Beit Hall

Learn more about what's involved in studying a doctoral course at Imperial

PhD studentAs a Doctoral student, you will be embarking on one of the most intensive study experiences of your academic career so far.

Unlike the undergraduate or Master's study experience, research studies are more likely to involve longer and less structured periods of time in which to do your work.

You are likely to work with a smaller cohort of fellow students, which often leads to a greater sense of community with other research students and staff in your department. 

You will also have close, professional interaction with your main supervisor and others officially associated with your study, as well as many more informal working interactions.  

Getting started

The process of searching and applying for funding and preparing a research application can be a long one so give yourself plenty of time to do a good job – ideally at least a year before you intend to start your studies.

Whether you're applying for a studentship (a defined research project that comes with funding) or you have your own idea for research that you would like to undertake, it's important to check whether you need to identify a potential supervisor before making a formal application to the College; many departments expect you to do this before submitting your application and will not consider your application without it.

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Applying for a studentship

One of the most common types of PhD study at Imperial is via ‘studentships’. These are externally funded projects in defined areas of research. They come with a named supervisor (who has secured the funding) in a particular department, centre or institute.

Before applying for a studentship, you should:

  • Do your homework: read more about the research project by reading journal articles published by the supervisor and members of the research group to make sure it's an area to which you can add value.
  • Contact the supervisor directly for more information about the research project and to find out what’s expected of potential candidates.

Once your supervisor has agreed to support your application you need to make a formal application to the College.

Applying for other research opportunities

While studentships usually have a fixed application deadline, many of our departments also welcome applications all year round from suitably qualified candidates. Before making an application, we recommend following these steps:

  • Find out which research groups are working in your area of interest – remember, many of Imperial’s centres and institutes span multiple subject areas.
  • Read the research profiles of our staff online to identify potential supervisors and make sure that their expertise fits with your ideas.
  • Contact the potential supervisor directly to discuss your idea. They’ll want to know more about you too, as they’re investing in you as much as your idea, so it’s appropriate to also send a copy of your CV/resumé.

Research proposal

Your supervisor may ask you to formalise your idea as a research proposal. Find out more about this below.

If the supervisor agrees to support your application you then need to make a formal application to the College.

Writing a research proposal

If your supervisor asks you to formalise your idea as a research proposal (this is not always a requirement) this needs to define a clear research question. You should also be prepared to explain how this contributes to and develops (or challenges) any existing theories in the field.

It’s important to tailor your proposal to the department you’re applying to. Different departments may also have different format requirements (e.g. word limit, content) so it’s important to discuss these with your potential supervisor in advance.

For more general advice on how to write a good proposal, see

Length of study

For PhD students the usual period of attendance required at the College for completion on a full-time basis is 36 months.

No full-time PhD student may submit the thesis for examination later than 48 months after the date of initial registration.

Part-time study is possible but will require a correspondingly longer period of attendance.

The registration period for the Engineering Doctorate (EngD) is 48 months' full-time study.

Our research approach

Work across subject boundaries

We place a lot of importance on interdisciplinary working and the need to establish peer groups across subject boundaries. The Graduate School and your department can help with this by organising development activities that bring together students from across the College for knowledge sharing.

Global opportunities

We’re a global university with many international partners. There will be opportunities for you to develop global research skills via our international summer schools, which provide opportunities to collaborate with peers from partner institutions.

We also run a number of international PhD programmes, which allow you to split your time between Imperial and one of our partner universities overseas.

After you start

As a Doctoral student it is normal to spend a lot of time working alone, since the precise topic of your thesis is unique to you.

Three years may seem like a long time to produce a thesis, but it is not. The study period is intensive, and you must structure your time so that you are able to meet a series of intermediate milestones of progression.

It is common for there to be ups and downs, and when things are going wrong you need a good circle of friends and fellow researchers to call on.

We work hard to make sure there is support for you to draw on at every point. This includes team-based training provided by the Graduate School and a College-wide network of professional support services to help you meet the challenges along the way.

