PhD Completion Rates UK

Last Updated on June 1, 2024 by Oluwajuwon Alvina

The pursuit of a PhD in the UK is a challenging endeavor, with a 19.5% failure rate and various obstacles that may cause students to leave their programme early or fail their viva. Despite these statistics, the majority of students who enroll onto a PhD programme successfully complete it and are awarded a doctorate. With approximately 2% of the UK population holding a PhD, it is clear that obtaining this prestigious qualification is no easy feat.

To be eligible for admission into a PhD programme in the UK, applicants typically need to have a strong academic background, with a minimum of a Master’s degree in a relevant field. In addition, they must have a clear research proposal outlining their intended area of study and research objectives. Strong writing skills, the ability to think critically, and a passion for research are also important characteristics that admissions committees look for in potential PhD candidates.

The admission process for a PhD programme in the UK usually involves submitting an application form, academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, a research proposal, and in some cases, an interview with potential supervisors. Admissions committees carefully review each applicant’s materials to assess their suitability for the programme and their likelihood of successfully completing the PhD. Successful applicants are then offered a place on the programme and begin their journey towards obtaining a doctorate.


PhD Completion Rate in the UKPercentage
PhD Failure Rate19.5%
Students leaving PhD programme early16.2%
Students failing their viva3.3%
Students awarded a doctorate80.5%
Percentage of UK population with a PhD2%

Getting a PhD in UK

The analysis uses a new method to calculate rates of qualification from postgraduate research degree study and replaces the research degree qualification rates (RDQRs) method that has been used by HEFCE since 2007. This updated method means that the data are not directly comparable with those calculated and published by HEFCE previously. It is intended to provide more relevant information and be less burdensome to HEIs and HEFCE than the previous one, which involved verification of data going back several years. The new method is consistent with the one we use to calculate completion rates for undergraduate students, and aims to be more objective, fair and reliable.

getting a phd in the uk – College Learners

Rates of qualification from research degree study are projected for students living in the UK and EU, who started full-time research degrees at English HEIs in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Qualification rates are provided by HEI, projected over periods of 7 and 25 years. We take 7 years as the first point by which there is a reasonable expectation that the majority of students who will ever complete their qualification will have done so. We take 25 years as the point where any student who will ever complete has done so.

The data show the proportions of full-time research degree starters that are in each of three end states that have been projected at 103 HEIs in England. That is the proportion of the cohort expected to have:

• qualified
• transferred to another institution, or
• become absent from higher education

Embarking on a PhD is a journey of epic proportions. Initially filled with excitement and enthusiasm, students are compelled by the idea of pushing the frontiers of human knowledge.

In time, this enthusiasm can fade. Devoting three to five years of your life to such a tiny subject niche has the ability to do that, even to the most devoted of individuals. Unfortunately, the long and winding road takes both a physical and psychological toll. Stress management will inescapably take centre stage, and your ability to manage it will be extensively tested.

Best Philosophy Phd Programs In The World – College Learners

In 2011, a study carried out by the University of Texas found that 43% of their graduate student participants reported experiencing more stress than they were able to handle, with PhD students expressing the highest levels. This likely explains the high attrition rate. In 2013, it was estimated that 30% of students who embark on a PhD in the UK leave university without finishing. This statistic was worse in North America, where in 2008, almost 50% of students left graduate school without their doctorate.

However, research has shown that the majority of students who enter doctoral programs have the academic ability to successfully complete the degree. Therefore, it is likely that the culture of PhD programs are to blame

.PhD Completion Rates UK

The PhD failure rate in the UK is 19.5%, with 16.2% of students leaving their PhD programme early, and 3.3% of students failing their viva. 80.5% of all students who enrol onto a PhD programme successfully complete it and are awarded a doctorate.

Despite what you may have heard, the failing PhD rate amongst students who sit their viva is low.

This, combined with ongoing guidance from your supervisor, is because vivas don’t have a strict pass/fail outcome. You can find a detailed breakdown of all viva outcomes in our viva guide, but to summarise – the most common outcome will be for you to revise your thesis in accordance with the comments from your examiners and resubmit it.

