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Looking to carry out your own independent research as a postgraduate? If your project isn’t extensive enough for a PhD (or if you wish to study a shorter course) you might want to consider a Master of Philosophy (MPhil).
The MPhil is a fairly unique qualification that looks much more like a PhD than another Masters degree. That’s why we’ve put together this overview of the Master of Philosophy, including information on the structure, content and assessment of an MPhil – and the difference between an MPhil and a PhD.
Or, to read about other types of Masters degree, start with our main postgraduate qualifications guide.
The MPhil, or ‘Master of Philosophy’, is a postgraduate research Masters. Instead of completing taught units and assessments, an MPhil consists entirely of your own independent project.
|Qualification Level||7 (NQF)|
|Availability||UK and similar HE systems|
An MPhil can be part of a (or a step towards PhD registration) but you can also study it as a standalone qualification.
Unlike most other Masters qualifications, the MPhil is a pure research degree. Whereas an MRes will include some taught units, an MPhil is based entirely on the completion of an independent thesis.
You’ll undertake this work under the guidance of an academic supervisor, but won’t normally have any other timetabled classes or assessments.
As an advanced research qualification, an MPhil will usually have extra admissions requirements.
This will depend on your subject, your university and the specific project you wish to tackle. If your MPhil is intended to lead to a PhD, your university may expect you to have existing experience at taught postgraduate level. If your project is smaller and self-contained, this may not be necessary.
Most MPhil programmes will also require you to put forward a research proposal. This will define your intended project and / or state how you intend to tackle it.
Though its full title identifies it as a Masters degree, the MPhil actually sits somewhere between other Masters qualifications and more advanced postgraduate research training.
In most higher education systems, the MPhil is considered to be a ‘Masters-level’ qualification.
Both systems place the MPhil ‘beneath’ the PhD, which is a level 8, or ‘third cycle’ qualification.
In practice, however, the MPhil is much more like a PhD than other Masters degrees.
This isn’t just due to its research focus. Like a PhD, an MPhil is often studied after a taught Masters degree.
In some cases the MPhil can also lead into a PhD. Which brings us to…
It’s helpful (and quite accurate) to think of an MPhil (‘Master of Philosophy’) as a smaller scale PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). Some PhD degrees are actually titled ‘DPhil’, which makes the relationship between these two qualification levels clearer (in Latin at least!).
The two qualifications are also related in other ways. It’s quite common to ‘transfer’ between MPhil and PhD registration, depending on the progress of your research.
There are various ways in which this can happen, depending on your circumstances:
The MPhil is a well-recognised qualification. But its availability and format varies across different higher education systems.
MPhil degrees are most common in countries like the UK, where doctoral study is purely research-based. In such systems, the MPhil is available as a pathway within a PhD programme or as a shorter standalone qualification.
Some of the UK’s oldest universities award the MPhil in place of a more conventional Master of Arts degree, with taught and / or research components. This usually occurs when a university automatically confers an MA to its graduates (as happens at Oxford and Cambridge) or when it awards the MA as a four-year integrated Masters (as still happens at some Scottish universities).
The MPhil is less common in countries like the USA. This is because the first part of an American-style PhD programme is focussed on taught units rather than research.
Instead of upgrading from (or being awarded) an MPhil, most US PhD students transfer to the final ABD (‘all but dissertation’) stage of their programmes.
European universities do not commonly award MPhils.
The MPhil is recognised within the Bologna Process (which organises qualification cycles across Europe and the UK). However, the divide between Masters level (‘second cycle’) and PhD level (‘third cycle’) courses is much more distinct in European higher education systems.
Degrees that sit between Masters level and full research qualifications (such as the MPhil and MRes) are less common.
Most higher education systems should recognise an MPhil, even if the degree isn’t commonly awarded by their own universities. Within the European Higher Education Area, for example, the MPhil is recognised as a ‘second cycle’, Masters level degree.
The MPhil can be awarded in all subject areas. This is a common feature of postgraduate research programmes, which don’t normally reflect academic disciplines in their degree titles.
Variant forms of the MPhil are sometimes offered in Arts and Humanities subjects. This happens when a university offers a more specialised research programme in the form of an MPhil. It also occurs when the MPhil title is used to distinguish a postgraduate Masters from automatically conferred or integrated MA courses.