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Students and supervisors

What supervisors expect from students

Supervisors expect you to:

  • Take responsibility for your thesis – in the end it is your work and your supervisors are here to help you accomplish your research objectives, but not to do the thinking for you.
  • Work hard – a research degree cannot be accomplished with only a 9–5 effort. Imperial is a top ranking university and we expect that students will strive to accomplish good work.
  • Display initiative – ultimately, the person who drives the process and strives to understand the research area is you. We expect you to be curious about your work and to think about how other ideas/work have an impact on the research you are doing. It is therefore a requirement for you to attend all lab meetings, work in progress etc plus other seminars.
  • Write papers (this is dependent on field of study) before you have submitted your thesis. The process of writing enables you to develop skills which are useful when writing up your thesis, and the fact that you have had papers refereed/accepted by international journals satisfies the external examiner that you have what it takes.
  • Be self-critical of your own work and results, and use these skills in being sceptical of results in the literature.
  • Help colleagues (especially less experienced ones) in the laboratory to learn through discussions and demonstrations.
  • Keep up with the literature in your field.
  • Provide regular reports detailing your results – you should be conscientious about keeping a laboratory notebook and regularly entering all your data into tables and Excel spreadsheets.
  • Be aware of safety at all times and follow safety procedures, especially if you are working in a laboratory.
  • Develop your skills and learn new ones by attending the transferable skills courses and lectures provided by the Graduate School, your own and other College departments/divisions/faculties and by any other external providers.

What to expect from your supervisor

As a student you can expect your supervisor to:

  • Be supportive of you both intellectually and personally.
  • Set up a viable project and ensure that you have a clear idea of aims and objectives and an initial work-plan.
  • Provide an adequate work space for you.
  • Be available (or provide an identified substitute) to talk about research problems at relatively short notice although, at certain times of the year, you may need to give a few days notice.
  • Help and guide you extensively in your first year; help you in your second year; and be a sounding board in your third year. The help is tapered as you develop confidence in your own abilities and research skills, to enable you to learn to work more on your own and to make more of your own decisions.
  • Help develop your skills in technical writing, oral presentations, problem definition, statistical data analysis and critical literature reviews.
  • Help enable you to attend at least one conference to present a paper.
  • Provide adequate funds and/or facilities for your research project.
  • Read your thesis thoroughly and make constructive comments on both style and intellectual content.

Planning your time

If you’re studying full-time you should aim to complete your PhD in 36 months and submit your thesis for examination no later than 48 months from the date of initial registration.

Early stage (0–9 months)

At nine months you will undertake an assessment involving the submission of a written report and an oral examination on that report. The Graduate School provides training in key skills such as presenting, statistics, writing and personal effectiveness that will help you prepare.

Mid-stage (9–18 months)

In the mid-stage, you will continue with your programme of research and should take the opportunity to undertake further professional skills training in advanced writing and presenting, career planning, and maintaining motivation and independence.

Late stage (18–24 months)

Around the end of your second year, you will undertake a late stage assessment, conducted by your department, to see whether you have a realistic research plan in place for successfully completing the programme.

Throughout the programme you will take a full part in academic life, attending seminars and presenting your research both within the College and at national and international conferences.

Your thesis

The main activity of any research programme will be to carry out an original research project under the direction of one or more supervisors, to be written up as a thesis.

Your supervisor will read your thesis thoroughly and make constructive comments on both style and intellectual content before you submit it.

Your thesis will be examined by a minimum of two examiners: one from within the College and one from academia, industry or another profession. You will also be invited to defend your work in a viva (oral examination) with examiners.

The Graduate School will support you throughout your programme of study by providing training in thesis writing and preparing for the viva. The Careers Service also offers lots of practical support, from searching for jobs to preparing for interviews.

Teaching opportunities

Many PhD students across the College are involved with the teaching, supervision and assessment of both undergraduate and Master’s students.

Working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) provides you with an opportunity to broaden your experience, and develop further skills such as learning how to convey complex technical concepts and writing/communication.

It can also help improve your own technical abilities (both theoretical and practical), broaden your knowledge base and gain communication and task management experience.

The Graduate School and the College’s Educational Development Unit have worked together to develop a new graduate teaching assistant training programme (STAR).

STAR provides PhD students with the chance to obtain Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy – a qualification that is increasingly sought by employers across the education sector.