What are the requirements for PhD in UK? A guide

Here are the minimum requirements you need to provide while applying for a PhD in the UK as an international PhD student

  1. A 2:1 grade or an equivalent grade in your previous degree. Most likely the Master’s degree as well as your undergraduate diploma.
  2. A minimum of 7 Band score on IELTS or equivalent on other tests.
  3. Some research understanding.
  4. A persuasive research proposal.

However, I found that these minimum requirements are just a benchmark, considering the competition in the UK and you as an international PhD student you may need to stand out from the crowd on many of these attributes of your application.

What are the requirements for a PhD in UK for international students?

QualificationMinimum RequirementsRecommended Requirements
Bachelor’s (4 year)Upper Second Class Honours (60-70%) Bachelor’s degree (or its international equivalent)First-Class Honours (70% and above) Bachelor’s degree (or its international equivalent)
Master’s 2 yearsMerit: A final grade of 60-69% (or its international equivalent)Distinction: A final grade of 70% or higher
English Language ProficiencyIELTS 6.5 or equivalent in other proficiency testsIELTS 7.5 or equivalent in other proficiency tests
The minimum requirements are the entry requirements what an average UK university demand to consider you eligible for a PhD program.

However, recommended requirements are those which top universities, Doctoral Training programs and PhD funding look for in an international PhD student.

Table of Contents

1. What qualifications do you need for a PhD in the UK?

Yes, you can apply to an integrated PhD program in the UK with only a bachelor’s degree. However, considering the competition and high expectations of PhD programs. If you are an international student you most likely need a master’s or a master’s by research to get into a PhD in the UK.

The qualifications for a PhD might differ depending on what kind of PhD you are applying for

  1. PhD by thesis. A PhD with funding attached for 3 years requires you to produce an original thesis under the supervision of a supervisor. This type of PhD is most common in the UK.
  2. Integrated PhD. Recently, more and more universities are offering this type of PhD under the funding of UKRI (UK research and innovation) to offer an integrated PhD. This type of PhD is offered as a standard 4 years expected graduation format with a master by research at the start.

a) Do You Need A Masters To Get A PhD UK?

Yes, you need a master’s with a research component to secure a PhD position in the UK. A regular PhD with 3-4 years of funding limit requires your familiarity with the research in your subject area.

A master’s in a relevant field with a research-heavy focus can help you stand out in competitive PhD hiring in the UK. On the other hand, if you are applying for an integrated Master + PhD program you can apply with a bachelor’s only.

b) What is an integrated PhD program in the UK?

An integrated PhD program accepts PhD applicants with only undergraduate degrees. It usually requires you to complete a one-year master’s by research before PhD training. 

If you show your potential in that year or training period with higher grades and superior research abilities then you are promoted to the PhD by thesis part of the program.

A master’s by research period may or may not be funded. However, it is a good option if you want to test the waters that a PhD and a research path are really what you want for your career.

c) What if I have different qualifications?

If you have other qualifications such as Postgraduate diplomas (PGDip) and certificates (PGCert) or any other postgraduate qualification which may not have a research training component then you may need to apply for a research master’s or an integrated PhD program. 

The reason is UK PhD supervisors are really in for anybody who has some research training and experience. This makes their work easier because, in contrast to the US, you are expected to start working on your PhD project right from the first day.

d) What if I have a Master’s with a research component but in a different field?

If you already have a master’s by research or an MS/ MPhil degree. This may mean you are already familiar with research work. There are two possibilities from here

  1. Relevant Master. If your Master’s by research subject area is related to your prospective PhD subject area. This means you are much more likely to get accepted into a PhD program in the UK based on your current master’s qualification.
  2. A master’s is not very relevant. If your Master’s is not much relevant to the intended PhD subject area then you may need to discuss this with your prospective PhD supervisor. This is because the situation may vary on a case-by-case basis. Usually in such a case you are advised to pursue other relevant masters in the intended subject area.

e) What Master’s grades are good enough for a PhD in the UK?

The minimum requirements for a UK PhD by thesis (3-year PhD) vary depending on your intended university and the country where you achieved your most recent qualification. 

The reasons behind these differences are different grading schemes and degree requirements in different countries. However, as a general mark, your grades in masters should be higher than distinction: A final grade of 70% or higher.

