6 Reasons that a UK Doctorate is hard for international applicants

In a nutshell, if you are an international PhD applicant and want to get a PhD in the UK you must understand that it is a tedious journey. Overall, these are the major reasons why getting a doctorate from top UK universities is hard for an international student.

  1. From the start, you need to be ready for the long and tedious process of preparing all the components of an application worthy of applying for a fully funded UK PhD.
  2. Secondly, you need to get accepted for a PhD position which depends on various factors from your potential to be a researcher to the availability of funding.
  3. Third, if you are not the most outstanding PhD applicant you may need to look for external funding sources for your PhD.
  4. Lastly, you need to survive through a highly competitive environment of UK academic training. This is because there are a lot of things you need to do right to get some precarious post-doc contract after graduating from your PhD.

Table of Contents

MeritDoctoral funding is allocated on the basis of PhD candidate’s research potential.Only half (48%) agreed
FundingImportance of funding for UK PhD supervisors32% valued
HiringPhD hiring procedure is a good predictor of candidate’s potential to become a future researcheronly 36% agreed
Previous DiplomaValue a relevant masters degree 29% valued
Research AlignmentPhD project proposal alignment with PhD supervisor’s own research60% prioritized
Research ProposalQuality of candidate’s research proposal70% prioritized
UK PhD supervisor’s opinions on PhD applicants selection-UK Research Supervision Survey

Is it easier to get a PhD in the UK? Getting a PhD in the UK is not easy. The hardest part for an international student is to get in. To get accepted you need to acquire funding first. This is because the PhD scholarships offered by UK universities are brutally competitive. Once you have secured the funding you really have ensured your ability to get into the PhD program.

After getting in you need good planning and management of time. This is because most funding packages run out after 3 or 4 years. In most fields, if you want to proceed further in academia then you might need to work harder than anyone else around you.

Despite myths getting a PhD does not require you to be extraordinarily intelligent. In fact, it requires your ability to go through the grind, to multi-task with several research projects. Most important of all, it requires your determination.

But there is a catch are you really determined to get a PhD worthy of starting an academic career or you are getting a PhD just for the sake of a degree? You must have a clear answer to this question.

 “… remember that there is a reason for doing something so difficult,”

Andrew Clements, Senior Lecturer, University of Bedfordshire, UK

So how hard is it to get a doctorate from top universities in UK? Let’s dive deep into the things that make a UK PhD hard to get for an international applicant.

1. Preparing the PhD application is really hard

Believe it or not, if you are thinking about applying for a PhD in the UK, you should think again. UK professors expect a polished application from you. This is because in the UK you are expected to hit the ground running for your PhD.

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First, you need to meet at least the minimum requirements for a UK PhD application.

However, as an international applicant, you might need to go an extra mile and do something that may not be written on the minimum eligibility requirement document for your PhD admission. Some of them are

  1. Emails to the professors. Before even applying for a UK PhD. you are expected to contact the prospective UK PhD supervisor and convince him/ her that you are the best student. Carefully drafting these customizable emails for each professor who interests you is tedious. Overall, it takes time to convince the professors via email that you are the best student for his/ her research team.
  2. Research Proposal. If you think you can pull off a UK PhD research proposal overnight then my sympathies are with you. Drafting a PhD proposal that is unique, has the potential to contribute to the field, and is able to convince the professor really takes your sweat, tears, and time as well.
  3. Personal Essay. Here you are required to stand out from the other applicants by showing your personal character and interest. Though it may sound strange, polishing this statement also takes time.
  4. Reference Letters. You need to remember that as an international applicant your university and professors may not be not well known to UK professors. This means you need to prove a lot. From outstanding grades to an outstanding research proposal.

2. Getting accepted is really hard

The competition to get a world-class education is increasing every year. Competition for research opportunities and scholarships, in particular, is fiercer than ever.

The level of competition for places postgraduate courses can vary significantly from one program to another. However, these common impediments can make your acceptance for a UK doctorate hard.

  1. Biasness towards underrepresented groups. Academia is still struggling to be multicultural.UK professors themselves have noted that academic hiring is still biased towards underrepresented groups. So, if you are from an underrepresented group you might face difficulties overcoming the prejudices and biases these professors hold.
  2. The privilege of the previous institution. Even though professors usually deny that. If you are not from a well-known institution then good luck competing for DTP (doctoral training scholarships).
  3. The uniqueness of your PhD project. Even if you have shining academic credentials and are from a well-known institution, you still are expected to come up with a unique project proposal for the PhD. Ultimately it is the hiring committee that decides if a PhD project is unique or not.

To get into a programme is HARD, especially those fully-funded positions are even tougher. If you are an international student, brace yourself for an even harder competition because the number of positions is even smaller.

A research fellow in cell biology, London

3. Getting funding is really hard

Unlike, the US, UK PhD supervisors cannot fund their PhD students from their own grants. A PhD in the UK for an international PhD student may not possible without funding. Funding is a big issue in academia and everybody prefers those who bring some survival package of their own.

To give you a view, the UK PhD supervisors often struggle with the DTP and PhD training programs. This happens because professors might have to accept students who may not be a good fit for their research group goals. However, these privileged candidates come with funding.

