the process.

In cases where doctoral candidates are registered initially on a probationary basis or for an MPhil, progress will be monitored through a formal upgrade or confirmation of doctoral status process.

Doctoral candidates may be required to leave the doctoral programme if they do not demonstrate evidence of satisfactory progress.

How is the doctorate assessed?

The monitoring and review processes as outlined above play a part in the assessment of a doctoral candidate. However it is the doctoral examination where all the candidate's achievements and relevant attributes are tested: they will all contribute to the candidate’s success or otherwise.

Doctoral assessment includes a thorough review of the submitted written materials (and artefacts if appropriate), normally followed by a viva voce, or oral examination, which remains a significant feature and the form of summative assessment experienced by most doctoral candidates. The supervisor has no role in the examination of doctoral awards that he/she has supervised.

Viva voce

The viva voce ('viva') or oral examination provides doctoral examiners with the opportunity to probe the candidate on the research he/she has conducted, exploring how the research makes a contribution to knowledge, why specific methods were chosen to conduct the research, whether the data is robust and whether the conclusions derive from the data gathered. The viva process is governed by individual institutional regulations.

The appointment of at least one external examiner is required for each oral doctoral examination.

External examining is a key feature in UK quality assurance in helping to demonstrate the equivalence of academic standards. The external examiner(s) at a doctoral oral examination helps to provide the assurance that the process is appropriate and that the candidate has met the required standard for the award of the doctoral degree.

All institutions have regulations and processes to ensure the doctoral assessment is fair and transparent. Institutions will provide candidates with information and opportunities to prepare for their doctoral examination. It is very important to be aware of your own institution’s guidance.

Following the viva, the candidate may be awarded an outright pass, or asked to make minor revisions to their work. It is also possible to be asked to make major revisions before the submitted materials achieve the appropriate standard. It is possible to fail the doctoral degree, but institutional monitoring processes should in most cases guard against this outcome.

How long is a doctoral thesis?

A doctoral candidate will be examined on the basis of a 'traditional' thesis, a portfolio, artefact(s), clinical practice and/or other output. The body of work presented must demonstrate the research question and a critical evaluation of the extent to which it has been addressed. The amount of written material required will therefore vary. A doctoral thesis is usually between 50,000 and 100,000 words, with variations according to subject discipline, type of project and qualification. In particular for professional and practice-based doctorates, and for the doctorate by published work, the length and arrangement of the final assessment will vary from the more traditional thesis commonly submitted by a PhD candidate. It is important to check the assessment criteria and regulations at the institution at which you are registered.

At most institutions candidates will require special dispensation to submit a doctoral thesis that falls outside the parameters set by the institution for that subject or award.

How am I represented at my institution?

A system of representation for doctoral candidates can often be an indication that the institution is committed to providing the best possible environment in which to study for a research degree.

Students engage in representation systems in order to:

  • inform their institution of issues raised by the student body so that these can be resolved.
  • propose means or initiatives by which the student experience could be improved.
  • ensure that the student voice is heard in discussions of institutional policy and that students are able to influence the decisions of university managers and leaders.

Postgraduate or doctoral representation systems can take any or all of the following forms, as appropriate, and may integrate with social provision for postgraduate students:

  • Departmental representatives on staff-student liaison committees
  • Representation on departmental, graduate school or university committees that have oversight of research degrees.
  • Postgraduate representatives on the students’ union executive committee
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