Choosing a PhD

A PhD is a long-term commitment where you focus on a specific area of research for several years. It is important to consider whether a PhD is right for you and where you would like to go in your career.

You can use our PhD application checklist to start to think about the different aspects of committing to a PhD. 

If you are not sure about studying for a PhD then you could apply for a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree to get a taste of research and help find out more about areas of research that you might be interested in. A MPhil takes one to two years to complete. Some studentships begin as an MPhil and progress to a PhD.

If you are already sure that you wish to study for a PhD then there are several factors to consider:

Types of PhD

There are different types of PhDs that you can apply for:

  • Funded PhD projects
  • Funded Doctoral Training Programmes 
  • Self-funded PhD projects
  • Unadvertised PhDs

Most bioscience PhDs are funded. This funding pays for tuition fees and research costs. It also includes a tax-free stipend to cover your living costs. 

Funding for most PhDs is from Research Councils or other medical research funders like charities. Industrial partners can provide extra funding for Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE) studentships. CASE studentships often give you the opportunity to gain experience in industry. Health charities may also fund PhDs in areas relevant to them.

Self-funding a PhD is also possible, typically costing £20,000-30,000 a year. PhD loans are available for up to £25,000. This article explains some of the challenges associated with self-funding a PhD. 

Funded PhD projects

  • Usually three years
  • A specific project that the lab already has funding for 

Funded Doctoral Training Programmes 

  • Usually three to four years
  • First year often includes rotations in different labs to experience different projects before choosing a project to continue for the duration of the programme
  • Can also include formalised training such as lectures

Self-funded PhD projects

  • A project is available, but the lab does not have funding
  • There may be opportunities to apply for funding separately 

If you do decide to self-fund your PhD, you may find our page on sources of research funding helpful. 

Unadvertised PhD projects 

You can also approach a lab that is not advertising for students. First you need to find out if the university accepts this kind of application. You will also need to:

  • Identify a research area
  • Research potential supervisors and departments
  • Contact the supervisor with a letter, your CV and an outline of your project

When contacting a supervisor, your enquiry should be short and to the point. It should show your potential and enthusiasm for the subject. Once you have contacted them, it is unlikely that you will get an immediate reply. If you have not heard in a couple of weeks, then follow up your enquiry.

You may have to submit a research proposal when applying to a lab. However, it is more common that students develop a proposal together with the lab’s group leader. If the lab accepts your proposal you will need to develop a funding proposal with the PI.

Things to consider when choosing a PhD

When choosing a project, it is important to consider the following:

  • Does the topic fascinate you? You will be working on a narrow area of science for a long time!
  • Consider your future career. What skills will you learn from the project? Are they wide-ranging? Will they help you take the next step in your career?
  • Is the lab environment supportive? Does this extend to the university or institution?
  • Ask current students and staff about the PI and their management style. Does this suit you?
  • Will you have access to other personal development opportunities? For example, conferences, training, collaboration?
  • Look at the lab publication record. Students should be supported to publish scientific papers during their PhD.

If you are unsure about whether a PhD studentship is for you, you can also make an informal enquiry before making your application. This gives you an opportunity to ask any questions you might have about the project or lab.

Interviews for PhDs

Once you have expressed an interest and/or applied for a PhD, the likely next step is to be invited to an interview. Interviews are your chance to show a supervisor why you deserve a PhD and to ask questions. You should use the interview to get to know your supervisor and research group members.

You can find further information and interview tips on

Visit for further information on how to structure PhD proposals and prepare for interviews.