PhD vs MPhil: The Main Differences


9th April 2024

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Embarking on a journey towards an advanced degree in academia often involves navigating various options and understanding the nuances between different qualifications. If you’re considering applying for a PhD, you may also come across the Master of Philosophy (MPhil). In this article, we’ll explore the differences between these two qualifications and shed light on their unique characteristics.

What is an MPhil and How Does it Differ from a PhD?

The Master of Philosophy is a research degree that sits between a Master’s degree and a PhD in terms of academic rigour and scope. It typically involves a significant research project and the completion of a thesis under the supervision of a faculty member.

While both MPhil and PhD degrees involve independent research, the key distinction lies in the depth and originality of the research conducted. A PhD requires a more substantial and original contribution to the field, often resulting in the production of new knowledge or theories, whereas an MPhil may involve a more focused research project without the same level of depth.

MPhil vs MSc/MA

While both MPhil and Master of Science (MSc) or Master of Arts (MA) degrees involve postgraduate study, they serve different purposes and have distinct characteristics. An MPhil is a research-focused degree that requires students to undertake independent research and produce a thesis, whereas an MSc or MA degree typically involves a combination of coursework and a smaller research project.

MSc and MA degrees are often seen as more professionally oriented and may be preferred by individuals seeking to enhance their practical skills or enter specific industries, while an MPhil is ideal for those interested in pursuing further research or academic careers.

What is a DPhil?

Many people often believe that a DPhil and a PhD are two separate degrees. In the UK, a DPhil, or Doctor of Philosophy, is essentially the equivalent of a PhD. The term “DPhil” is primarily used by the University of Oxford, while most other universities in the UK use “PhD” to refer to the same qualification. Whilst the title may differ, the requirements and standards for a DPhil are generally equivalent to those of a PhD, with both qualifications being widely recognised and respected in academia.

Upgrading from MPhil to PhD

In many UK universities, full-time research students are required to initially register for an MPhil degree. Following a minimum period (typically 9-12 months), students must then fulfil specific academic requirements to qualify for an upgrade to a PhD degree.

This upgrade process entails demonstrating significant progress in their research project and meeting the criteria set forth by the university. After successfully completing the upgrade process, students move from MPhil to PhD status. This transition enables them to pursue their doctoral studies with improved research capabilities and greater opportunities for academic advancement.

The PhD Upgrade Exam

The PhD upgrade marks a pivotal moment in the academic journey of research students. It signifies the transition from the initial stages of research exploration to the more advanced and rigorous phase of doctoral-level study. Achieving the upgrade demonstrates a student’s ability to conduct independent research, formulate research questions, and develop a clear methodology for investigation. Moreover, it signals readiness to pursue original contributions to the field and undertake the challenges inherent in doctoral-level research.

Requirements for the PhD Upgrade

The specific requirements for the PhD upgrade vary depending on the policies and regulations of individual universities or academic institutions. For example, here are the upgrade guidelines set forth by University College London (UCL), which outline the expectations and procedures for research students transitioning from MPhil to PhD status. 

Common criteria typically include:

  • Demonstration of substantial progress in the research project, including a well-defined research question, literature review, and research methodology.
  • Evidence of critical analysis and synthesis of existing literature, demonstrating an understanding of the broader academic context.
  • Development of a coherent and feasible research plan outlining the proposed trajectory of the doctoral study.
  • Presentation of preliminary findings or research outcomes that indicate the potential for original contributions to the field.
  • Successful completion of any required coursework or training related to research methods, ethics, or academic writing.

A Smooth Transition From MPhil to PhD

In summary, while an MPhil provides valuable research experience and may serve as a stepping stone to a PhD, a PhD is the highest academic qualification and requires a more substantial contribution to the field. The PhD upgrade process represents a crucial stage in the academic journey of many research students in the UK, marking the transition from MPhil to PhD status and signalling readiness to pursue doctoral-level research. 

Are you preparing for the PhD upgrade process? Our team of experienced academics is here to offer guidance and support every step of the way. Schedule a tutoring session today and let us help you on your journey towards earning a PhD.