This means that as long as the review of your thesis and your viva examination uncovers no significant issues, you’re almost certain to be awarded a provisional pass on the basis you make the necessary corrections to your thesis.

To give you an indication of the viva failure rate, we’ve analysed the outcomes of 26,076 PhD candidates from 14 UK universities who sat a viva between 2006 and 2017.

The analysis shows that of the 26,076 students who sat their viva, 25,063 succeeded; this is just over 96% of the total students as shown.

can you fail a phd?

There are essentially two ways in which you can fail a PhD; non-completion or failing your viva (also known as your thesis defence).

Non-completion

Non-completion is when a student leaves their PhD programme before having sat their viva examination. Since vivas take place at the end of the PhD journey, typically between the 3rd and 4th year for most full-time programmes, most failed PhDs fall within the ‘non-completion’ category because of the long duration it covers.

There are many reasons why a student may decide to leave a programme early, though these can usually be grouped into two categories:

  1. Motives – The individual may no longer believe undertaking a PhD is for them. This might be because it isn’t what they had imagined, or they’ve decided on an alternative path.
  2. Extenuating circumstances – The student may face unforeseen problems beyond their control, such as poor health, bereavement or family difficulties, preventing them from completing their research.

In both cases, a good supervisor will always try their best to help the student continue with their studies. In the former case, this may mean considering alternative research questions or, in the latter case, encouraging you to seek academic support from the university through one of their student care policies.

Besides the student deciding to end their programme early, the university can also make this decision. On these occasions, the student’s supervisor may not believe they’ve made enough progress for the time they’ve been on the project. If the problem can’t be corrected, the supervisor may ask the university to remove the student from the programme.

Failing The Viva

Assuming you make it to the end of your programme, there are still two ways you can be unsuccessful.

The first is an unsatisfactory thesis. For whatever reason, your thesis may be deemed not good enough, lacking originality, reliable data, conclusive findings, or be of poor overall quality. In such cases, your examiners may request an extensive rework of your thesis before agreeing to perform your viva examination. Although this will rarely be the case, it is possible that you may exceed the permissible length of programme registration and if you don’t have valid grounds for an extension, you may not have enough time to be able to sit your viva.

The more common scenario, while still being uncommon itself, is that you sit and fail your viva examination. The examiners may decide that your research project is severely flawed, to the point where it can’t possibly be remedied even with major revisions. This could happen for reasons such as basing your study on an incorrect fundamental assumption; this should not happen however if there is a proper supervisory support system in place.

PhD Completion Rates UK

The PhD failure rate in the UK is 19.5%, with 16.2% of students leaving their PhD programme early, and 3.3% of students failing their viva. 80.5% of all students who enrol onto a PhD programme successfully complete it and are awarded a doctorate.

According to 2010-11 data published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (now replaced by UK Research and Innovation), 72.9% of students enrolled in a PhD programme in the UK or EU complete their degree within seven years. Following this, 80.5% of PhD students complete their degree within 25 years.

This means that four out of every five students who register onto a PhD programme successfully complete their doctorate.

While a failure rate of one in five students may seem a little high, most of these are those who exit their programme early as opposed to those who fail at the viva stage.

PhD Completion Rates | Surviving Grad School

phd viva failure rate

Despite what you may have heard, the failing PhD rate amongst students who sit their viva is low.

This, combined with ongoing guidance from your supervisor, is because vivas don’t have a strict pass/fail outcome. You can find a detailed breakdown of all viva outcomes in our viva guide, but to summarise – the most common outcome will be for you to revise your thesis in accordance with the comments from your examiners and resubmit it.

This means that as long as the review of your thesis and your viva examination uncovers no significant issues, you’re almost certain to be awarded a provisional pass on the basis you make the necessary corrections to your thesis.

To give you an indication of the viva failure rate, we’ve analysed the outcomes of 26,076 PhD candidates from 14 UK universities who sat a viva between 2006 and 2017.

