Research degrees explained: what is a research degree?

A postgraduate research degree is a challenge that someone with a passion for their subject will relish.

You'll develop advanced knowledge and make an original contribution to your field of study.  The core of a postgraduate research degree is the successful completion of a research project that makes an original contribution to knowledge in a particular area of study.

Although guided and advised by an expert, a postgraduate researcher takes full responsibility for their work. They will be expected to successfully plan and manage their research project and to deliver on time (and to budget) a thesis of appropriate standard.  An important aspect of a postgraduate research degree is the opportunity for training, not only in specialist research techniques but also in skills relevant to employability and personal development.

The two types of research degrees are:

  • Research master's degrees: MPhil (Master of Philosophy) and MRes (Master of Research)
  • Doctoral degrees: PhD (Doctor in Philosophy), MD (Doctor of Medicine), and various Professional Doctorates

Master of Philosophy (MPhil)

The Master of Philosophy (MPhil) can be thought of as a shorter version of the PhD. It requires the same research skills, training planning, and project management. It can be a way to assess whether you wish to undertake doctoral research - or it can be taken for its own sake.

Master of Research (MRes)

The Master of Research (MRes) degree is a one year full-time or two years part-time master’s degree. The MRes places more emphasis on research skills than a traditional taught master’s degree such as an MA or MSc. For students who wish to proceed to doctoral research, it can be an excellent preparation. It can also be a standalone degree for those who wish to learn research skills, or try themselves out in research.

Doctor in Philosophy (PhD)

The Doctor in Philosophy is the classic doctoral research degree. The word 'philosophy' is used in its original sense – in Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia) translates as "love of wisdom". A doctoral degree is awarded to students that have demonstrated the ability to conceptualise, design, and implement a substantial research project that results in new knowledge, applications, or understanding in their field of study.

There are two main ways of progressing on to PhD study. If you can self-fund or bring your own funding (such as government funding, if you are an overseas applicant) you will generally expect to negotiate the project of your choice with a potential supervisor. Studentship opportunities funded by the University or an external funder such as a Research Council (or both) operate in a more formal way, resembling a job application.

Doctor of Medicine (MD)

The Doctor of Medicine (MD) is a doctoral degree open to medical practitioners (technically, anyone holding a medical qualification registrable with the General Medical Council). It is equivalent in requirements and format to the PhD.

Professional Doctorates

These programmes take several different forms, but have in common the integration of professional and academic knowledge in a qualification which, whilst equivalent in status and challenge to a PhD, is designed for those pursuing professional rather than academic careers.

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