Research Degrees information page

Research Degrees in Continental Philosophy

by attendance or by distance learning

We are pleased to now be able to offer a distance learning version of our doctoral programme in philosophy. The basic principle of such a programme is no different from the attendance PhD programme that we have been running for decades. The few differences of practice are described in a separate section below.

What is a Research Degree?

A research degree is a high-level academic qualification that is internationally recognised as a sign of expertise, of readiness to carry out further research, and readiness to take on an academic role. Normally, the qualification is named either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Master of Philosophy (MPhil). The difference between these lies in the level of contribution it demonstrates to the subject, and thus also (among other things) the length of the work produced. The Doctorate is awarded to students who make an original contribution to their field of study, through the generation of new knowledge, or through advanced scholarship. The MPhil is a lower level award that recognizes an extension of existing knowledge. (Normally, these two are exclusive; i.e. you don’t get one and then the other.) The success of a research degree programme lies in the production of a Dissertation and the successful oral defence of it in the presence of experts both internal and external to the University.

International students, especially those from the United States, should realise that a research degree in the UK consists almost exclusively of supervised research and the production of a thesis. By contrast, a US doctorate involves a considerable number of taught courses. That is why US students can move directly onto PhD programmes after their undergraduate studies. In the UK system, the normal progress of a student onto a research degree is by way of a prior MA, and there are relatively few taught requirements. Accordingly, the total time that the programme takes in the UK is less: three to four years full-time, five to six years part-time.

The Philosophy Department at Staffordshire University offers supervision to the levels of both MPhil and PhD in many topics and figures under the broad umbrella of Modern Continental Philosophy. The main areas of expertise of staff are listed on our blog here.

Who is Eligible?

Direct entrance to study for the degree of PhD normally requires successful completion of a Master of Arts (MA) level degree in philosophy or a directly cognate study. The MA course here, with its emphasis on modules that build to a research project, is an excellent way in to philosophical research.

Because your doctoral studies are primarily by supervised research, we can only accept students whose proposed topic of research matches the expertise of our staff. Please see the home page of this blog for details of our expertise.

How do I apply?

The first step in applying is to contact the Department for an informal discussion. Because we handle applications ourselves, rather than through an organisation like UCAS (as for undergraduate applicants), there is no official deadline for applications. Also, you can start with us at any time of the academic year.

The application process proper will involve:

  • completing an application form (link can be found on the course page here for full-time on-campus study, and here for part-time and distance learning) form, giving particular attention to previous philosophical study, and identifying at least two academic referees (e.g. former philosophy teachers);

  • providing authorised copies of any degree or other certificates (e.g. language proficiency), and academic transcripts;

  • providing a small portfolio of samples of your written academic work, and any other work relevant to your proposed research (for example, if you are interesting in studying a Fine Art and Philosophy route, we would want to see a portfolio of your creative work).

Note that all postgraduate applications are processed centrally by the University, and it might be a couple of weeks before your application crosses our desks here in the Department. Notice also that you are applying for a ‘Humanities’ PhD; this is just a rough classification for administrative purposes – your PhD will be ‘PhD in Philosophy’.

Then, after you have submitted the above, we will work with you on preparing a draft project proposal. This will composed of:

  • a statement of a research topic (approx 200-400 words), which should include: an outline of the claims that your work will develop and ‘test’; an articulation of the broader significance of the topic (i.e. an explanation of why the topic significant, how it relates to other philosophical issues, or to issues that belong to disciplines other than philosophy);

  • a brief discussion of its relation to existing philosophical work, historical and contemporary (approx 300-600 words); that is, what primary and secondary authors and texts will likely be the ‘key players’, and why; if you are applying to study in a ‘distance learning’ mode — i.e. without access to the physical resources of the University — then you should also comment on the availability local to you of research materials.

  • a rough sketch of what would be involved in bringing the project to completion (approx 300-600 words); for example, areas that would need investigating, and how you would go about doing so; problems that would need to be overcome; new knowledge or skills you would need to obtain;

  • an outline of your own relevant philosophical (or perhaps other) experience that proves that you are capable of undertaking this type of project (approx. 100-200 words); for example, your project’s relation to your MA dissertation or to other university work, or your facility in relevant languages.

  • and finally some anticipation of what the structure of the finished work might look like (approx. 200-400 words) – this normally takes the form of a summary of chapters.

