10 things you need to know about applying for a doctorate

ICMP's Associate Dean Professor Louise Jackson shares her knowledge on applying for a doctorate...


Undertaking doctoral study is like no other form of qualification or study you’ll experience. 

It is a springboard into more professional research networks, as it provides you with a rigorous training period in your chosen discipline. It is also the time during which you become an expert in a very particular area and this project will be with you for at least three years. This blog will help introduce you to the general considerations you need to make if you are considering undertaking doctoral study.

What is a doctorate?

In the UK a doctorate is a Level 8 research qualification undertaken over a period of three-seven years, depending on whether you follow full or part-time status. The qualification is gained through the creation of a substantial piece of work and this depends on the type of doctorate and subject you research.


The general criteria for a doctorate are described in the FHEQ Level 8 descriptor as:
· The creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship, of a quality to satisfy peer review, extend the forefront of the discipline, and merit publication.
· A systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge which is at the forefront of an academic discipline or area of professional practice.
· The general ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project for the generation of new knowledge, applications or understanding at the forefront of the discipline, and to adjust the project design in the light of unforeseen problems
· A detailed understanding of applicable techniques for research and advanced academic enquiry.

Types of doctorates

There are many different types of doctorate relating to different approaches and subjects, including music-based doctorates and professional doctorates:
• Phd/Dphil (Doctorate of Philosophy)
• EdD (Education Doctorate)
• DMA/DFA/DMus (Doctor of Musical Arts/Doctor of Fine Arts) Doctor of Music)

Please note that a PhD or DPhil is also used as a generic name for a doctorate – you don’t have to be studying philosophy to gain a PhD!

The type of projects and learning

There are many different ways to complete a project for a doctorate. The most common is a fully written thesis which is usually between 80,000-100,000 words in length. For arts-based doctorates, it is now quite common to undertake practice-as-research based projects. These replace the fully written submission with a range of possibilities such as:
• Creative outputs (performances; portfolios; compositions; installations…)
• Commentaries
• And lots in between…

You will largely be working independently with regular, typically monthly, supervision sessions. You will be expected to submit work in progress to your supervisors before each supervision session.


Part-time vs full-time

It is really important to consider realistically what you will be able to achieve in any academic year, especially when occupying permanent roles. Some institutions have limits to how much employment you can undertake while also registered as a doctoral candidate.
This is also important as many programmes will expect you to undertake some form of training programme in your first year, and also expect you to attend research seminars.

The application processes

It is important that you find an institution that supervises the kinds of projects you want to undertake. The institution should have staff who can act as your supervisor. There are usually criteria for this, such as they should hold a doctorate themselves or have an international research profile. You need to find someone who is interested in your work but will not dominate your approach. You will need to complete an application form, provide academic references, and evidence of English language proficiency (if required). You will then need to develop and submit a research proposal. This is usually quite a substantial piece of work and takes some time to develop.

Institutions will have guidance on what they require. The following is a rough guide:
• Research overview including aims/questions (ensuring your project is not just an extension of a previous project);
• Brief review of the literature and or/review of practitioners;
• Outline of methodology and timelines;
• Statement regarding why the research is necessary and why the institution applied to is appropriate (make sure if applying to different institutions you amend accordingly!);
• Suggestion of supervisors;
• Bibliography (properly formatted).

You should follow the submission requirements of the individual institution and this will be then assessed by an admissions committee (this varies by institution). You may be required to make adjustments to your proposal before they will admit you to the programme. Remember – if you are applying to multiple institutions to change any reference to institutions name in your application!

If you are successfully admitted to a doctoral programme you are usually first registered as an MPhil candidate, even if you already have a Level 7 qualification. There is often some kind of mid-point assessment – sometimes called an upgrade, that moves you to full doctoral candidate status.


Working with a supervisor

You are likely to have a main supervisor and a second supervisor. This will be your supervisory team. It is possible to have a second supervisor from outside the main discipline, especially if you are working on an interdisciplinary project. You should try to meet a potential supervisor while developing your proposal; Go for substance rather than academic reputation – try to find other doctoral students who have been supervised by the person you are interested in, and speak to them about their experiences. You will only meet your supervisors periodically so it’s important that they are able to work in an organised manner.


There is very little funding at present. You should look for doctoral scholarships that are advertised in the academic press and on websites such as Jobs.ac.uk. However, please be aware that these types of scholarship tend to have a pre-defined project attached to them.
Some institutions offer specific funding for particular subject areas of topics. It is best to ask each institution. In the UK it is also possible to apply for a doctoral loan.

Essential advice

We asked colleagues from the ICMP community about applying for a doctorate. Here’s what they said!

Jake Williams


The best advice someone gave me, and I think was certainly true, was think of what your dream way of spending three years would be if you could research whatever you want - what might you be doing anyways in your own creative practice that would be enriched by an in-depth research project. Then try writing it as a proposal and see if an obvious research question arises.

When you've got an idea, I would chat with as many people as possible who are doing/ have undertaken PhDs in your area. I certainly benefited from this. They may also be able to help with potential supervisors.

Then research supervisors. It's all about the people, not the place. What you want is someone who (a) is going to complement and facilitate your project well (b) is really enthusiastic about your project. I think b is probably the most important? You might want to look who else is in the departments as well who can add value other that potential main supervisor (I've got three).

Dan Green

The greatest challenge when applying, and subsequently undertaking a doctorate, is balancing the occasional tension between your enthusiasm for the area whilst being actively informed by pre-established research and ideas within the area in question. If I was to go back in time and speak to myself as A doctoral applicant, and I would enrol younger Dan Green on a research method short course to refine research design and its basis within my research project. Your research will be on the backfoot if the research design is not formed. I'm still struggling with this somewhat!

Professor Tony Harris

· Look at the different routes. Professional Doctorates/PhDs differ considerably

Avoid the tendency to be attracted to supervisors who are expert or stars of the topic. You can probably get access to their expertise anyway. What’s more important is supervisors who know how to supervise. A good one can be quite distant from your subject but will get you through it.

· Supervision teams – look at how grad school allocate them
· Following on from this … choice of institution. Subject expertise is clearly important, but you need a graduate school that is well organised, experienced and efficient. Look at the expected roadmap/timeline, what sort of annual reporting they have, what’s their process for checking on your progress. Check out the terms of enrolment/completion, and how this fits with personal/professional circumstances
· Department/supervisors sympathetic to your research methodology and who can give the right advice on making it water-tight. This is especially important with PaR-type projects

"Find a topic/research questions that you can live with. If the project isn’t embedded in what you do and who you are, then it might not last the course…and then recognising the challenge of that in terms of critical distance. Be prepared to have your innermost passion obliterated by systematic dissection of them. Lovely.

· Do significant reading pre-application. I reckon 12 months of targeted and intensive reading (essentially prepping the lit review) will (a) make for a much stronger application (b) save a lot of turmoil further down the line when you find that what you thought has either all been thought before or isn’t worth thinking at all.
· Talk to people who’ve done it.


If you are interested in considering doctoral study, ICMP offers a mentoring scheme to explore potential ideas.
If you would like to discuss your ideas further please contact Professor Louise Jackson, Associate Dean (Academic Development) Louise.Jackson@icmp.ac.uk.


Get in touch

If you're a current student and require support please get in touch with our Academic Support team on academic.support@icmp.ac.uk or reach out to your Programme Leader. 

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by Professor Louise Jackson
December 7, 2020
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