Thinking about a PhD or Masters?

You might decide that you want to continue to study after your undergraduate degree. This might be because you’re really enjoying full time education and don’t yet want to stop, or because you realise that the jobs you are interested in require a Masters (MSc) degree, or PhD.

To be a career research scientist, you will need a PhD and many people who find themselves ultimately in different professions say that studying for their PhD gave them invaluable skills.   You won’t need the detail of how to apply until the start of your final year of undergraduate study, but it’s a good idea to start talking with your tutor about the process during your penultimate year, and your University should have lots of information to help you.


1. What is a Masters?

Masters courses (MSc, or Masters of Science) are normally 1 year taught courses, and are a useful way to enhance your knowledge in a specific area.

Masters courses are useful in confirming your interest in a subject, expanding your expertise in a given area and helping you to compete for certain jobs.

Masters in Research (MRes) are normally two year courses involving extended research projects.

You will either have to find funding for your Masters or pay for the course fees and living expenses yourself. Funding is available, but can be very competitive, and you will need a good undergraduate degree to get it.

Use the Find a Masters website to find a list of Masters courses in your area of study.


2. What is a PhD?

A PhD is a higher-level degree that you gain through doing your own research. It will usually last between 3 and 4 years, and by the end of it, you will have demonstrated that you know how to carry out independent scientific research, that you can communicate your findings clearly to other scientists, and that you can defend them when challenged.

During your PhD, you will probably work in a lab with an experienced academic acting as your supervisor. You will have your own specific research question to investigate. You may be part of a team researching a broader scientific question, perhaps with other PhD students as well as researchers who have completed their PhDs (‘postdoctoral’ researchers, often called ‘postdocs’). There will be ups and downs during the course of your research, and having a network of supportive colleagues will be a big help.

Increasingly, PhD study is a 4 year Doctoral Training Project (DTP) and the University providing it includes a range of training opportunities in the course.


3. How is a PhD funded?

If you are a UK student planning to do a PhD, you will apply for a grant from a funding agency, which covers the fees and a stipend to cover your living expenses. The stipend is usually around £14,000 – £15,000 per year, tax free.


4. Consider doing a summer internship to find out what lab research is like

If you think you want to do a PhD or work in scientific research, doing an internship in a lab during the summer vacation after your 2nd year is a good way to give you an idea of what’s involved. It will help you gain experience, and find out whether or not lab research would really suit you. It will also help you make contacts with people who you might want to work with in the future.

Some internships are paid, and some are unpaid. There is a list of the paid internships on our website.


5. Choosing where to do your PhD

You can find a list of potential PhD placements at Find the PhD website. This gives you an overview of the wide range of PhDs available.

Factors to consider include the funding and publication record of the supervisor as well as their record in supervising PhD students. If you can, it’s a good idea to talk to some of the PhD students already working with your potential supervisor – would they recommend them?

You should also think about where you want to do your PhD – do you want to stay on at your University, move within the UK, or maybe study abroad?

The move from undergraduate to postgraduate study is an ideal opportunity to move to a different University or research institute and broaden your experience, which is seen positively by employers. You may love your undergraduate University and its location, but ask yourself if it would be the same once all of your friends have graduated and moved on.

You should also consider how much you will get paid, and try to find out the potential cost of living in the different places.