PhDs and research degrees

What is a PhD / research degree?

Research degrees are the highest level of qualification awarded by universities in the UK, and are at level 8 of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). Candidates carry out an independent research project under supervision over an extended period of time, before submitting a thesis or dissertation consisting of original material.

Research degrees offer a challenging and exciting opportunity to work at the cutting-edge of research: if you have these qualities we can offer a rich, dynamic and supportive environment in which to pursue research. At the University of Exeter, research students are supported by our Doctoral College.

We offer a range of research degrees, including:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
  • Masters by Research (MbyRes)
  • Engineering doctorate (EngD)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Master of Surgery (MS)
  • Professional doctorates (such as EdD and EngD)

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Master of Philosophy (MPhil)

The MPhil, although a qualification in its own right, is often used as a route to the longer PhD. A PhD is only awarded when the results make an original contribution to knowledge in the field, which is normally assessed by a written thesis and oral examination.

Thesis / PhD by publication

Research degrees usually involve the completion of a written thesis, although alternatives may be allowed where suitable. Alternatives can include the presentation of part or all of the thesis as a multimedia document or a piece of art, or a record of professional practice in the form of a series of case-studies, which must be accompanied by a commentary. If you are interested in completing a thesis by alternative submission please contact the appropriate department to discuss this during the application process. If you publish research you have undertaken during your studies, it may also be possible to include such work in its published form in your thesis.

If you already have a portfolio of suitable quality published work which demonstrates a coherent research direction, you may be eligible for the PhD by Publication. This option reduces the study duration, and you will work with a supervisor to produce an integrating chapter explaining how the publications form a coherent whole.

Masters by Research

The MA or MSc by Research lets you obtain a research degree without the commitment of a longer-term PhD. Not to be confused with the taught MRes degree, it’s ideal for people interested in pursuing a specific shorter-term research project, perhaps while working. You will have the option to apply to transfer to an MPhil or PhD.

Professional doctorates

Professional doctorates combine a significant taught element with production of a research thesis, and are designed to help members of specific professions develop both their academic and professional knowledge (eg educational psychologists, clinical psychologists, teachers and lecturers).

Engineering doctorate (EngD)

An EngD is a four-year research degree awarded for industrially relevant research. The degree provides a more vocationally oriented approach to obtaining a doctorate in engineering commensurate with that of a PhD. You can find out more about the EngD degrees we offer on our Engineering webpages.

Doctor of Medicine (MD)/Master of Surgery (MS)

These professional degrees contain no taught element and, like a PhD, are only awarded if an original contribution to knowledge is made. The degrees are normally completed in two-to-three years full-time (four-to-five years part-time), and require a clinical degree or equivalent. Please see our Medical School webpages for further information.

How long does a PhD take?

A PhD takes three-to-four years when studied for full time, and six-to-seven years when studied for part time. And MPhil takes two-to-three years full time, and four-to-five years part time.

Can I study for a PhD by distance learning or split-site study?

There are opportunities to study for a University of Exeter PhD without living locally: in some circumstances it may be appropriate for you to study with us whilst registered as a distance-based student, or if you have access to appropriate academic facilities, as a split-site student. All off-campus students receive supervision and support from our staff and are normally expected to attend the University for limited periods.

Details of which research degrees offer distance learning or split-site study are on individual subject pages.

How can I pay for my PhD?

There are many ways to fund a research degree, from full studentships that pay your tuition fee and a significant living stipend, to small grants from educational charities and trusts. You can find out much more about funding your research degree on our regularly-updated PhD funding pages.

Writing an effective research proposal can seem a daunting and confusing prospect, so the University aims to make this early stage of your research as smooth as we can in order to give you the best chance at success.  For comprehensive advice please download our Research Proposal Guidance Brochure.

Preparing a research proposal

Before you write a research proposal, the first step should be to provide a 500-word outline of your proposed research project. You should then forward this to any academic you feel would best suit your proposed project – you can find contact details for staff on the individual subject websites. If you receive a positive response, you can then plan to submit a formal application in the form of a research proposal.

What is a research proposal?

Your research proposal needs to outline the nature of your proposed research project and give some indication of how you will conduct your research.  It is an integral part of the postgraduate research application process, so it is certainly worth creating a good piece of work.

Your research proposal should leave a positive first impression upon the reader about your ‘fitness’ to study a PhD. It is your project, so it is important to demonstrate leadership in this first stage of the application process. An ideal proposal should leave the reader feeling in no doubt that you have done some preliminary research about your subject and that you are knowledgeable and ready to tackle the challenges of a PhD.