Here you can get a general idea about country-specific information on Master / postgraduate grades required for a UK PhD by thesis program.

f) What undergraduate grades are good enough for a PhD in the UK?

The minimum requirements for an integrated UK PhD program (1 yr of research master + 3 yrs of PhD research) may vary from one university to another. However, as a general mark, your undergraduate degree (or first degree outside of the UK ) should provide higher scores than a UK upper second-class (2:1), higher than 70% marks, or a GPA of 3.5 on a scale of 4.

Recommended Read: This detailed guide on international degree equivalences by Royal Holloway, University of London is the best if you really want to know what your GPA is equivalent to and how top universities in the UK will likely perceive your grades.

g) Will a good master’s degree GPA compensate for a bad undergraduate GPA?

A first-class master’s CGPA can overcome an average undergraduate CGPA. This is because PhD hiring committees always prefer your master’s performance over previous education. The reasons for giving more weightage to master’s grades are obvious. 

  1. Master’s taught courses are much similar to what is needed for a PhD.
  2. A master by research had already evaluated your research skills and understanding.
  3. You already worked under a thesis supervisor while doing a Master’s thesis.

When it comes to previous academic performance around 29% of UK PhD supervisors mentioned the importance of a relevant Master’s, while one-fifth (20%) of them also indicated that they value the relevance and grades of an undergraduate degree.

h) Do only grades and GPA matter for a PhD in the UK?

Don’t worry if you have lower grades than demanded by the university program. You won’t be rejected from a PhD in the UK on the basis of a single criterion. In fact, there are several things top UK universities look forward to in your PhD application.

There are many cases where a lower GPA applicant is accepted into a PhD position in the UK due to many other outstanding characteristics such as research ability and experience.

There can also be significant complexity and variability within any national system of higher education which can affect how a particular grade is considered, e.g. differences in grading between institutions.

General guidance on international qualifications-University of Oxford

Recommended Read: When are you too old for a PhD?

i) How can I increase my chances of a PhD acceptance even with lower grades?

If you have lower grades in your previous qualifications and you still think the PhD is really crucial for your career goals you can increase your chances of getting accepted by shining in other areas of your PhD application. These areas can be

  1. Convincing the professors. Professors are humans too you can convince a professor by assuring him that your mission in research matches hers.
  2. Drafting a Unique research proposal. Uniqueness in a research proposal can be easily created by combining the exploration in two fields. This makes your PhD proposal interdisciplinary and more attractive to the researchers who are interested in such an area.
  3. Providing research experience or worthy Publications. Nothing can dwarf your lower GPA like the proof of good peer-reviewed publications.
  4. Customizing your application for every single PhD position.

Explore More: Everything (?) you need to know about the PhD application process in the UK

2. What are the minimum English language requirements for a PhD in the UK?

A PhD in an English language country means you need a strong command of English speaking and writing. If English is not your first language then you are required to give some proof of English proficiency to get into a UK PhD. Overall, you need a 7.0 in IELTS or equivalent in other tests.

There are many tests you can take to provide proof of your English. However, there can be exemptions by universities for international students who got their most recent education in English.

English Language TestRecommended Score for a UK PhD
IELTSOverall= 7.5, no less than 7 in each component
TOEFLOverall= 95, No less than 22 in each component
Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (CAE)Overall= 185, No less than 176 in each component
Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE)Overall= 185, No less than 176 in each component
Pearson (PTE Academic)Overall= 67, No less than 62 in each component
Duolingo English TestOverall= 125, No less than 110 in each component
The minimum required score of an English language test might be lower than what is mentioned here. Considering the high competition, if you have not yet given the English language test, it is better to shoot for these high scores.

Do prospective PhD supervisors consider higher Language test scores while selecting the PhD candidates?

In a recent survey UK PhD supervisors explicitly reported that English language scores are not a priority for them when considering PhD applicants. Only 7% of the UK supervisors mentioned that they look at the English language scores when considering the PhD applicants.

However, you need to keep in mind that you can’t take risks when applying for a PhD in the UK. If you want to increase your chances of getting a PhD in the UK you need to provide the best scores you can. The reason is UK PhD supervisors are not independent in decision-making for hiring PhD candidates.

Universities and Doctoral training programs can have different priorities such as maintaining their institution culture. 64% of institutions reported that they are actively looking for a doctoral candidate alignment with their workplace/institution’s priorities. This might mean hiring those candidates who are proficient in English communication.