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If you are an international student you basically have these main options to fund your PhD in the UK.

  1. Prestigious scholarships in the UK. Apply for an elite PhD scholarship program. If you are the best of the best and lucky as well you will get accepted for these fully funded PhD scholarships in the UK.
  2. External Funding. Believe it or not, for a UK PhD, the easiest way to secure external funding is from your home country. If you are coming with funding then the whole process of getting accepted to a PhD program gets easier.
  3. Industry Funding. If you are doing research in subjects that are in demand in the industry e.g., STEM or information technology then you may look for some PhD funding opportunities offered by the industry.
  4. University funding. Universities funded by UKRI (UK research & innovation) also offer DTP (doctoral training programs) which international PhD students. However, these PhD positions and studentships are really competitive for international students.

4. Living through PhD stipend may be hard

Whether a UK PhD stipend is enough for you or not is the question that hits every international PhD applicant. However, there are some things that you need to be aware of

  1. UK PhD student is not an employee of the university. In contrast to many other European nations, a UK PhD student is considered as a student. This means you are deemed as a consumer of education and not a producer of knowledge that can serve society. This student status leads to low pay PhD stipends as compared to salaries offered to PhD researchers in many other parts of Europe.
  2. The inflation is higher than PhD stipend increments. Even if you manage to get full funding (PhD fee+ monthly stipend to live by), there is enough evidence that PhD funding in the UK is not enough for PhD students to live without any concerns. In the past situation was considered less acute and many considered the PhD stipend to be enough to live by during your PhD years. However, due to the high inflation rate and comparatively low rise of the UK PhD stipend things are not as rosy as they might sound if you are converting the UK PhD stipend to your own currency.

5. Striving for an academic career is hard

If you get into a PhD position in the UK, you are much more likely to survive 3-4 years of grind. This is because you have dedicated yourself to one thing all these years.

Explore More: Mental health crisis among doctoral researchers

However, if you want an academic career after your PhD then you are going to get crushed and hurried by the timeline of a UK PhD.

  1. Limited time live to develop yourself as an appealing researcher for the academic market. The 4 year time is quite limited if you want to accomplish something in your PhD, especially things that matter most for your post-PhD academic career e.g., publications. So make sure you are ready to jump from one project to another and build something faster than your peers. This is because everybody in academia is working very hard to get ahead. It means you may need to give pause to many other things in life.
  2. Some research areas have better prospects post-PhD than others. If you are in some demanding areas of STEM you are more likely to get a good post-PhD position to work in academia. However, if you are like me and study social science or humanities then you should seriously consider your post-PhD career options in the UK or elsewhere.
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6. Considering Industry: The real cost of PhD is hard

Although there are benefits to doing PhD in the UK for the post-PhD industry career.

As I mentioned above if you are determined to make your career in academia then the UK PhD is a double-edged sowed. The shorter PhD may mean you may be expected to run for further low-paying and precarious contracts.

On the other hand, if you want to go to industry. A UK PhD may sound more tempting than a US PhD. Given the 4 year period, you can jump to an industry career sooner, and considering the UK immigration policies for now you have the opportunities to settle in the UK.

However, you need to still consider that

  1. You are sacrificing these PhD years for low pay and no credit for industry experience.
  2. Most industry jobs do not require a PhD but they do give more value to some work experience.
  3. Although many employers now need highly skilled workers, many are still skeptical/ biased toward PhD graduates.

So my advice is to consider all the pros and cons of time invested and industry conditions for your subject area before doing a PhD, even for industry.

Explore More: Why did I make the transition from industry to a PhD? 

FAQs: How hard is it to get a doctorate from top universities in UK?

Is it difficult to get a PhD in the UK?

Getting a PhD in the UK is not easy. The hardest part for an international student is to get in. To get accepted you need to acquire funding first. This is because the PhD scholarships offered by UK universities are brutally competitive. Once you have secured the funding you really have ensured your ability to get into the PhD program.

Is it hard to get a funded PhD in the UK?

As an international student, it is really hard to get your PhD funded in the UK. This is because competition is rising every year from around the world for top UK universities. This means you need to provide a much more attractive application for PhD than normally written on UK university website.

How competitive are PhD programs in the UK?

PhD programs in the UK are some of the most competitive in the world. These programs are extremely selective, with a very low acceptance rate as compared to the number of applications received. Availability of funding, PhD applicant and supervisor fit, and overall fitness of the candidate for the Doctoral Training Institution are major factors that play a role in acceptance.

Do you need a Master’s to get a PhD in the UK?

More and more UK universities are offering integrated PhD programs. This means you are eligible to apply for these PhD programs with bachelor’s only. However, considering the fierce competition for UK PhD positions you may need a master’s or more preferably a master’s by research to get ahead of other candidates. Master not only helps with an extended research project under your belt but also a better understanding of what academic research really is.

Do all PhD students get a stipend in the UK?

Not all students get a stipend in the UK. If you are full-funded and your sponsorship documents show that you will be provided a stipend for 3-4 years of your fully funded PhD then you can be assured that you will get a PhD stipend in the UK.