In the vast majority of cases, however, the MPhil is a ‘generic’ degree, available in any academic discipline that can support a sufficiently in-depth research project.
Despite appearances, the MPhil isn’t a Philosophy degree. Here the term ‘philosophy’ refers much more generally to intellectual inquiry. You can study a ‘Master of Philosophy’ in any subject.
The MPhil is often overshadowed by the PhD, or incorrectly viewed as the outcome of a failed PhD (or failed PhD upgrade). In fact there are plenty of good reasons for studying a standalone MPhil.
You might have identified a smaller research topic that interests you, but which doesn’t have the scope for a full PhD. If so, an MPhil project could be ideal: allowing you to undertake your research without needing to alter or extend it.
Alternatively, you may choose the MPhil over the PhD for career-based reasons. An MPhil provides advanced research skills and experience which are valued by a range of employers.
A PhD also demonstrates these, of course. But the added benefit of a doctorate may not be as significant outside the academic profession.
Worried that you’ll register for a PhD, but discover that doctoral research isn’t for you? You may be able to choose not to upgrade and write up your research for an MPhil instead. In this way you’ll still graduate with a respectable research qualification.
There are effectively two ways of studying an MPhil: You may register for the degree as part of a PhD pathway. Or you may register for a standalone MPhil qualification.
The nature of your registration will determine the length and assessment of your course, but its content will be the same.
Both ‘types’ of MPhil registration are pure research degrees. This distinguishes the MPhil from other research Masters (such as the MRes) which still include some taught units.
Like a PhD student, you’ll be assigned an expert supervisor. They’ll be responsible for guiding your project and providing mentoring for your development as a researcher.
You’ll have regular meetings with your supervisor at which you can discuss your ideas and receive feedback on work in progress. But most of your time will be spent working on your own initiative and taking responsibility for setting and meeting targets.
A standalone MPhil is normally two years long when studied as a full-time degree. Alternatively, you can study for four to five years part-time.
MPhil registration within a PhD programme normally lasts for one year. You will then transfer to full PhD registration after passing an upgrade exam.
Studying an MPhil is a lot like studying a PhD. In fact, for many students, studying an MPhil is the first part of studying a PhD.
Both degrees are awarded based entirely on the strength of a candidate’s independent research. Instead of attending classes and completing assessments you’ll work on a single extended project.
MPhil and PhD projects are therefore distinguished by scope, not content. The key principle for this is the extent of a project’s original contribution to knowledge:
One criteria that is often used to clarify this is the potential for publication of a thesis.
These differences are why MPhil projects are shorter (both in length of study and word-count) and don’t face the same strict examination standards as a PhD.
As a research degree, your MPhil won’t normally include any taught units or coursework assignments. Instead you will be assessed entirely on the strength of your thesis.
This will involve an oral examination, similar to the formal viva voce that concludes a PhD. You’ll discuss and defend your work in front of a panel of examiners.
A slightly different process applies to MPhil upgrades.
An MPhil viva will not normally be as long or intensive as a PhD viva.
It will primarily assess the accuracy of your findings and understanding, rather than the significance of your original contribution to knowledge.
If you’re registered for an MPhil as the first part of a PhD programme, you will eventually sit an ‘upgrade exam’ in order to transfer your enrolment to that of a PhD student.
This will be similar to the viva that concludes an MPhil or PhD, but on a smaller and more informal scale.
You’ll normally submit a partial draft of your thesis (such as a first chapter, or literature review) or prepare some initial results. These will form the basis for a discussion with your supervisor and at least one other ‘examiner’ from within your university.
The ‘exam’ itself will focus as much on your future plans as on your work so far. You’ll need to demonstrate that your project has the potential required of PhD work and that you are making sufficient progress to complete it in a suitable timeframe.
If successful, your registration will be upgraded and you will eventually submit for the PhD degree, rather than the MPhil.
Like PhDs, most MPhil degrees don't have a credit value. This is because they aren’t made up of individually assessed modules or units.
It’s possible that your MPhil may include some initial training in research methods and that these will be given a nominal credit value. However, this won’t contribute to an overall credit value for your degree.
Despite not having a credit value, the MPhil is internationally recognised as a Masters-level degree.
Last updated - 16/05/2019