Is GRE necessary for pursuing PhD in the UK?

GRE (Graduate record examination) is a test usually required by many integrated PhD programs from top UK universities. You can use GRE to prove your competence and overcome other parts of PhD application. However, it is one factor among many that the UK PhD hiring committee looks into when hiring PhD candidates.

3. How important is a PhD research proposal in the UK PhD Application

The most important requirement in the UK is your PhD proposal.

Your PhD proposal should communicate that

  • you have a clear understanding of what independent research is in your area of study.
  • you have an understanding of the research methods used in your subject area.
  • you have a clear understanding of what has been done before on the problem that you are trying to solve.
  • your research interest is aligned with the UK PhD supervisor and the research lab you are going to join.

What is a unique and persuasive research proposal for my PhD application?

70% of UK PhD supervisors prioritize a well-written research proposal. You should understand that developing a PhD proposal that can move the UK PhD supervisors really takes time and effort.

This is because you are required to present a research proposal that is (a) unique, (b) really has the potential to contribute to the field, (c) and should be aligned with the professor’s own research.

Explore More: 9 Obvious (and Not so Obvious) PhD Proposal Mistakes

Writing your PhD research proposal is the most important of convincing a PhD hiring committee that you know exactly what you are doing.

“Originality for me probably, it has to be something that hasn’t been fully done before so there is really a need for that particular topic”. Arts & Humanities, Russell Group, West Midlands, Late career

A unique and persuasive research proposal is the most common requirement for a PhD in the UK

4. What is the role of a personal statement in UK PhD application?

A personal statement is a document where you can really play as a human. Here you are (a) not your scores and grades but (a) you are a person who is interested in working with a research team, (b) who is eager to learn about research, and (c) really seeks his/ her career in research, (d) is adaptable, (e) trainable, and (f) has the potential to fit and survive in a research team. Therefore, if you bring all these things into your personal statement your chances of getting accepted are really high.

In the personal statement, you have the opportunity to hook the hiring committee that besides all the numbers you have the potential to be a good colleague.

Personal Statement for a PhD- What are the requirements for a PHD in the UK?
PhD: Personal Statement: What are the requirements to apply for a PhD?

5. What role do References play in my PhD admission to the UK?

References are a tricky part. Only 13% of UK professors really prioritize the recommendation letters for a PhD application. Most UK PhD supervisors responded that they do not value reference letters much, especially in the case of international students. However, almost all the PhD positions will require you to ask your previous mentors to write some words about you.

As far as I have learned, UK PhD supervisors expect reference letters that really have examples and scenarios where you stood out and were observed by the mentors. Such writings are long and tedious, thus, it can be really hard for you to convince your previous research supervisors and professors to write about with such deliberation. The recommended length for a reference letter is around 2-3 pages.

6. What is the importance of a PhD interview in the UK?

Unlike the US, where most international PhD applicants are not usually called for an interview, UK PhD supervisors really look forward to a face-to-face conversation. The reason can be the expectations of a more mature PhD candidate on this side of the Atlantic.

UK PhD supervisors give value to a PhD interview because they are selecting their future colleague (at least for 3-4 years), they really want to know that you are genuinely interested in the research, interested in their work, and really want to contribute to the subject of study.

7. How much research experience is needed for a PhD in the UK?

Although many PhD programs mention that they do not necessarily need research experience. However, given the competition for UK PhD applications, you may need to think about gaining some research experience before your PhD.

Simply put, if you are able to show some proficiency in research work in your subject area and more importantly have some peer-reviewed publications as proof for your claim then this experience can put you ahead of many PhD applicants.

Research experience really helps those whose other parts of the application are a little weaker. This may mean you can apply for a good PhD program in the UK with a less than satisfactory GPA.

The videos answer your query on how much research experience you need for a PhD and do you need scientific papers and publications for a PhD application.

So how much research experience do you need to get before applying for a PhD program in the UK. My advice is the more the better. So, get as much research experience as you can. It will really help you understand what a PhD is and how you can persuade the professors to hire you.

“If you have no research experience, how do you know you want to be a researcher? If you have no research experience, why would a world-recognized professor hire you as a research assistant? If you have no research experience to start with, how will you compete with other students graduating from your program for research-oriented jobs?”

