PhD by Research


World-leaders in development studies

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is a global research and learning organisation for equitable and sustainable change. In partnership with the University of Sussex, IDS is ranked first in the world for development studies by the QS University Rankings.

Doctoral research at IDS

Doctoral research is a vital part of IDS, with about 50 PhD students at any time exploring a range of topics in Asia, Africa, the Balkans, Latin America and the Middle East. Students work under the supervision of two Research Fellows and have access to the thriving community of research centres, knowledge programmes, postgraduate courses, training, lectures and seminars.

Our distinct approach to research

IDS is dedicated to research on processes of social, political and economic development and change in order to understand problems of poverty and development-related issues in local, national and global realms. Through our research we seek to achieve our vision of equal and sustainable societies, both locally and globally, where everyone can live secure, fulfilling lives free from poverty and injustice.

Our research is shaped by our distinctive ‘engaged excellence’ approach. This means that the quality and impact of our work depends upon us collaborating with governments, international NGOs, local civil society, citizens, in-country researchers, donors, businesses and many others to achieve positive change, strategically informed by high quality – and operationally relevant – research and evidence.

Areas of study

We are looking for PhD researchers interested in working on projects that respond to the following global challenges and their intersections: 

  • reducing inequalities
  • accelerating sustainability
  • building inclusive and secure societies.

We are particularly interested in work that shows originality in addressing topics related to the work of our research clusters, namely: business, cities, conflict, digital, gender, governance, green transformations, health, participation, power, resource politics and rural futures.

Future careers

IDS PhD researchers have gone on to work as Ministers in national governments, high-level officials in development organisations such as UNDP and the World Bank, civil servants, leaders of civil society organisations including Mama Cash and Action Aid and high profile academics at universities across the world. They are all working to define and solve some of the world’s most pressing global challenges. Your time at IDS will equip you with both the theoretical knowledge, research methodologies and practical skills to make a real difference in bringing about transformative change.

Thriving research community

The Institute is home to approximately 240 staff and 260 students at any one time. But the IDS community extends far beyond, encompassing an extensive network of over 360 partners3,000 alumni and hundreds of former staff. All PhD researchers are an integral part of this community and have access to research, knowledge, communication and teaching opportunities and engagement with the IDS staff, as well as a substantial series of seminars presented by leading development professionals and practitioners.

“IDS offers doctoral researchers an enriching environment with access to a broad range of experts with different disciplinary backgrounds. The IDS community is always bustling with energy and a commitment to answering difficult questions and this makes it an exciting place in which to undertake research. I feel particularly blessed to be among a supportive group of peers who offer guidance at every turn.” Dina Zayed, IDS PhD scholarship researcher

Supervision and assessment

Each PhD researcher has a minimum of two supervisors. During the application process, you can if you wish identify your preferred supervisors. Potential supervisors can be identified by searching our directory.The number of hours of formal supervision will vary over the course of the PhD depending on the student, supervisor and type of research. IDS publishes a Memorandum of Understanding which sets out expectations regarding supervision. During the course of your PhD, you are expected to give two seminars to the IDS community. The first, at the end of Year One is called the Research Outline Seminar and this provides an overview of your PhD plans prior to beginning fieldwork. The second occurs halfway through Year 3. This is called the Work in Progress Seminar and it focuses on the research findings and overall arguments made in the dissertation.

Your PhD course is examined by dissertation and viva. The thesis must be no longer than 80,000 words. These limits includes footnotes and bibliography but excludes any appendices.


You should have a strong academic record and graduate training demonstrating a high standard of achievement, combined with substantial professional work experience in a developing country or in development-related work. Only in exceptional circumstances will candidates with other backgrounds may be considered.

You’re normally expected to have a merit (an overall average of 60 per cent) in a masters degree. As well as having methodological and theoretical grounding in one of the social science disciplines, you will have the language skills necessary for the proposed research.