The Department here will gladly help you to build up this proposal. However, this is a normal part of the application process and is not to be taken as a sign of acceptance onto the doctoral programme. The aims of asking you for such a draft proposal are, first, to ensure that your topic is both compatible with our research interests and viable (to that end you should note that we may ask you to change the emphasis of your proposed work); second, to gauge your proficiency at planning academic work, and working with potential supervisors. Note also that it is expected in research that these plans will continue to evolve as the research takes place, so you need not worry about being ‘held’ unreasonably to your draft proposal! Also, proposals of this type tend to be very concise: your draft should be no more than about 2000 words.

Once all application materials have been received, and an outline research proposal arrived at, we normally hold an informal interview (which can be conducted by telephone or Skype for international candidates). After the University has agreed to support your application, you then enroll. Over the first few months of enrollment, we work with you to produce an extended and formal version of your proposal.

(Please note that although we maintain a listing with Gradschools.com, we are no longer receiving enquiries from them. You will have to contact us directly.)

What is Studying for a Research Degree Like?

The department will assign you a lead supervisor, and also one or two supporting supervisors. Your lead supervisor is the member of staff primarily responsible for your progress; however, depending upon the stage your work has reached, but you may also work closely with one of the supporting supervisors. You will meet with your supervisor or team regularly to discuss your recent work, and to help plan your future research directions. Depending upon the stage your research has reached, ‘regularly’ could range from weekly, to once a month or less. Some of these meetings could be electronic in form (email, skype, etc.). However, the University does expect full time research degree students to actually come to the campus at least three times per semester. (Compare the Distance Learning option, described below.)

Of course, a great deal of your time will be spent doing extensive primary and secondary research, writing and thinking. However, you will be expected also to participate fully in the life of the Department: attending and contributing to the Postgraduate Research Seminars and other relevant colloquia here and elsewhere, taking part in relevant courses in philosophy, forming and participating in reading groups organised with other postgraduate students in the department, and helping to organise conferences and visiting speakers. As part of your development as a researcher, you will also be encouraged to present your work at conferences, and submit it for publication. Likewise, as part of your overall research training, we will offer opportunities for you to work with other students in a teaching or tutoring capacity. Some such opportunities will be on a voluntary basis; others, budget permitting, may be paid positions. Either will be valuable experience should you wish to seek University employment in the future.

For both the direct PhD route, and the Mphil/PhD route there is a set of relatively modest ‘taught’ requirement: all new research students will be required to undertake a series of induction workshops which explain procedures, regulations, standards, introduce resources available to you, and give practical advice about the first stages of your doctoral study. In addition, you will be required to take several professional development workshops throughout each year of your study, ranging from research methods training to careers guidance. [Notes: this paragraph was rewritten in November 2015 to accord with new research degrees regulations. The previous Research Methods course is being withdrawn in favour of this continuous program of induction and development workshops.] 

Domestic students (defined as either from the UK or the EU) can enroll as either part-time or full-time. With a very few exceptions, international students are always full-time (but please see the new distance learning route below). Staffordshire is a pioneer of part-time postgraduate provision. Many of our part-time research students choose this mode of study because they have a career and/or a family which consumes much of their time and energy. Also, these individuals may need to go for weeks or months without devoting significant energy to their research projects (e.g. during school holidays); while other times may be able to devote all their spare resources to it. Such variation is easily accommodated within part-time study. However, part-time students are not ‘second-class’ citizens. On the contrary, we arrange departmental affairs flexibly in order to allow all students to get as much as they can out of the experience. Part-time is defined as an average of 15-20 hours of study per week; full time as an average of 30-35 hours. By ‘study’ is meant anything related to your PhD – so this could be reading, writing, working on a your foreign language facility, attending a course or a conference, contributing to a discussion group, etc. Notice also that this is an average – this means that some weeks may be ‘light’ (or even a holiday) while others are more intense.

Obviously, studying part-time is different from full-time study. Not only is the average hourly commitment less, but it should be possible to take longer ‘breaks’ without interrupting your studies or damaging your progress.

The time required to complete a PhD is not fixed. Rather, it is defined in terms of minimum periods of registration. In full time mode, the minimum periods of study are 30 months for the MPhil/PhD route and 24 for direct-registration PhD (although, historically speaking, very few students are able to complete in two years; a typical period is more like 36 months). In part-time mode, the minimum periods of study are 60 months for the MPhil/PhD route and 48 months for direct-registration PhD. There are also maximum periods of registration; it is in no one’s interest that your project drags on for years and years! (Please see the University Research Degree Regulations for details.)