Further information about how to best present your proposal can be found in our downloadable guide.

HASS/STEMM variation

PhD-level study, quite literally, encompasses an almost infinite variety of topics and projects.  It is for this reason that prescribing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ method for research proposal writing is a difficult task.  At a basic level, most disciplines can be divided into two distinct categories: HASS (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) and STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine).  Of course, some topics may be interdisciplinary and create overlap, but most will fit into one category or the other.  For both of these types there can be different things to look out for.


In general, in addition to the generic advice given in the guide, HASS research proposals may benefit from the following:

  • Aims and objectives - set out the central aims and research questions that guide your research. What hypothesis or argument are you trying to explore and what questions are you trying to answer? When outlining your questions try to prioritise one or two central questions from which you can derive secondary ones.
  • Rationale - contextualise your questions/aims in a broader field of study, identifying the main literature that you are addressing. You need to explain why your research questions/hypotheses are important and topical.
  • Methodology - explain how you are going to conduct your research; what information you would need, how you would collect it and how you are going to analyse it. This need only be indicative at this stage.
  • Timeline – You don’t need to produce a detailed time plan, but it is helpful to provide a summary of what you are planning to do and when. You will be expected to submit your thesis within three years (six years for part-time students), so it is important you have a feasible timeline. This section is especially important if you are proposing to undertake case study work or fieldwork.
  • Bibliography – a short bibliography of relevant work in your research area. 


For STEMM subjects, it could be worth adding these elements to the generic structure:

  • Background – You should establish the context to, and rationale for, your research based on a reading of the relevant academic and/or practitioner literature. Where possible, cite relevant authors and studies, and explain how this research builds on your previous academic work or professional experience. You should discuss the intellectual importance of your work, its contribution to your subject area, and its originality, which, in time, form three of the four main criteria for assessing your PhD.
  • Aims and objectives – Set out your terms of reference clearly and precisely. These may cover what you intend to achieve by the research in general and, more specifically, how the research fits the background and the outcomes from the project.
  • Methods and techniques – Explain how your approach to collecting and analysing information will help you satisfy your aims and objectives. Potential data collection methods and possible analytical techniques give a sense of the direction of the research. Explain the choices behind case study organisations or locations, as well as sampling strategies or particular computer-based techniques.
  • Project management – You don’t need to produce a detailed time plan because research projects evolve. However, it is extremely useful to explain in general terms what you are proposing to do, and when, in order to get a sense of the scale of the task. This is especially important if you are proposing to undertake case study work or fieldwork.
  • Ethics – Almost inevitably your research will raise some ethical issues and you should aspire to conduct your research with the highest ethical standards.
  • Health and safety – All types of research have implications for health and safety, albeit some types of work are more risky than others.  Where appropriate, your proposal should seek to identify any issues and explain how you may address them.
  • References – Please enter a reference list using Harvard Notation.  It is useful for potential supervisors to better understand the breadth and depth of your reading to date.
  • Appendices – These are a useful way of including additional supporting material while keeping the main body of the proposal succinct.

How long should a good research proposal be?

A good research proposal is as long as it takes, but a guide would be 1,500-2,500 words. Remember that it is meant to be an accurate overview, not a thesis, so you need to provide enough detail for the reader to understand it.  A paragraph would not be enough and 5,000 words likely too much.

The '3Cs' rule

When you have written your research proposal, ask a friend to read it critically and provide you with feedback. Also, ask yourself whether it follows the '3Cs' rule:

CLEAR:  Is what you have written intelligible and clearly articulated?  Does it make sense, or is it vague and confusing?  Does your proposal leave the reader with a clear sense of the purpose and direction of your research project?

CONCISE:  Have you written your proposal in a succinct and focused way?

COHERENT:  Does your proposal link together well so that it tells the reader a short story about what you want to do, why you want to do it and how you will do it?

If you can answer all of these questions with confidence, you have probably put together a good proposal.


Depending on your project and the wider field it is a part of, you may want to include a paragraph on how you would go about spreading the ideas discussed in your research to the academic community, and in some cases the organisation arranging your funding. This could be anything, from traditional sources such as publications and seminars, to more contemporary methods such as blogs, vlogs and exhibitions.


To protect yourself from accusations of plagiarism please make sure that all your references are present, correct and up-to-date at the time of submission.  In order to ensure you have correctly referenced, it is sensible to include publications in your bibliography that influenced your thoughts and arguments in any way, even if they are not quoted from directly.  If you have used quotations from other academics, please check you have used quotation marks and a citation.