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Faculty of Social Sciences

Postgraduate research

Are you considering studying for a PhD with us? Deciding whether to embark on a PhD is an important decision and one that needs to be made after a great deal of consideration and research. We are here to help you at every stage of this process, from deciding whether a PhD is right for you, to finding detailed information on how to apply.

You should find all of the information that you need on this page, from writing a research proposal to when you should (and why you should) contact us. We also include links to our Research Centres, Schools and Disciplines (Psychology, Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, Geography, Economics, Politics and International Studies), where you will find individual profiles for each member of staff as well as information on staff specialisms, recent PhD topics and current students.


The Faculty of Social Sciences has emerged as a site of distinctive expertise and innovation nationally and internationally in the study of Psychology, Social Policy, Criminology, Politics and Political Theory, Geography, Sociology and Economics. The Faculty's research work and its publications have been influential across academia, in policy and in broader society, creating a significant reputation for excellence at the Open University in these fields.

The Faculty has a thriving research culture and is committed to its development and enhancement. We have a number of Research Centres based within or connected to the Faculty, and students are encouraged to join and participate in one or more of these. One of the advantages of studying at the Open University is our commitment to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work. Furthermore, while we are primarily a distance learning institution at undergraduate level, students undertaking doctoral study have the opportunity to participate fully in the intellectual life of the university.

We have a lively body of full-time and part-time students who organise conferences, reading groups and engage in online forum and face-to-face discussion and support. Finally, an OU research degree provides the opportunity to make your mark with research in a subject that fuels your interest and inspires your imagination.

Types of research degree

There are two kinds of research degree available in the Faculty of Social Sciences:

Master of Philosophy (MPhil)

Students for this degree undertake a research programme that requires proficiency in research methods and techniques and shows an adequate knowledge of the literature. The study should also make a distinct contribution to scholarship in your field. A thesis for the MPhil degree should be no more than 60,000 words in length.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

A thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy must make a significant contribution to knowledge, be worthy of publication and give evidence of your ability to undertake further research without supervision. A PhD thesis should be no more than 100,000 words in length.

All prospective students applying for a research degree will apply for an MPhil in the first instance. Students will then be required to pass what is referred to as probation to be upgraded to PhD after approximately one year of study full-time and two years part-time. Probation requires students to submit a substantive piece of written work and a discussion about your work with academics other than your supervisors, and is in place to make sure you are prepared to undertake PhD research. While most students seek an upgrade to PhD, this should not diminish the value of MPhil research in some instances.

You can apply to study full-time or part-time.

Full-time research degrees

If you can dedicate the time to a full-time research project, you'll find yourself working with the OU's academic staff at the University's headquarters at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes or, for certain projects, at one of its Regional Centres. Competitive studentships are sometimes available through the University or other funding bodies. We recognise that funding plays a role in many students' decision-making about starting a PhD. For this reason, students who fund their own studies can register either full-time or part-time. Part-time study is often more viable for self-funding students.

Part-time research degrees

Too busy for full-time study or have other commitments? Don't worry. At the OU we can offer a solution: the chance to study without giving up work or those commitments. Part-time external study is just that. You can use research facilities in your home area, as well as the library and other resources at Walton Hall. You will be having regular meetings with your supervisor(s) at mutually agreed times. The Open University is a world-leading resource in providing access to a superb collection of on-line electronic materials, along with support about how to make best use of it.

The university sometimes offers studentships that will cover the fees for part-time study and if you work for the Open University you may receive a fee-waver for part-time study.

Visiting research student scheme

The Faculty offers a scheme whereby research students registered as PT at The Open University, and from other universities, whether based in the UK or Overseas, are able to visit the Faculty for a minimum of one week. The purpose of the Scheme is to allow research students to work with academics relevant to your research and participate in the intellectual life of the university.

