Skip to main content
European Commission logo
EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Third-cycle (PhD) programmes


7.Higher Education

7.5Third-cycle (PhD) programmes

Last update: 27 November 2023

Third Cycle (PhD) Programmes

Organisation of Doctoral Studies

PhD education is provided across all disciplines. The core component of doctoral education is the advancement of knowledge through original research. The majority of PhD students, over 90%, are registered in the university sector. In terms of disciplines, over 60% are undertaking their PhD in the broad SET disciplines, while nearly 40% are in the HSS domain. The normal time to completion for a PhD is 3 to 4 years. Structured PhD programmes  are 4 years in duration.

There have been a number of national initiatives in the last five years which have shaped the development of PhD education in Ireland. The 2006 Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation recommended the doubling of PhD graduate numbers by 2013, the creation of graduate schools , and moves towards more structured PhD education. In response, a number of funding programmes were established by the Department of Education and Skills and the HEA to support the establishment of graduate schools and the development of structured PhD education.

The move to structured PhDs has been accelerated by the establishment in recent years of a Network of University Deans of Graduate Schools. The network has produced a PhD Graduate Skills Statement  which sets out the attributes which modern PhD graduates should possess. These principles recognise that advancement of knowledge through original research is the core component of PhD education, but PhD education must also facilitate additional skills development opportunities, including generic and transferable skills. This statement is fully compatible with the European Universities Association’s Salzburg principles, endorsed by a Higher Education Authority forum in March 2006.

The move to structured PhDs, practice based PhDs and industrial PhDs was supported through PRTLI, the Strategic Innovation Fund, the Irish Research Council and the Health Research Board (HRB) have assisted in the reform of graduate education in partnership with the higher education institutions.  

In 2009, the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) published national guidelines for good practice in the organisation of PhD programmes  and the HETAC published Research Degree Programme Policy and Criteria.  The guidelines present good practice in relation to institutional organisation, admission procedures, induction, supervision, profession development, and assessment.

Structured programmes preserve the PhD’s traditional strengths and embed activities that support the acquisition of a range of relevant specialist and generic skills. The following components have been put in place across HEIs with structured PhD programmes: formal induction, progress monitoring through advisory and supervisory panels, regular professional development needs review, placements where appropriate and access to disciplinary and generic skills development opportunities.

Higher education institutions have worked collaboratively to exchange best practice with regard to supervision arrangements, student supports and recruitment.  

Outside of the standard PhD delivery model, some HEI’s also offer professional doctorates which vary in terms of title, the amount of course delivered as taught element, timelines to completion etc.  Research undertaken as part of a professional doctorate may be more applied in nature, but candidates still acquire the necessary research and enquiry skills in order to carry out research that will contribute to professional knowledge and practice.

The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 recommends the development of a national quality framework for PhD education in Ireland.  This national framework for doctoral education is currently being developed which will offer clarity as to how doctoral education will be facilitated in Ireland and provide guidelines to maintain standards for quality across the system.

Admission Requirements

Entry to a programme leading to a Doctoral Degree is typically open to holders of Honours Bachelor Degrees and holders of Masters Degrees. The general model is that a holder of an Honours Bachelor Degree with a high classification enters initially onto a Masters research programme, and transfers on to a Doctoral programme after one year on the Masters research programme.

In some instances a Masters degree which provides grounding in research methodologies and a specialist knowledge in the area of research, or evidence of equivalent learning is required. Candidates with qualifications other than those outlined above and/ or who have gained credits from previous studies or can demonstrate experiential learning, including Mature Students, are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Admissions procedures and the number of students admitted generally are matters for the individual HEI.

Status of Doctoral Students/Candidates

In general, PhD candidates in Irish HEIs are classified as students and as such are not in receipt of the various employee entitlements eg social security and pensions rights.

Supervision Arrangements

The supervision of each research student is the collective responsibility of the supervisor(s), the department/school and the HEI. In general, each student has a principal supervisor, who is an active and successful scholar in the relevant area, and who has primary responsibility for the overall management and supervision of the student’s work and progress. In some instances a non-academic supervisor may also be appointed as joint-supervisor.

