What is a doctorate?

Postgraduate research can be differentiated from bachelor’s and master’s degrees because it involves creating new knowledge or applying existing knowledge in a new way.
‘An original contribution to knowledge’

In the UK there is usually little or no taught element to a doctorate. A doctoral candidate is typically mentored by one or more academic supervisors. They will usually also be assigned additional mentors and benefit from research and transferable skills training provided by their university or by their funder.

To gain a doctoral degree it's necessary to:

  • Acquire and understand a substantial body of knowledge at the forefront of their discipline or area of professional practice
  • Conceptualise, design and implement a project to generate new knowledge or understanding
  • Create or interpret new knowledge - usually through original research or possibly through other advanced scholarship of a quality that extends the forefront of their discipline. Work produced for a doctorate would often merit publication
  • Build a thorough understanding of techniques for research and advanced academic enquiry.

Some thoughts from contributors to our researcher career stories section:

The confidence that [a doctorate] brings and that sense of validation that comes with having achieved that feeds into how I now approach things... I feel I have the right to say and do things if you like [and] the opportunity to work at university level. Alison James, Head of learning and teaching at the London College of Fashion

My doctorate was excellent at ensuring I developed the skills of independent thought, to design my own experiments and dictate the way my research went. I would say that I haven’t drawn directly on the science, but I appreciate the ways in which science can meander and am good at seeing early opportunities. Andy Sutton has been involved in a few business start-ups and feels it is not something you ever lose the appetite for!

I really loved research, it's a fabulous thing to do, to sort of have three years to really focus in on something it's a bit of a luxury to be honest. Cara Owens is now training as a medic

The advantages of doing a practise-based PhD means that I've been forced to produce a portfolio of work which is excellent in quality and production and that is my calling card now...My PhD's given me a network, it's given me a lot of support and a lot of direction...a university is an incredible resource. You can use it to your advantage and it could be a really exciting place to be….. it makes you a much more well-rounded professional. Suzanne Parry is a composer and doing a PhD at the University of Edinburgh

Find more about the qualifications needed to undertake a doctoral programme in How to apply and find funding.


All doctoral programmes offered by UK HE institutions have to align with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Quality Code for Higher Education, Chapter B11 Research Degrees . Each institution will translate these into its own code of practice for research degrees, but the requirements for training and expectations in terms of successful achievement of a doctoral qualification are similar across all UK doctoral degrees and institutions.