Research degrees

The School is respected internationally for its legal, socio-legal and criminological research.

PhD student at computer

A PhD involves the writing of a thesis of 75,000-100,000 words, which is followed by an oral examination called the Viva Voce. This research is undertaken for 3-4 years full-time with the support of two supervisors, who are experts on the thesis topic and based in the School of Law (or sometimes other University of Sheffield departments).

In the Viva, a PhD candidate is expected to satisfy the examiners that his/her thesis:

  • “Is original work which forms an addition to knowledge”

  • “Shows evidence of systematic study and of the ability to relate the results of such study to the general body of knowledge in the subject” 

  • “Is worthy of publication either in full or in an abridged form” 

  • “In addition, the format of the thesis should be such that it is demonstrably a coherent body of work, i.e. includes a summary, an introduction, a description of the aims of the research, an analytical discussion of the related findings to date, the main results and conclusions, and sets the total work in context” (UoS, 2019: Sections 1.3.2 and 1.3.3 of Guidance notes for examiners of research degree examinations)

The normal duration for a PhD is 3-3.5 year full-time and 6-7 years part-time, as students are expected to submit their PhD within the tuition-fee paying period (i.e. their funded period). This tuition-fee pay period may vary depending on who is funding the PhD, so please check with the PGR team if you are unsure.

Since September 2021, the University expects an increasing number of students submit within this tuition-fee paying period. Research proposals should therefore be written with these expectations in mind and to ensure that they are as feasible as possible

The maximum duration of a PhD is 4 years full-time or 8 years part-time.


The supervisory relationship and associated support it provides begins from students’ initial contact with potential future supervisors. Both they and the Deputy Director of PGR/PGR Admissions tutor (who is responsible for the admissions process) can provide you with advice in preparing your application, identifying scholarships you may wish to apply for and developing your PhD research proposal.

As a PhD student you will have two academic supervisors, and you can expect to meet with one or both of them every 4-6 weeks (for full-time students). These ‘supervisions’ are used to discuss your work in detail, as well as provide more general support with all aspects of the PhD and pastoral support where needed.

The PhD process

For empirical legal or criminological projects, usually:

  • The first year is primarily spent developing the research proposal and research questions and preparing for data collection (e.g. gaining access, securing ethical approval)

  • The second year is primarily spent collecting and analysing data

  • The third and subsequent years are primarily spent completing the data analysis and writing up the thesis. 

However, there is an expectation that PhD students write continuously throughout the PhD, albeit that this writing process intensifies in the final year or two of the PhD.

For doctrinal legal projects, usually:

  • The first year is primarily spent refining the research proposal and undertaking preliminary reading;

  • The second year is primarily spent developing and advancing doctrinal or theoretical arguments, finalising successive thesis chapters; and

  • The third and subsequent years primarily continue the process in the second year and draw the argument of the thesis together into a coherent whole, rewriting earlier chapters where necessary.

Key milestones

Key milestones during the PhD at the University of Sheffield include:

  • The Training Needs Analysis which is completed in the first 3-6 months and through which PhD students scrutinise their current skills, both their strengths and weaknesses, in order to examine what training they need to do to become a fully rounded PhD student in relation to the University’s eight core competencies.

  • The confirmation review, which happens around 9-12 months, at which point the student must submit work – a research proposal, part of a substantive chapter, a data management plan and their TNA – which is scrutinised by a panel of 3 experts in the School of Law. The student is then asked to defend their work in a Viva-like meeting. The student must pass the confirmation review in order to become a fully confirmed PhD student and to progress to the subsequent years of the PhD.

  • Submission of the PhD is expected during the tuition-fee paying period i.e. usually around 36-42 months, but definitely within 48 months as per University regulations for full-time students.

  • Submission of the thesis is followed shortly after by the Viva Voce in which the candidate must defend their PhD to two examiners (usually one internal to the SoL and one external).

  • Post-PhD many of our students have gone on to successful careers inside and outside of academia. For further information see the list of students who have recently completed their PhDs in the School of Law.


PhD students at the University of Sheffield are expected to engage throughout the PhD in various forms of training linked to eight core competencies:

  1. Communication, networking and collaboration.
  2. Personal skills (time management, resilience, problem-solving, critical thinking).
  3. Professional skills (academic defence, academic writing, project/resource management).
  4. Leadership (influence and leadership, reputation and esteem/profile, research funding)
  5. Career management (ownership and understanding of the scope for career development options).
  6. Understanding the importance of impact and translation (public engagement, enterprise and IP).
  7. Responsible Research and Innovation (ethics and data management).
  8. Qualitative skills and/or quantitative and digital skills depending on discipline.

You will have access to world class training alongside your doctoral research to enable you to fulfil these competencies. This is delivered:

  • University-wide through the Doctoral Development Programme;

  • Faculty-wide through the Faculty of Social Sciences Doctoral Training Portal, which draws on world-class expertise in qualitative and quantitative methods of staff in the the Sheffield Methods Institute;

  • Across Universities in the Yorkshire region through the White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership, which includes access to interdisciplinary, innovative and advanced research methods training.

  • Within the School of Law through a specialist module, Doctoral Training in Law and Criminology (LAW6185), which provides discipline-specific input, as well as an opportunity to connect with your PhD peers and provide peer-to-peer support and learning.

Paid teaching opportunities

Usually from the second year of study onwards, there are opportunities for PhD students to teach in the School of Law in areas connected to their research, working as paid Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). This helps PhD students to build the professional skills they might need in their future careers.

GTAs are provided with a wide-range of support to perform this role, including:

  • Induction processes and ongoing support throughout the academic year by learning and teaching leaders in the School of Law and by module convenors on the modules that they teach;

  • Through specialist workshops provided in LAW6171 e.g. on developing your HEA Fellowship application.

  • Through University-wide and highly regarded training specifically for University of Sheffield GTAs, The Sheffield Teaching Assistant.

Support with wellbeing

We recognise that the wellbeing of PhD students in the School of Law is paramount. Support and sign-posting is provided by:

  • Supervisors, where this is appropriate and PhD students feel comfortable sharing personal matters with their supervisor;

  • The Deputy Director of PGR (wellbeing), whose primary role is to act as a personal and academic tutor to all PhD students in the department, meaning that they meet with all PhD students once per semester to check-in on their wellbeing.

A range of other support is also available through the University including:

A global reputation

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.