A Guide to 5 Types of Research Degree

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If you are interested in research based postgraduate study there are a number of different types of courses to choose from, depending on your priorities. Are you looking for personal development, an academic progression route or enhanced employability? How much commitment do you want to make in terms of time or money? The following brief guide to types of research degrees may help you make a more informed decision.

Masters by Research or MRes

This is often studied as a stepping stone to a PhD, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences, where it may be expected or possibly required before applying for a PhD. The course involves undertaking a research project and includes research methods training relevant to the discipline studied.


  • A good test to see if you enjoy research without committing yourself to and finding funding for a full PhD
  • Useful for employment outside of academia, where research is a main focus of the job

PhD (or D Phil)

Embarking on a PhD involves a commitment to at least three years of study and completion of a thesis, a substantial piece of supervised research which makes an original contribution to existing knowledge in the field.  It may be necessary to find a potential supervisor in a university department in which you wish to study and then submit a research proposal or you may find a specific research project advertised as a studentship with funding attached. Some PhD programmes now include taught elements on research methods and other career related transferable skills. However, a PhD is awarded almost entirely on the quality of the thesis and your ability to present and discuss your findings in an oral examination (viva voce).


  • The first stage of an academic research career. Most university lecturers have a PhD.
  • PhDs can also be useful in industry or the public sector
  • In-depth study and contribution of new knowledge in a subject area you feel passionate about


If you wish to study a PhD you may need to initially register for an MPhil and transfer to a PhD programme after 12-18 months. However an MPhil can also be taken as a qualification in its own right. It involves writing a shorter thesis than a PhD and may include an oral examination.


  • Useful if your proposed research project has insufficient scope for a full PhD
  • A first step to a PhD

New Route PhD

This is a four year full time programme integrating taught courses and research.  It commences with taught masters level courses to enhance knowledge of the proposed research area, and practical research skills, to provide a secure foundation for embarking on a PhD. It also includes transferable skills such as presentation and communication skills, leadership, enterprise, IT and web skills and teaching, to enhance employability. The programme culminates in submission of a thesis and an oral examination. At some universities it can be offered as an integrated degree, particularly attractive to international students, as a student can undertake part of their research outside of the UK university. Further details can be found at www.newroutephd.ac.uk 


  • Combines taught courses with research opportunities
  • A supportive programme for those needing further study in their chosen subject before beginning a research project
  • Enhances employability in business, university teaching, government and public service

Professional or Specialist Doctorate

This qualification is for those who already have Masters level qualifications and three or more years expertise in a professional field and want to do PhD level study related to their professional area whilst working. Examples are the EngD, (Doctorate in Engineering) and the DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration). The course takes a minimum of three years part time and the research is usually carried out at the place of employment. It includes academic and specialist research methods relating to the specific profession, which are formally assessed.  


  • Some programmes are accredited by a professional body, so can boost career progression
  • Some focus on personal development, such as a DBA, to enhance consultancy skills
  • Research can be undertaken whilst remaining in employment

For all of these options funding is a key consideration. Don’t forget to check www.jobs.ac.uk/jobs/phd and www.jobs.ac.uk/jobs/masters for scholarships and funded opportunities. 

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