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How to apply for a PhD in the UK

Applying for a PhD is not quite as daunting as you might think. A postgraduate student recruitment officer from the University of Sussex shares his tips for putting together a PhD application

Ben Osborne's avatar

Ben Osborne

Postgraduate student recruitment manager at the University of Sussex
January 18 2022
Pad of paper with PhD written on


There are many different reasons for wanting to pursue a PhD – to move into an academic role at a university, to continue studying a subject you are passionate about or to further your career. 

Whatever your motivation, many students are now choosing to pursue a PhD abroad. This guide will help you understand how to apply for a PhD at a UK university and answer any questions you might have around doing PhDs.

How to apply for a PhD

Application rules and methods vary for each university. The number of courses that you can apply for in a year will vary. For example, at the University of Sussex, you can apply for up to three postgraduate courses per year using the postgraduate application system.

If you are applying for more than one degree, you must submit a research proposal/statement specific to each area of study you apply for.

You can also apply to different universities to improve your chances of being accepted to a PhD course of your choosing. 

What qualifications do I need?

Each PhD will have specific entry requirements and you will also need to meet a university’s general entry requirements.  This may be an upper second-class undergraduate honours degree (2:1) or an equivalent international qualification. For some PhDs you may need a master’s qualification, and you may be asked to attend an interview.

International students may also be required to prove language proficiency. This will vary across institutions so do check what level universities expect before starting your application. 

Applicants should always check the specific entry requirements in a university’s online prospectus before making an application.

When should I start applying?

This will depend on when your term start date is. Most research degrees will start in September but some courses offer additional entry points in January or May.

You can apply all year round for research degrees starting in September, January and May, and the deadlines for applying are usually one month before the course start date for UK applicants, and three months before for international applicants.

If you’re applying for funding from an external organisation you’ll need to be aware that they may have different deadlines for the funding application. So give yourself plenty of time to research your funding options, and ensure you know how long the application process takes. 

Many universities offer a number of funded PhD opportunities and PhD scholarships for UK and international students, and it’s always worth investigating funding routes such as research councils and other organisations, both in the UK and overseas.

In some cases, it may be possible to study a PhD by distance which means you’ll be able to learn online and have virtual meetings with your supervisor.

If this is something you would be interested in doing you should check before applying whether your university can accommodate this option. 

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How should I look for a supervisor?

Usually if you are applying for a funded project, or to a research centre or group, you will normally be asked to provide a statement explaining your suitability for working in that area, and if successful you will be allocated a supervisor.

If you wish to propose your own area of research, you need to decide on a research topic, and you will be expected to write a research proposal. In some cases you may only be required to provide a summary of academic interests and this can be used to match you to a researcher that suits you.

If you are proposing your own research topic, there may be a research database at your university that you can search, or your university will match you with a supervisor during the assessment of your application. It may be possible to request supervision by a particular member of faculty – this will be considered but not all requests can be accommodated.

If you do find a potential supervisor who matches your research area, check their online profile for indications of their doctoral supervision capacity. If they are open to doctoral applications, you can contact them directly to check their availability for supervising you.

It is a good idea to draw up a shortlist of two to three potential supervisors, and take an in-depth look into their research history. You can also find out more about your potential supervisors by looking in the reference sections of academic textbooks and searching for articles in research databases and academic blogs.

When you contact your potential supervisor, it is important to tell them something interesting about yourself, and explain your research interests and how you feel your research proposal matches their expertise.

How do I write a research proposal?

If you are proposing your own research you will need to write a strong proposal that formulates a precise, interesting research question, and establishes the relevance and value of the proposed research question in the context of current academic thinking.

You’ll need to make sure your proposal describes the data or source material your research requires, and outlines a clear and practical methodology that enables you to answer the research question and that states clearly what you hope to discover at the end of your research, and what new areas it might open up.

The precise content and structure of your research proposal will depend on your subject area, and the University of Sussex has some helpful resources on our website to guide you through the process.

How long does the application process take?

Completing an application and writing a research proposal may take some time and should not be left until just before the application deadline.

It’s not easy to give a definite idea of how long it takes to hear if your application has been successful, as it will depend on when the application is made and the nature of the specific PhD, and you would need to meet any conditions contained within the offer before you can start the PhD.

What are the associated costs?

There won’t typically be an application fee for PhDs but there are tuition fees. If a university does charge application fees they will usually be between £50-£100.

The tuition fees for students studying in the UK are set by UK Research and Innovation. Fees for international students are £18,975 for non-lab-based subjects, and £22,975 for lab-based subjects per year.

You’ll also need to factor in living costs, but there are a number of funding routes you can apply for to help with this. As well as PhD scholarships and funded research projects there are research council awards, PhD loans for those eligible, and various organisations to which international students can apply for funding, such as The Gen Foundation and Open Society Foundations.

It’s important to be aware of the costs involved, but it’s also worth remembering that the educational, career and personal benefits of PhD study can be worth it.

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