A doctoral degree is the highest academic qualifications that an institution can award and they typically take four years to complete full-time and six to eight years part-time. You'll be examined based on a thesis, portfolio, artefact(s), clinical practice or other outputs which demonstrate your research question, critically evaluate the extent to which it has been addressed, and make an original contribution to knowledge, and a doctoral qualification is awarded if you rearch or exceed the required level of achievement. Doctorates are awarded by universities and other research institutes.

Doctorates revolve around creating knowledge through the practice of independent research and self-directed scholarship, and this creation of new knowledge or of applying existing knowledge in a new way is not expected in the same way at undergraduate or taught postgraduate level. You'll be guided by one or more supervisors in an institutional, professional or subject-based research community. 

There are many options available to doctoral graduates, as the doctorate fulfils a wide range of purposes. In this way, doctoral qualifications awarded in the UK include the PhD, the professional doctorate, the practice-based doctorate and the doctorate by publication.

All doctoral degrees prepare the candidate to make a contribution to knowledge through original and independent research. However, the context in which you undertake you research may vary between the different qualifications available, as well as the way the programme is structured. 

There is no national application scheme for doctoral degrees and typically you can apply directly to the institution(s) of your choice. Every institution sets its own requirements for entry and application, which may differ somewhat across subjects, and these are clearly published on institutional websites. Some institutions accept doctoral applications all year round, while others have application deadlines linked to specific start dates, typically October, January and April.

You'll often have to find their own fees and maintenance funding, and demonstrate evidence of adequate funding before taking up your place. However, some institutions can award doctoral funding. In particular, some subjects may have a bursary or finance system integrated within the application process; if this is the case specific deadlines usually apply. Some institutions will advertise for a doctoral candidate to be attached to a specific project or to undertake relatively specific research within that project, and this is likely to have fees and maintenance funding attached. 

You'll be asked to support your application through:

  • a research project outline or statement of intent
  • evidence of ability to be able to undertake independent research
  • degree transcripts
  • academic or professional references
  • writing samples or a portfolio of creative work 

It's also likely that you'll be asked to attend an interview. You'll also have to hold the minimum of a Bachelor's degree, while some universities might also ask for a Master's degree. 

Some institutions offer a combined Master's and doctoral award (sometimes known as the '1+3' model) that enables you to undertake a master's degree and, subsequent to satisfactory progress, enter directly into doctoral research at the same institution. You may be able to study part-time or via distance learning, however not all universities will allow for this, so research the universities of your choice if you want to carry on working at the same time.