As a visiting student you will have access to the Open University Library (subject to registration with the Library) The University also provides access to desk space, computer and a telephone, though at times this may require sharing the facilities with others. The University does not provide any kind of secretarial or other support, other than for activities that directly relate to research work. We offer no financial support for your visit to cover accommodation and other expenses and fees may apply, depending on the circumstances of the student. Please contact the relevant Postgraduate Co-ordinator for further details.

More information about our research degrees


Doctoral students are required to satisfy certain attendance requirements and this may have an impact upon where you live. Full-time students are required to participate fully in the research activity of the Faculty and University and should therefore live in commutable distance from the campus. Part-time students often live at a great distance, but are still required to attend regular supervision meetings (once every one or two months) with their supervisors and are advised to try and attend seminars and other relevant meetings. Hence students should normally be resident in the UK. We will however consider applicants who wish to study from outside the UK if there are compelling reasons to do so and on a case-by case-basis.

More information about living in Milton Keynes

When to contact us

It is important that you contact us after having read the information contained in these web pages. Staff will only be able to assist you further if you have a fairly clear idea of your research topic and that you are fairly certain staff members will be able to supervise you. To do this we advise that you also look at individual Discipline sites here and Research Centre sites. If after looking at this information you are unsure, then do feel free to contact us. Your relevant contact will have a greater in-depth idea of the relationship between your topic and potential supervisors. It is important that you provide them with enough information about your topic and you should aim to send by email about 2-3 paragraphs of information. Include your academic and professional history and your experience of research methods if relevant.

If we think we have the capacity to supervise your topic, you will then be directed towards likely supervisors who will provide some assistance in developing your proposal and application. We have also provided some information on this site about writing a research proposal, which will be attached to your application form.

Applying for a research degree


To apply to study at doctoral level you would normally be expected to have a good first degree (2.1 or above or equivalent) in a relevant subject and usually a postgraduate qualification relevant to your chosen field of study. If undertaking field research (research that involves research subjects or primary documentary materials) you will need to have had a reasonable grounding in research methods as part of your undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Although the OU offers an Induction programme and Faculty seminars for research students, as well as supervision, this is meant to enhance and support your research skills and you are expected to have already gained a good grounding in research methods before beginning your PhD.

Choosing a topic

Doctoral level study is about researching a specialist topic or field, and reviewing a list of our current and former PhD topics will illustrate how specialised doctoral research is required to be. Your research is expected to make an original contribution to the field, whether by theoretical innovation, or by applying existing theory to a new area of social life or new context. You will need to choose a topic you are excited and passionate about, or that you feel is socially important. This may be the most important aspect of selecting your topic, since you will be living with your topic, and investing your energies into it, for at least 3 years of your life.

You will probably need to have in mind some idea of what career you would like, although this is not a prerequisite for study (or winning a scholarship) and many students who embark on doctoral study make decisions about this as their research develops.

It is helpful to choose a topic that you already have some fairly substantial knowledge about, whether this is connected to work experience or previous study. It is helpful to read around your topic before approaching us to see if your interests will add anything new to the field. Try and make the topic manageable. Doctoral study is not intended to be a life's work; rather it is a stepping-stone to further research.

For further advice about how to choose your topic, you may like to consult other sources, such as Researching Real-World Problems: A Guide to Methods of Inquiry (2005), by Zina O'Leary, published by Sage.


Doctoral research, unlike other university studies, is almost entirely self-directed and motivated. You are at the helm of your project. However, you are supported in this endeavour by 'supervisors', usually two, who are academics with a good specialist grounding in your chosen field.

The selection of a supervisor is an important aspect of deciding where you want to pursue your research studies. For doctoral study, the proposed topic and methods suggested in the applicant's research proposal must fit within the goals, objectives and expertise of research groups and individual members of academic staff. Choose an advisor who is also interested and knowledgeable about your topic. In part, you should consider choosing which university you will apply to based on where the supervisor you most want to work with is located. Obviously, this is not always possible, but the student-supervisor relationship is an extremely important part of your research degree and it is vital you find someone whose interests match your own. If there is no-one in our faculty whose interests match your own then you will need to consider other faculties or universities.

