What is it like doing doctoral research in the UK?

Generalising about the experience of studying a doctoral degree is dangerous because it is very individual. The experience will vary with your type of programme, your institution and subject area and also your personal circumstances.

The type of programme can make a big difference. Growth in structured doctoral training centres and partnerships means there is a trend towards more of a ‘cohort approach’ which encourages collegiality between doctoral researchers and cross-faculty working. Interdisciplinary working and international collaborations are on the increase and being encouraged. Collaborative doctoral training, as its name suggests, also involves and encourages positive collaboration with one or more businesses or other external organisations. On the other hand, the experience of doing a professional doctorate within your established workplace could be very different.

There can also be significant variations in the research experience depending on your subject of study and institution. In some areas, such as engineering or physical science, you may be working more collaboratively in teams with other researchers, and often spend time together in a lab, whereas a higher proportion of researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences may find they work more independently, drawing on the expertise of others as and when the need arises.

The people who are studying at doctoral level will tend to be an international bunch. The UK’s doctoral programmes are highly regarded worldwide, so a lot of people come from overseas to study here. The cosmopolitan make-up of your colleagues will be highly valuable in itself, developing understanding of how to get on with people from other countries, cultures and backgrounds. This is likely to be a benefit in many forms of future employment.

Personal circumstances will also dictate the experience. A doctoral candidate in their early or mid 20s who has carried straight on from an undergraduate or masters degree may well have different expectations (academically and socially) from a mid-career professional who is studying part-time while also holding down their job, looking after children and paying a mortgage.