PhD Completion Rates | Surviving Grad School

What does research say about completion rates?

Research has identified several factors that make students more likely to persist with their degrees. These factors are related to the students themselves, their supervisor, and the university environment.

Psychological studies of postgraduate students find the more successful ones tend to perceive themselves as competent and be intrinsically motivated. These are students who enjoy their topic area, perceive their postgraduate studies as a valuable learning experience, and who strongly identify with being a career researcher. Students who are motivated by external factors (such as pursuing a prestigious academic role) are more likely to say they want to quit.

Scholarship holders are more likely to complete their degrees. This is likely because they are academically stronger than non-scholarship holders and are less vulnerable to financial strain. Students can support themselves financially through teaching, research assistant roles or other work, but this must be balanced carefully. Part-time students are less likely to complete their degrees.

Students’ field of study also affects completion rates. A higher proportion of students in sciences tend to complete their degrees than those in arts and humanities. This is likely because students working in the sciences are more often involved in laboratory-based work in teams, where there is greater social support and knowledge exchange. People studying humanities more often work on their research alone.

A positive student-supervisor working relationship is critical. A good supervisor should be an expert in the student’s subject of choice and a supportive mentor. They should help the student navigate through the frustrations and uncertainties of writing a thesis, and help students adjust to the world of academia.

Students are also more likely to finish their research degrees if they have strong connections with their peers. Such connections help students develop their professional identity as researchers, as well as providing opportunities for social support and informal learning.

The quality of associated coursework is also important. Ideally, postgraduate programs should provide students with a sound foundation of research skills and content knowledge, and facilitate ongoing communication with their faculty.

Involvement in formal and informal professional activities is also important. Students who complete tend to participate in departmental events, such as research seminars and professional development workshops. They also tend to participate in academic conferences. These events allow students to learn and expand their networks.

What students and their supervisors should do

First, given the importance of the student-supervisor relationship, universities can provide advice to students about locating and approaching a suitable supervisor. Specifically, students should consider the research area they wish to work in and locate a supervisor with relevant expertise. They should approach supervisors with an openness to negotiating a research topic.

Both students and supervisors should be upfront about their expectations about how the supervision will work. An excellent starting point for discussion is the Expectations in Supervisionquestionnaire. Students and supervisors sometimes have mismatched expectations about how often they should meet, the amount of feedback the supervisor should provide on drafts, and how much counselling and emotional support the supervisor should provide.

Supervisors have an important role in providing a realistic preview of academic life. One useful exercise is to review an academic competency model, such as the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, to discuss which skills academics need. In addition to knowledge of their topic area and research methods, academics increasingly need to be good at managing complex projects, working in multidisciplinary teams, and engaging with industry and media.

This discussion should enable supervisors and students to plan how students will develop their capabilities. Alternatively, it could prompt some students to opt out of a research degree if they think an academic role is not compatible with their goals.

What universities should do

As well as providing research training, universities can also increase the capabilities of students by helping them understand self-handicapping patterns. These include busyness, procrastination and disorganisation.

Students can be guided to replace these with more helpful actions such as scheduling dedicated writing time, reframing difficult tasks as learning opportunities, and developing a work routine. This could be done as part of a workshop or supervisory relationship.

Universities should also encourage greater connectedness between research students to build social support. This could be accomplished through team-based activities or face-to-face events.

For instance, some universities offer Three Minute Thesis, a research communication competition where students present their work in under 180 seconds.

Some universities organise Shut Up and Write sessions, which turns writing into a social experience and limits distractions. These activities can be complemented by encouraging students to become involved in supportive online communities and blogging.

Finally, universities should be dedicated to helping academics develop as supervisors through ongoing training and coaching. Departments could consider tracking the progression of studentsand ensuring supervisors have the time and skills to take on new students.

Completing a dissertation can be richly rewarding, but it’s the endpoint of a process that’s often long, frustrating and uncertain. Helping students achieve their research aspirations makes academic life a better experience for all involved.

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