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Often I've read here about people applying to PhD "positions" in the UK.

In my search for PhD positions (CS & Statistics), I've seen:

  • Generic PhD programs at research groups
  • Generic PhD programs at departments, with a note recommending the applicant to first contact a supervisor
  • Generic Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) programs
  • Studentships with a specified project, attached funding that then gets pooled to a number of supervisors
  • Studentships with a specified project, attached funding and supervisor

The term "PhD position" seems to mean the last one, but those are a very small portion of the number of programs I've found, so I'm confused why those are often discussed as the main thing. Am I missing a significant number of opportunities in my search?

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    I don't understand the term "generic PhD program". Or CDT, for that matter.
    – Buffy
    Jul 30, 2021 at 17:40
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    I don't think "PhD position" means anything more specific than a role where (all things going well) you graduate with a PhD. Jul 30, 2021 at 18:50
  • I removed Europe from your question because Europe is not a homogeneous block.
    – astronat
    Jul 31, 2021 at 13:11

2 Answers 2

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All of those are PhD positions.

The concept of a "PhD program" (or programme) does not really exist in the UK in the same way as it does in the USA. PhD degrees in the UK do not involve any coursework or exams -- you start doing research from day one, so there is no mandatory or planned programme of study which all students follow together. This means that PhD positions/studentships/degrees are never usually referred to as PhD programmes.

Every one of the permutations you describe could be called a PhD position -- that's just a generic term which means you will be working towards a doctoral degree in that role. It's not useful or necessary to draw the distinctions which you have -- the funding and duration of the degree will almost certainly be near-identical (around £15k per year tax-free stipend for 3.5 to 4 years, plus London weighting if you're in London, perhaps an extra £2-3k pa) no matter which of the various options you go with. When referring to the funding specifically, the term studentship can be used, e.g. "Your studentship will be paid on the first Monday of every month" or "You have been awarded a studentship for four years of study towards the degree of PhD".

The main distinction between these options is just where the funding for the position is coming from: the supervisor's own grant (perhaps if they have an ERC or similar), the allocated budget from the research council (i.e. the government), funding via a CDT, or the university's own PhD bursaries.

All would be correctly referred to as PhD positions and you would be called a PhD student or post-graduate research student (PGRS) while doing one. The latter term is often favoured by university admin as it's a catch-all for Master's and PhD students.

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  • You are a bit off on US doctoral education, but it isn't important to your message. It isn't as uniform as you suggest. But most places have critical exams and most people don't start dissertation research immediately.
    – Buffy
    Jul 31, 2021 at 13:26
  • One big difference between a CDT/DTP and indevidually advertised positions is that, at least for some CDTs/DTPs the decision on supervisors/projects may be made after admission (or may not, depending on the program), while cases where you apply directly to the supervisor will always have the supervisor/project fixed prior to advertisement. Aug 1, 2021 at 20:35
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Admission to a "generic" PhD programme in the UK will generally NOT come with funding, but instead the obligation to pay tuition fees (which in particular for international candidates can be very hefty). As such, this only really makes sense if you can afford it, or if you have already obtained funding from elsewhere.

Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT) are very fashionable in the UK at the moment, and many of the grant funding bodies (eg EPSRC) no longer fund PhD students as part of individual research grants. This is rather UK-specific and somewhat recent development, hence advice written for eg Europe in general, or 1-2 decades old, may emphasize individual projects over CDTs.

Of the remaining individual-project-based PhD opportunities in CS, a sizable amount will involve industry co-sponsors. As setting such a project is a signficant effort, I would suspect that potential supervisors will often engage in it only if they already have an outstanding candidate at hand. Other opportunities originate in "left-over" research funding, which may require them to be filled very quickly. Both aspects can lead to individual projects being represented even less amongst advertisements than amongst actually funded PhD students.

Nothing in your question makes me assume that you are overlooking significant funding opportunities.

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