We are very happy to offer advice on this. Please contact your most relevant Postgraduate Coordinator who will discuss with you your individual requirements. The person you contact will be the one based in the Discipline you think most reflects your research interests. Although we increasingly supervise across Disciplines (for example, through Research Centres), students are still based in specific Disciplines and participate in the life of that Discipline.

Writing a proposal

Normally a proposal should be between 1,500 and 2,000 words and will include the following:

  • A working title of the topic area
  • General overview/introduction of the area - what are you interested in here?
  • dentification of the relevant literature - you will need to show an awareness of some key areas of existing research, writing and if relevant policy.
  • Key research questions - what are the important questions you have about your topic?
  • Methodology - what is your overall approach in your research? Do you want to do qualitative or quantitative research, or both? What kinds of methods do you think will work for you? Or is your research primarily desk-based/theoretical?
  • Timescale/research planning - how will you organise your three years for full-time or six years for part-time?
  • Bibliography

PDF Download sample field research proposals (PDF document)

PDF Download sample theory based research proposals (PDF document)

Making an application

Should you wish to pursue a formal application, please complete the application forms contained in the Research Degrees Prospectus and return these to the Research Degrees Office with a copy of your research proposal. The Research Degrees Office will then forward your completed application and research proposal to the relevant Department in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

The main application period is from November to March, to begin study in the following October. Applications may occasionally be considered outside this period, to take advantage of particular studentships and funding opportunities.

More information on how to apply

Postgraduate Convenor contacts

Prof Paul Anand, Department of Economics,
Dr Nikoleta Jones, Department of Geography,
Dr Daniel Conway, Department of Politics & International Studies,
Dr Sarah Crafter, Department of Psychology,
Dr Julia Downes, Department of Social Policy & Criminology,
Department of Sociology,

Our Departments

For more details about the precise topics we are interested in supervising please visit the discipline postgraduate research pages.

Our Research Centres

Frequently asked questions

  1. I am interested in a few research topics. Can you advise which one you may be able to supervise?
  2. Are you able to supervise my topic?
  3. Do I need a Masters qualification to study for a PhD?
  4. Do I need to live in Milton Keynes?
  5. What research training can you offer?
  6. Will you be able to fund me for my PhD?
I am interested in a few research topics. Can you advise which one you may be able to supervise?

It is much better to work out which one research topic you are interested in and spend some time researching this before you contact us. You will look more serious as an applicant if you do this.

Are you able to supervise my topic?

You may wish to look at the links listed in this page to see if you can find potential supervisors yourself. You may be able to contact them directly, but please work up a fairly detailed explanation of your potential topic before you do this.

Do I need a Masters qualification to study for a PhD?

At the moment, yes, most likely. It is a very good idea to study for a Masters qualification - particularly one that has a research training component if you want to undertake field research - before you apply for a PhD. A Masters will give you an opportunity to study your subject in more depth. We also do not currently have a research training programme which would allow talented applicants to bypass the need for a Masters.

Do I need to live in Milton Keynes?

No, but you need to live in commutable distance and be able to travel to regular supervisions and events, particularly if you are full-time. The rules are slightly more flexible for someone studying part-time, and in some cases (and on a case by case basis) we may consider applicants who wish to study at a considerable distance from our campus.

What research training can you offer?

We currently have faculty postgraduate seminars, which run monthly. The university also has induction seminars, and postgraduate methods conferences. You may be able to apply for funding to attend specific methods training workshops at other institutions. We are currently examining our research methods provision across the university.

Will you be able to fund me for my PhD?

We normally offer studentships every year that are advertised in higher education job sites (and information is also displayed in this site). These are highly competitive. There may be other funding schemes available, or you may be able to access funding from your employer if your topic is relevant to them. However, other than these, you will have to be self-funded.