The Supervision I received for my PhD was of the highest standard, the overall accessibility and approachability of staff in the department has also always been excellent. This combined with the subject knowledge of Continental Philosophy and general academic expertise of staff in the philosophy department contributed to an intellectually challenging, yet very rewarding experience. — C. Hamblet, PhD 2010.

What will I Study?

Other than the research methods training, there are normally no taught components to the research degree. However, your supervisor may encourage or insist on your taking part in certain taught courses in order to fill gaps in your current knowledge or skills base. You would not normally have to pay any additional fees in such a circumstance. The University currently does not require foreign or ancient language proficiency for research degrees; however, given the nature of the subject, it is likely that the supervisory team will will want you to acquire some degree of competency. 

The successful completion of the degree of PhD is by the production and defence of a thesis. On the type of interdisciplinary PhD in which we specialise, part of the thesis may be a final show, exhibition or other artefact. The principle criteria for a successful thesis and defence are:

  • the production and the research activity it represents are of a professional and scholarly nature, and the candidate exhibits a capacity to discuss and defend its merits under scrutiny;

  • the work constitutes an original contribution to the discipline;

  • in general, the examiners concur that the candidate has developed into a professional researcher.

Pursuing a research degree can be a hugely exciting undertaking. This is your opportunity to pursue an adequate description, development and defence of your own ideas, and to engage on equal terms, so to speak, with philosophical ‘giants’. It is also an opportunity to grow as an individual and professional, to discover areas of thought you never new existed, and to spend time with a stimulating and friendly group of staff and students. However, it is important to point out that pursuing a postgraduate research degree is a much more independent activity than you may be used to. You should have a passion for the subject capable of sustaining you over the course of several years; and you should be able to motivate yourself to get work done, and to manage your own time efficiently.

Distance learning

Our doctoral programme can now be run on either an attendance or distance learning basis. The principles are the same – i.e. a course of high-level supervised research leading to a substantial and original thesis. However, the supervision happens online instead of in person, for example by Skype, email, or similar. In other words, as a distance learning PhD student, you can pursue your work from wherever in the world you live, and whatever your schedule. Our aim is to make your experience of doing a PhD by distance learning as professionally and personally enriching as it would be by attendance. 

There are, however, a few differences of detail or procedure:

  1. The application for distance learning will be still more closely scrutinised, including for example identity checks. In addition, applications will be judged on the availability of either electronic research resources, or resources local to the applicant. In other words, we will take extra care to ensure that everything you might need for your work will be available to you, at a distance.
  2. The monitoring of distance learning doctoral students will be more frequent, to try to ensure that the lack of face to face contact does not cause students to ‘drift off’ from their studies. This means that we will ask you to report regularly on your progress and your activities. Likewise, we will insist that you participate fully in the virtual life of the department, through online discussion forums, reading groups, organising virtual conferences, contributing to special online events, planning and delivering online learning materials, sitting in where relevant on online Masters courses, and etc.
  3. Distance learning study will normally only be available part time, and only candidates with extraordinarily high qualifications and references will be considered for full-time study in this mode.
  4. The induction and continuous professional development workshops offered by the university will, in most cases, be made available to you as recordings, and you will be expected to review such materials with the same care and attention you would were you attending in person. W
  5. We are able to offer fewer opportunities for university – level teaching experience to distance learning candidates. Thus, this route is suitable for those who do not need this experience, perhaps because an academic career is not your chosen path, or because you are already employed by a college or university, and thus already have such experience.  
  6. Finally, although it is possible for the final oral defence of the thesis to be conducted at a distance, this will be exceptional. In most circumstances, we will ask you to travel to the UK to sit your examinations. Also, this means that we can take you to dinner to celebrate your success!

How much does it cost?

Fees for research degrees are paid for each year. The current fees are listed on the University’s course listing (same link as above under ‘how to apply’). Notice that they are different for part time and full time, and for students from the UK or EU, and from other countries. These fees do not include things like living or travelling expenses, books, and passport or visa expenses. Please note that we are able to offer little in the way of financial help; but we will support you in applying for funding local to you. Click here for the application link and a list of PhD fees for full-time, and here for part-time or distance learning; and for further information see here.

How do I find out more?

For further information about research degrees in philosophy at Staffordshire, please contact Professor Burnham (h.d.burnham@staffs.ac.uk), or the tutor in the Department whose work most closely matches your proposed field of research.