Common types of doctoral programme in the UK

There are different ways to undertake a UK doctoral degree that reflect the needs of the individual researcher and the traditions of different disciplines and professions.

UK doctoral candidates are registered as students. Many undertake their doctoral work on a full-time basis based at a university, but many others do their research part-time alongside full-time or part-time work or are based elsewhere e.g. in a research institute or private company.

For individuals, a major choice is whether to undertake a doctorate on a full-time or part-time basis.

Nine researchers who've undertaken a part-time doctorate in the UK reflect on their experiences in our series of films. Most chose the part-time route due to financial, family and work commitments.

There are two main types of doctorate:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD or DPhil) is the most common and familiar form of doctoral qualification. It's undertaken while registered at a higher education institution and assessed through a thesis or portfolio based on the extended research conducted. An increasing proportion of PhDs are through structured doctoral training programmes and/or involve collaboration with business or other organisations
  • Professional or practice-based doctorates (EdD, DBA, DSocSci, DProf, etc) may be the choice of mid-career professionals as continuing professional development or as a means to alter their professional trajectory. They may also be undertaken earlier in a career as a means of gaining specific skills. These programmes are normally located in the work environment of a doctoral candidate’s profession or related to their area of practice; for example, they are often undertaken by artists, musicians and health professionals. Sometimes linked to a licence to practice, they are often designed to meet the needs of that profession. They normally include a structured period of initial research training and the assessed outputs may include practice-based materials, as well as a written commentary or thesis.

Usually the period of study for a UK doctoral degree is 3-4 years full-time or 6-8 years part-time. Some programmes can be undertaken as ‘distance learning’ (i.e. at the candidate’s location rather than the awarding institution). Learn more about what it is like to do a doctorate.

It is also possible to undertake a masters in research. The most common qualifications are:

  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil). Usually a two year (full-time) degree, some institutions initially register their doctoral candidates for this degree and undertake a formal upgrade to the doctorate after 12-18 months
  • Research Masters (MRes). This is specifically designed as a course to prepare students for doctoral research.