This structure is supplemented by a supporting supervisory academic panel (which may be inter-institutional or comprise international researchers) which monitors the student’s progress to ensure accountability of the supervision process and the resolution of any difficulties in the candidate-supervisor relationship. Periodic formal meetings and formal reviews between students and their supervisor and supervisory panel take place. Conflict resolution procedures are in place in each HEI.


There is a long tradition of higher education engaging with enterprise in the area of research. Such engagement allows input from non-academic stakeholders to inform the content of PhD programmes. Some schemes also allow for an enterprise partner to co-sponsor an award and in turn to appoint a joint non-academic supervisor to oversee the student’s research. In such instances, the student may conduct some or all of their research as part of an in-company placement.

In short, such engagement with non-academic stakeholders facilitates work placement opportunities for students, enterprise representation on advisory boards and/ or supervisory committees along with general assurance that education and research programmes meet the needs of the employment market outside of academia.  This engagement enhances the higher education system’s capacity to develop work relevant and work ready graduates.


A PhD is normally awarded on the basis that a body of work carried out by the student makes “a contribution to knowledge” or is “suitable for publication in whole or in part”. Other aspects are also very important, including:

The depth and breadth of understanding of the relevant field(s) of study displayed by the student, and the expertise gained with respect to basic and advanced methodologies and techniques.

The assessment is based on the thesis itself, and an oral examination of the student. In most institutions, a doctoral candidate cannot submit their work for examination without their principal supervisor’s support. Upon receiving the supervisor’s agreement that the thesis is worthy of submission the university/faculty convenes an examination committee. This consists of at least one internal and one external examiner. The external examiner must be a recognised expert in the thesis area. The doctoral candidate then undergoes a viva voce, which is an oral defence of the thesis before the internal and external examiners. The internal examiner has at least broad relevant expertise in the discipline in question, is an experienced senior person, and acts to maintain consistently high internal standards.

Clear and adequate procedures are defined for all stages of the examination, including:

  • A simple, standard operating procedure for the examination process
  • Definitions of the roles and responsibilities of the chair, internal examiners, external examiners, and (when present and when not present) the supervisor(s)

There are guidelines for the oral examination process that provide for:

  • Format and timetable
  • Normal minimum (e.g. one to two hours) and maximum lengths (e.g. four hours) of the examination
  • Feedback to the student at the end of the examination


As academically autonomous institutions, the universities have the authority to set the course content of their courses, to decide the methods of student assessment and to certify the awards given. They have the right to confer their own certificates, diplomas and degrees. These awards are recognised by the State. Where courses are subject to the approval of professional bodies such as the Medical Council or the Law Society, tertiary institutions need to abide by the requirements of such bodies if the courses are to be recognised for professional license purposes.

The Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) enjoys the same degree of academic freedom as the universities in determining its standards, and conferring its academic professional awards. In the Institute of Technology (IoT) sector, each institute, following agreement of its quality assurance procedures with Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI)   validates its own programmes. Additionally each institute, under delegated authority, under the Qualifications Education and Training Act 1999, grants its own awards. Most IoTs have delegated authority to make awards up to Level 9 (Masters) of the NFQ and about half of them have delegated awarding powers up to Level 10 (Doctorate). PhD degrees for the remainder are granted by QQI.

Organisational Variation

As a general rule HEI’s in Ireland require a presence on campus for the delivery of PhD programmes. Alternative modes of delivery e.g. distance learning are accessible from non-Irish institutions including the Open University which offers PhD programmes over a three-year period of full-time study (a maximum of six years part time). Under what may be considered a more flexible structure, candidates investigate a research topic and develop research and transferable skills, culminating in the completion, submission and defence via an oral examination of a 100,000 word doctoral thesis.

For registration purposes, all full-time PhD students initially sign up for a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) for the first year of their three-year degree (or for the first two years if part time) and they then transfer to the PhD programme after the successful completion of a probationary assessment.