English language requirements

Students must be proficient in English. The minimum requirement is, for example, an IELTS grade of 7.0 overall and no less than 6.5 in each section of the IELTS test. For detailed information on English language requirements for international students please see the University of Sussex website.

A strong research proposal

You must submit an outline research proposal of five to six pages indicating the nature, ambition and primary research questions of your research project. For more information, see our Apply section.

Presence at IDS

Your presence at IDS is vital at the early stage of your PhD when the research proposal is prepared (the first year) and then, after fieldwork, at the stage of writing up the research findings (the third year). The maximum period of registration is four years, but a PhD can be completed in three years.

How we assess your application

When assessing your application we take into account many factors including: the quality of your research proposal, your academic qualifications, fit with IDS research priorities, previous development experience, language skills and availability of suitable supervisors.

All applications are assessed by the IDS Teaching and Learning Team with input from potential supervisors. You will also be interviewed on your PhD research plans. If your application is successful you will be contacted by the IDS Teaching and Learning Team, who are ultimately responsible for offering places on the IDS PhD Programme.

Fees and study costs

IDS requires that students register for a minimum of three years. Most students spend time on overseas fieldwork. During fieldwork, students are registered as distance learners and are charged a fee which is normally 65% of the full-time fee but may be subject to change.

Almost all IDS PhD researchers choose to do empirical research and fieldwork for their PhDs. The broad parameters of this research (topic and country) are usually decided by the student and included in the proposal submitted as part of the application to the PhD programme. More detailed assessments of the scope and scale of this research are usually developed in conjunction with supervisors during the first year of the PhD. Fieldwork usually lasts between 8 and 12 months and costs depend on the scope and scale of the activities. For example, participant observation and qualitative interviews undertaken in your home country and in a language with which you are familiar, may not be very expensive, but working in a country where you need visas, in-country ethical approval, and have to employ translators, transcribers, or a team of enumerators for a quantitative survey can mean that costs rapidly escalate. Where you stay, how you travel to your fieldsite, what technology you use to collect and analyse data and how long you stay will all influence the costs. IDS does not fund fieldwork costs. There is a small conference fund and PhD students can apply for up to £450 during their PhDs if they are presenting a paper at a conference.

After having made substantial progress and completed three years of registration, students may be permitted to transfer to pre-submission status. IDS considers substantial progress to be the completion of three empirical chapters, supervisors’ approval and a successful work-in-progress seminar. If pre-submission status is not granted, then full-time fees are still applicable. The pre-submission fee is approximately £500 for each year or part thereof.

Unfortunately, neither IDS nor the University of Sussex can offer financial support. Applicants requiring financial assistance should contact their local Ministry of Education or Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the British Council representative (c/o British Embassy). For the latest information on fees, funding and scholarships, visit the University of Sussex website.


We consider applications throughout the year although the official academic year begins in September. We strongly encourage doctoral students to align their studies to this academic calendar.

Apply online

Apply via the University of Sussex online application. When completing the application form, please identify IDS on the application; the code for this is L1604R – Development Studies (IDS) (PHD).

Your research proposal

As part of the application process, you must submit an outline research proposal of three to four pages indicating the nature, ambitions and primary questions of the project. It would also be advantageous to include an article or writing sample demonstrating your ability to undertake research and write academic papers.

Before applying, please read carefully our guidelines on how to write your outline research proposal. Here is a good example of a recent research proposal from a successful applicant: Barasa PhD research proposal for IDS, 2017

Finding a supervisor

You are not responsible for finding a supervisor. However, you may express a preferred supervisor on your application form. Applicants are assessed both on their academic credentials and on the relevance of their proposed research to the work of one or more IDS Fellows.

Distance learning

IDS is unable to accept applications for distance learning. We believe it is in the best interests of both PhD students and the Institute that the majority of the study period is spent at IDS. This offers the opportunity for ongoing interaction with other IDS members and students.