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Applying for a research degree

Prospective applicants to our postgraduate research programmes are asked to read these guidance notes carefully.


Entry requirements

Developing a research proposal

How to apply

Assessment of applications 


Applications to postgraduate research programmes are assessed mainly according the following criteria:

  • A high-quality research proposal in an area of study supported by the department (this may include co-supervision with an academic from another department). 
  • Your overall qualifications and skills (in particular, your previous degree(s) and English language qualifications)

We therefore strongly advise you, before submitting an application, to do the following:

  1. Check whether you meet the university’s general entry requirements (see below).
    If in doubt, please ask us.
  2. Contact a member of academic staff who can advise you on the preparation of your research proposal. 

Entry requirements

Masters (MA by thesis/ MMus) applicants are expected to have achieved (or to be likely to achieve) a first-class or an upper second-class undergraduate degree (or equivalent international qualification) in Music.

PhD applicants are expected to have achieved (or to be likely to achieve) a good pass (a merit or distinction) in a Taught Masters, or to have gained a Research Masters degree, specialising in an area broadly related to their proposed doctoral research topic.

These requirements may be waived in exceptional circumstances, when applicants can demonstrate that they have acquired the knowledge and skills required by another means (e.g. relevant professional experience).

If your first language is not English, you will be required to demonstrate that you have attained a sufficient level of fluency. The University requires applicants to have achieved a minimum score of 7.0 in the British Council’s International English Language Testing Service test (IELTS) with no component below 6.5. You must have taken the test within the last two years. Details of English language requirements can be found here.  In the next section, we offer advice on important matters that you should think about before applying.

Developing a research proposal

Producing a well thought-out research proposal will enable you to embark on your project with confidence, and will also greatly increase your chances of obtaining scholarship funding should you wish to apply for it. Your research proposal should provide an overview of your project and clarify the rationale for undertaking it. It should be concise (no longer than 2,000 words, but 750 words is sufficient and is the usual length required by studentship competitions) but as informative as possible.

We recommend that it should be structured as follows:

  1. Define a series of research questions, issues or problems that you intend to address.
  2. Specify why it is important that these particular questions, issues or problems should be addressed; what other research is being or has been conducted in this area; and what contribution this project will make.
  3. Specify the research methods you plan to use, and explain why you think they provide the most appropriate means by which to address your research questions, issues or problems.
  4. Include a reasonably comprehensive bibliography (not to be included in the total word count).

Applicants for the research programmes in Composition should be aware that studying at a university will require them to engage in a process of critical reflection as a mode of research activity. Their research proposal should detail how their creative practice will explore important intellectual and/or technical questions attendant on the compositional process of writing the works that will ultimately be submitted for examination.

Applicants for the research programmes in Performance should be aware that studying at a university will require them to engage in a process of critical reflection as a mode of research activity. Their research proposal should detail how they will explore intellectual and/or technical questions relevant to the programme that will ultimately be submitted for examination.

Applicants for Northern Bridge (AHRC) or Durham Doctoral Studentships should be aware that they will have to prepare an additional shorter version of their research proposal (not exceeding 750 words in length) as part of the required supporting documentation.

How to apply

When you have finalised your research proposal, you should apply for your chosen programme using the online admissions application portal. For general University advice on how to apply, see here.  You must provide the following supporting documentation:

  1. academic transcripts or other evidence of academic qualifications (applicants must provide certified translated copies of documents not in English).
  2. evidence of English-language proficiency, if you are a non-native speaker of English.
  3. sample(s) of written work on a musicological topic, broadly defined (two samples with a maximum combined word-length of 5,000 words for applicants to the Musicology programmes; a single sample of 2,000 words for applications to the Composition or Performance programmes) sent as Word documents or as PDFs. These can be extracts from longer pieces of writing but should be edited appropriately.
  4. your research proposal.

Applicants for research degree in Performance must also supply a web link to a 15 minute video demonstrating their performance ability.

Applicants to research degrees in Composition must also submit a portfolio of scores for consideration. 

  • Applicants proposing to pursue acoustic composition should supply four scores for contrasting forces. Scores in digital format should be sent as PDFs. Whenever possible, you should also provide recordings of your compositions, as wav or as mp3 files (live recordings or MIDI to audio render).
  • Applicants proposing to pursue electroacoustic composition should send three or four contrasting works, as mp3 or wav audio files (mp3 files should typically be at least 256kbps to preserve perceptual quality).
  • Applicants can also submit a mixed acoustic/electronic composition portfolio, following the above-mentioned submission guidelines. If submitting a work for mixed media, e.g. acoustic ensemble with (live) electronics, please supply both a score and a recording.

We require two academic references from persons in a position to offer informed comment on your suitability for the programme and on your academic work to date. These must be provided on letter headed paper and be both signed and dated by the referee. They can be sent from the referee’s work email address to It is your responsibility to ensure that your referees supply their references as promptly as possible, as a delay will hold up the processing of your application. If you are applying for a Northern Bridge or Durham Doctoral Studentship, you should ensure that your referees are aware of the stipulated deadlines. You may apply at any time throughout the academic year, but no later than 1 September should you wish to commence in October. You can also commence studying for a research degree in January or April. However, please note the deadlines by which you must submit an application if you wish to be considered for a studentship. The next section explains the criteria by which applications are assessed and the subsequent stages of the process.

Assessment of applications

Applicants are admitted to our research programmes solely on the basis of merit, subject to the availability of appropriate supervision and any necessary resources. We enthusiastically support Durham University’s policies on diversity and equality of opportunities: candidates are selected without regard to their gender, sexual orientation, marital or civil partnership status, disability, nationality, ethnicity, religion or belief, age, or social background.

We commence assessing applications by ensuring that:

  • you have met our entry requirements
  • relevant supervisory expertise is available, as well as any other resources that are necessary for you to undertake your project.

Samples of written work should demonstrate:

  • a secure command of the subject and of pertinent intellectual issues
  • evidence of critical engagement
  • the ability to construct a cogent argument
  • the ability to express ideas in a lucid and well-organised fashion

Compositions will be appraised according to these criteria:

  • the quality of invention and technical skill displayed evidence of critical awareness of key developments in the field of contemporary composition
  • the quality of presentation

Performances will be appraised according to these criteria:

  • musical understanding, including the use of idiomatic musical devices (e.g. appropriate ornamentation, rubato, etc), observation of markings in the score, and the overall shape of the music performed.
  • technical competence, including sound production, dexterity, execution of ornaments, diction and pronunciation (for singers), intonation, and dynamics. 

If, after assessing your supporting documentation, we are satisfied that you are potentially suitable for admission, we will arrange for you to be interviewed by the Director of Postgraduate Studies and one or both of your prospective supervisors.

At interview, we will look for evidence of:

  • breadth of relevant knowledge (e.g. familiarity with pertinent musical repertoire)
  • engagement with major intellectual issues in your research field
  • awareness of the current state of research in your area of specialism
  • ability to formulate reasoned arguments
  • ability to engage creatively with alternative points of view and constructive criticism
  • awareness of the need to engage with the wider research environment

We will be interested to determine what your training needs may be over the course of your degree (e.g. language or computing skills, fieldwork technique, statistics). We will also be happy to answer any questions that you may have.

If your qualifications, references, and research proposal are satisfactory, and we believe after interview that you are suited to the programme, the department will support your admission to the university and request that Student Recruitment and Admissions approves your application. We aim to inform you of our decision within 4-6 weeks of receiving your application and supporting documentation.