The UK doctoral research experience

UK researchers are widely regarded as world-leading and increasing numbers of national and international organisations seek opportunities to work with them.

Although the UK has about 4% of the world’s researchers, they are responsible for nearly 12% of citations and 16% of the most highly cited research (International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base report, 2013). So the UK punches above its weight in terms of research quality and output. But what makes the UK research experience unique?

The UK has a long and rich history in education and of producing rigorous research. The pedagogy and educational culture in UK higher education encourages free and independent thinking, challenging of existing theories and testing new ones. There is also some attraction in the relatively shorter length of UK doctoral programmes than in many other countries, particularly when compared to US doctoral degrees.

The completion rate is also high in the UK, where institutions have limited registration periods (unlike in the US where there is no limit on registration time for a PhD). Around 75% of full-time doctorates are submitted within seven years in the UK, which is rising, and about 80% of those funded by the UK Research Councils submit within four years. On the other hand, it is exceptional in the US to complete in four years or less (11% of full-time complete in four years, and over one in four formally give up within this time).

These positive aspects result in UK universities being able to attract large numbers of doctoral researchers from around the world, to add to their already highly international taught masters student cohorts. This means that the UK’s postgraduate population is possibly uniquely cosmopolitan, which can have real benefits in developing a global outlook.

The UK’s world-class research base has been achieved through continued development of the people within it. There is a strong dedication from government, universities and research institutes to skills development for the UK research workforce with most universities provide a programme of development for researchers that is informed by the Vitae Researcher Development Framework. The UK’s support for researchers' professional development is world-leading.