The Basics of Studying for a PhD

For those who are curious to know about the basics of studying for a PhD, we take a look at what the highest level of education is all about. The purpose of a PhD programme is to allow students to acquire expertise and knowledge on a specific subject. This can be obtained through research, teaching, direct learning or by training on the job. It is the highest degree level that a student can obtain and it allows a student to conduct research independently which is significant to a specific field. It is from this research that they will publish a dissertation between 60,000, and 90,000 words. Universities like Cambridge have their thesis word count set at 80,000. A dissertation is normally assessed on its originality in terms of its argument and what it is setting out to prove. 

It usually takes a PhD student studying on a full-time basis between 3 and 4 years while for part-time students it can take between 6 and 7 years to complete. The deadline for the dissertation can be extended by anything up to 4 years at the university’s discretion.     

It is imperative that anyone thinking about embarking on this journey must go in with their eyes open. It takes time, money and dedication to be successful so if you are considering a PhD the basics are outlined for you below.

  • Reasons to do a Doctoral Program

There are several reasons why studying for a PhD might prove an attractive proposition for you:

  • A PhD can allow you to explore an area you enjoy in great depth. You might even make a great discovery in this area and contribute something new to human knowledge. Keen interest in your subject will be important seeing as you will be spending a lot of time on that area


  • Gaining a PhD may give you crucial transferable skills that would be highly valuable in your future career. Some of these transferable skills include public speaking, written communication, research, data analysis, editing skills, time management, critical thinking, leadership and project management.  


  • It offers you the opportunity to educate and shape the minds of future generations or even society in general. Many people who gain a PhD often have a desire to educate others through the process.


  • Although it can be a lonely pursuit, a PhD can provide opportunities for you to get out there and share your knowledge with the world. Depending on what type of PhD you study, you may get the opportunity to study as part of a team or collaborate with colleagues.  Also, if you enjoy travelling around the world and meeting new people or giving public talks conveying your ideas and knowledge, a PhD can provide you with those opportunities. 


What do you want to study?

When you apply for a PhD you must have a thesis in mind and this must be approved by your potential supervisor. How can you contribute to this field? What is the subject that you a) want to be an expert in and b) can maintain a sustained interest in? You should know exactly what you want to do on the PhD programme of your choice but you can always change track once you start your educational journey. In fact, it is not necessary to be fully knowledgeable on the topic you choose from the outset.

Handling the financial issues

It is a big commitment financially to pursue a doctoral degree. Studying a PhD in most UK Universities can cost between £3,000 and £6,000 in tuition fees. Despite this, most PhDs are partly or fully funded. Scholarships, and bursaries are accessible. Students would be advised to pay attention to the European Social Fund and the Research Council Grants. PhD studentships and assistantships involving a combination of research and teaching are also common. Scientific studentships also usually get paid at a higher rate. The initial costs associated with a PhD can be high. However, future earning potential can outweigh these costs in the long term regarding both academia and many private-sector STEM roles.   

Application Process: Getting Ready

If you wish to undertake a PhD program then you must think about the process you need to go through to apply. Some students propose their own research and then request funding. In other cases, a supervisor may already have funding for a project and advertise it like a job. Usually when applying for a PhD you will need to submit the following: 

  • An academic CV
  • Academic transcripts
  • 2 or 3 academic references
  • Personal Statement
  • Research Proposal

Students from outside the EU studying courses such as Mathematics, Medicine, Engineering and material sciences are required to comply with the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS). This entails undergoing a security clearance process with the Foreign Office. International students (within the EU) will also have to ensure their proficiency in the English Language. 

What’s Next? 

The job opportunities that exist outside of academia are plentiful for those who have completed a PhD. The most common jobs that exist for PhD graduates are:

  • Clinical psychologists 
  • Biochemists and medical scientists
  • Teaching professionals in higher education 
  • University researchers/lecturers
  • Medical practitioners 

A job in academia may be the natural step for a PhD graduate. However, a greater number of opportunities exist outside of the teaching and education sector. PhD graduates can struggle to get into academic jobs straight away. The best advice would be to contact as many academics as possible that you have had dealings with. You may then get the opportunity to become a research fellow. 

There are opportunities to get non-academic jobs. It might be important to:

  • Build a network of contacts to help you unearth job vacancies
  • Gain relevant work experience in your chosen field
  • Use social media to join in discussions with like-minded academics, share your ideas and research

It might also be wise to check certain career websites for job adverts: 

  • Nature Careers
  • New Scientist jobs
  • LinkedIn
  • The Economist
  • The Psychologist 

There are also several skills that you must show to your employers if you are applying for non-academic jobs: 

  • Communication Skills: Show this through presentations or lectures you may have given as an academic
  • Creative Thinking: PhD students are often asked to think outside the box
  • Management Skills: You must be able to manage your own time and workload, you could have managed a team of research assistants for instance or tutored undergraduates
  • Problem-Solving: During your time as a PhD academic you might have encountered and solved numerous research problems. provides information about postgraduate courses and study in the UK. We list thousands of postgraduate courses from universities and colleges in the UK so you can search for the course of your choice.

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