A former senior lecturer

Is professional experience required for a PhD admission in the UK?

UK PhD supervisors do not give much priority to industry experience. The reason is clear: any practical and professional work is a lot different than what is required in academic research. Thus, your pre-PhD professional experience might not help you much in impressing the UK PhD hiring committee.

There are exceptions where your professional work in the industry is highly relevant or even helpful to the research question you are posing in your research proposal. In such cases, a non-academic experience may give a positive view to your PhD application.

8. How do you write a CV for PhD in the UK?

A carefully crafted academic CV to really put a cherry on the cake of your UK PhD Application. An outstanding academic CV includes a brief glimpse of your research interests, Research experience, publications, preferences, and any other accomplishments. It should be a quick glance showcasing your previous accomplishments and future interest.

Simply put, a concise academic CV can make life easier for an already burned-out PhD supervisor.

What should I include in my academic CV? How long should it be? Is there a right/wrong layout? If you’re compiling a CV for PhD applications or as a PhD student, this video may be of help.

9. Why Are PhD Applications Rejected In The UK?

If you are meeting the minimum requirements mentioned by the university and you play your cards right then you have good chances to get into a PhD program. However, there are some things due to which your PhD application can still be rejected.

  1. Funding. DTP (Doctoral Training Programs) often force UK PhD supervisors to take less aligned students because they are coming with funding. They often mention that they rejected those students who were more aligned with their research goals but were without any funding support.
  2. Research Question. If your proposed PhD project was not sharply intended toward solving a specific problem or achieving a specific goal.
  3. Proposed Project. This happens when you submit a research project which is not a good match for the department’s research goals. Usually in this case the department may not even have a mentor in that particular area of study to take you in.
  4. Your Capability. If you fail to persuade the hiring committee that you have the skills required to effectively complete the PhD project then your UK application might be rejected.
  5. Future Goals. If you fail to assure the PhD supervisors with your previous priorities and work that you are really interested in a research career. So, you should be clear on what you are going to do after your PhD in the UK.
  6. Institutional Fit. Even if you are a brilliant student, still, sometimes PhD hiring committees can reject your PhD application because they may not feel that you are fit for the institution.

“.. the most fundamental misconception is that the best applicants win. The truth is that what counts as an “ideal” applicant is a moving target. The process can be unfair—even unjust. Practical considerations also play a role, starting with the reality that programs have limited funding and advising capacity. Either way, the reasons for rejection are often as much about the professors and programs as they are about the applicants.”

Julie R. Posselt wrote on why stellar applicants are rejected by PhD hiring committees
The most common reasons for PhD applicants being rejected. Some of these things are beyond your control, but others can be addressed.

FAQs: What are the requirements for PhD in the UK?

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

Yes, you need a Master’s if you are an international student seeking a UK PhD by thesis (duration= 3 years). However, if you are applying for an integrated PhD program (duration= Masters 1 year + PhD 3 years) then you can apply right after your undergraduate degree.

What is the minimum qualification for PhD in the UK?

To be considered for a PhD in the UK, you should at least have (a) a 4-year undergraduate degree with a passing grade of upper second-class honors (2:1), 70% marks or equivalent, and (b) a relevant master’s degree with a CGPA of 3 on a scale of 4, 60% marks or higher.

Is IELTS required for PhD in the UK?

You need to give IELTS for PhD admission in the UK if English is not your first language and you are not exempted from taking the IELTS. In other words, you can skip IELTS for a PhD in the UK if you have attempted other English language proficiency tests, English qualifications that confirm your language level, or you are coming from exempted countries.

Can you go straight into PhD without a master’s in the UK?

No, you cannot go to a PhD without a master’s in the UK. If you do not have a master’s degree yet and are applying for an integrated PhD program in UK universities you are eligible with a 4-years bachelor’s degree only.

Is it easy to get a PhD in the UK?

Getting a PhD in the UK is easy if you are coming with your own funding e.g., a scholarship from your home country. However, if you are looking for some funding opportunities in the UK then the intense competition makes getting into a UK PhD harder.

Is PhD free in the UK for international students?

Yes, a PhD in the UK is free if you are able to secure a fully funded studentship in the UK. Otherwise, you may need to pay a fee and proof to the visa and immigration services that you have the money to live in the UK during your PhD years.

See also  Can you self-fund a PhD in the UK?