What to expect from a PhD/MA by Research

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest level of qualification awarded by universities in the UK, typically aimed at students who have successfully completed a Masters programme.

PhD is awarded for the outcomes of intensive, independent study that demonstrates an original and significant contribution to knowledge in your chosen subject. You will be assessed at the end of the programme by a thesis of 80,000 words which will need to be deemed suitable for publication, in whole or in part in a learned journal or equivalent by your examiners. You will need to defend your thesis and demonstrate an in-depth knowledge of your subject at a viva voce (oral examination) before a panel of expert examiners.

By comparison, an MA by Research is a research-based Masters programme assessed by a thesis of 40,000 words. An oral examination may be held at the discretion of the examiners.

Unlike our postgraduate taught programmes, there are no formal lectures or seminars in a PhD or MA by Research, and your work is not formally examined until after your thesis has been submitted. Instead, our postgraduate research programmes provide you with the opportunity to undertake research under the expert guidance of a primary supervisor, co-supervisor and mentor, supported by complementary research training.

PhD and MA by Research programmes may start at any time of the year, though we strongly encourage students to begin their studies at the start of the UK academic year (September). We also offer flexibility in our programmes so that you can choose the mode of study that works for you - full-time, part-time, or distance learning. It usually takes three years (full-time) or six years (part-time) to complete a PhD, while the standard duration for an MA by Research is either one year (full-time) or two years (part-time).

Distance learning students will receive the same level of support and supervision as on-campus students, the only difference being that supervisory sessions will take place via audio and visual communication services such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, rather than in person. You will be funded to make one compulsory visit to the University per year of study (or every other year for part-time students), enabling you to meet your supervisory team, undertake intensive research skills training and make a start on your doctoral studies. You may also be invited to attend the University for annual meetings which give you the opportunity to interact with other research students both socially and academically, undertake important progress-review meetings and carry out any necessary training. For those studying a PhD, you will also generally be required to be present on campus for your viva voce (funded for travel and accommodation).

What is involved in a PhD/MA by Research?

Before you start

One of your main sources of support, inspiration and encouragement throughout your PhD/MA by Research programme will be your supervisory team. Establishing an effective working relationship is important for staying on top of your work and making the most of your research.

If you are planning to apply for a PhD/MA by Research programme, you should first make sure that the relevant department within the College of Arts and Law offers the necessary expertise. We ask that you identify an appropriate supervisor before you submit your application and contact them in the first instance to discuss your research proposal. If you experience any difficulties with the application process and contacting potential supervisors, please email: calpg-comms@contacts.bham.ac.uk

Your research proposal should be a short written document (approximately 1,000-1,500 words) which sets out the central issues or questions that you intend to address. It should outline the general area of study within which your research falls, referring to the current state of knowledge and any recent debates on the topic, as well as demonstrate the originality of your proposed research. For further advice, please refer to our research proposal guidance pages.

During your studies

Your supervisory team will meet with you at regular intervals throughout your PhD/MA by Research programme in order to offer guidance on how best to approach, implement and report on your research. Supervisory sessions for distance learning students will take place via audio and visual communication services such as Skype or Facetime, rather than on campus.

Although your supervisory team are there to help you to complete your research, postgraduate research students are expected to take full responsibility for their work. Therefore, you will need to develop your own timetable for academic study, planning and managing your research so that you can successfully complete your thesis on time.

The first year (or part-time equivalent) of a PhD usually consists of a literature review specific to your thesis and topic, along with any other relevant work or training that will prepare you for undertaking the bulk of your research in the second year, which is normally then written up in the third year. For an MA by Research, these timescales are condensed into one year (or two years if studying part time).

During the course of your studies your supervisory team may also encourage you to present your research to the wider academic community and to the general public at seminars and conferences, or even submit work for publication in specialist journals. You will also have opportunities for teaching, networking, and playing an active role in the College's vibrant postgraduate research community.

If you wish to proceed and submit an application, please refer to our six-step process for applying for PhD and MA by Research opportunities in Arts subject areas.