Physics doctoral degree courses in the UK are nominally three years long, although most students will take slightly longer, typically 3.5 years, to completely finish writing up their thesis and take their viva (final oral examination). This is less time than in many countries, but it is worth remembering that British undergraduate degree courses are very specialized by world standards, and typically require almost exclusive study of physics.
Students seeking admission to a doctoral degree program apply to join a specific research group (and sometimes to undertake a specific research project) in the physics department of the university of interest. Once admitted, they will begin working in their PhD supervisor’s group and carrying out research from the start of their degree course. Most universities run some kind of classes for at least first year doctoral students in the general area of their research (e.g., laser physics, condensed matter, theory) and possibly also on more general subjects as research skills, paper writing, and teaching. However, the courseload for first year doctoral students in the UK is generally significantly less time-demanding than the intense courseload required of first-year doctoral students in the US, allowing first-year UK students an opportunity to begin their doctoral research in earnest.
Many UK students are funded for three years by the UK scientific research councils. Currently this support includes coverage of tuition fees and a stipend of ~ £12,000 ($22,000). Overseas students often come with scholarships from their own government. If a student requires more than three years to complete all doctoral degree requirements, the student often must rely on his or her savings once the third year is complete.
There is generally no obligation for graduate students to teach, but many do, for financial or professional reasons. Teaching opportunities include supervising undergraduate labs and teaching problem-set classes and tutorials. There is often a time limit (e.g., six hours a week) imposed on the amount of teaching each graduate student may take on.
The relationship between the student and his or her supervisor is very similar to US doctoral programs: it can vary depending on the personalities involved. Some students see their supervisors at scheduled meetings, whereas others will have a more informal approach. To some extent how much the student sees his or her supervisor will also depend on how much support the student gets from postdocs or other students working in the same group.
PhD qualified physicists who want to build a research career will then take a postdoc somewhere, and this is a typical time for someone who has trained in the UK to move abroad. However, there is also a big demand for physicists in all disciplines that require numeracy, often in the financial sector, industrial research or within the national laboratories such as the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory or the National Physical Laboratory.
Engineering and Physical Sciences Resarch Council (EPSRC):
Laura Corner holds a BSC in theoretical physics and a PhD in nonlinear optics from Imperial College, London, and is currently working as a postdoc on attosecond science in the physics department at the University of Oxford.