Doctoral Education in the United Kingdom


Before the Ph.D.

British undergraduate (bachelor's) degrees are usually of 3 or 4 years duration. It is also possible to undertake a 4-year enhanced undergraduate degree giving a master's level qualification (Mchem, etc), although this is distinctively different in nature to a postgraduate master's level qualification. A number of UK institutions encourage students, particularly in science and engineering, to undertake a year of industrial experience during their undergraduate degree course.

Undergraduate students in England pay fees of £1100 (?1500) per year--this system is not adopted in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland where there are devolved structures. In addition, there is no government support for living expenses within England, and students often have to take out large loans to support themselves. Scotland and Wales, however, have re-introduced grants. At present, the average undergraduate debt for students beginning a PhD following their degree is around £15,000 (?20,500). This could rise to £21,000 (?29,000) under current government proposals.

Although it is possible to embark on a PhD with a good bachelor's or undergraduate master's degree, increasingly students may be encouraged to undertake a postgraduate taught course first. This would normally be the case if they had not found the bachelor's degree to be sufficiently specialised in their chosen subject area. These master's level courses generally take 1 year. There is a wide range of choice in postgraduate education at present.

The PhD

Actual figures are not available for the number of doctoral students in the UK. However, there are a total of 469,850 postgraduates,1 undertaking both taught and research degrees. In 2001/02 14,210 doctorates were completed, and based on these figures it is estimated that around 100,000 of the half-million or so postgraduate students are pursuing PhDs. Of the 14,210 doctorates in 2001/02, 35% were awarded to overseas domiciled students; there is no indication of how many of these were from the EU.

It is normally expected that a full-time doctoral qualification will take 3 years, and most funding bodies provide support for 3 years. However it is rarely the case that PhD students complete in this time.

There are other doctorates widely available now in the UK, and these have different durations allocated to them. Professional doctorates (e.g., EngD, PhysD, and ChemD) are normally allocated 4 to 5 years where professional experience will assist completion. Finally there is the recently established New Route PhD, where there are taught modules, largely undertaken in the first year. This form of PhD is expected to be completed within 4 years.

In January 1999, the Quality Assurance Agency (a UK body which sets standards in higher education) introduced a code of practice for research degree programmes. This has since been implemented in many institutions across the country, and significant efforts are being made to surpass these standards in many places.


About 40% of those studying for a PhD in the UK are funded by one of the six Research Councils, each of which is responsible for funding research in a different area of natural or social science. Other major sources of funding include the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the Wellcome Trust and other biomedical research charities, the British Council, and the European Commission.

For Research Council-funded science and engineering students, the annual stipend is around £8500 (?13,500). Although still well below the average graduate post-tax salary, this is generous compared to the amount of money PhD students who are forced to find their own funding or who are funded by university scholarships have to live on. As a rule, these latter only just cover essential living expenses. The funds in science and engineering are slightly higher than for arts students from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which is £8000 pa.

EU students are eligible for Research Council funding, but to cover their fees only. Overseas students, who pay significantly higher fees, are not eligible even for this level of support and need to find funding either from their own country or from the UK's Overseas Research Scholarship Awards Scheme. Such scholarships are subject to tough competition.

Completion and Post-PhD Life

The percentage of students not completing is unknown. Although most doctoral students receive funding for 3 years, the average time taken to complete a PhD is around 3 years and 8 months.2 The average starting and finishing ages are also unknown but they are likely to be in the region of age 24 (starting) through to 28 (finishing).

By estimation, only about 10% of PhDs will ultimately end up with a permanent post in academia. There are no clear statistics available on the first destinations of PhD graduates. The percentage of students continuing into academia is therefore unknown, although small.

It is also unknown what percentage of students move abroad after completing their PhD, or experience mobility during their studies.


  • The Higher Education Statistics Agency

  • R. Millichope, HESA, "Doctorates awarded from United Kingdom higher education institutions," Statistics Focus, Vol 3, Issue 2

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