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Undertaking doctoral research allows you to develop in-depth knowledge, while making a meaningful contribution to your chosen field.

With guidance from our expert supervisors, you'll carry out extensive independent research culminating in a thesis of up to 100,000 words. Broadly speaking the focus of research degrees has increasingly been on the humanities and cognate social sciences, particularly on the subjects of human rights, globalization and development, politics, and Commonwealth history.

This degree presents the opportunity to gain expertise in your area of interest while also honing a range of transferable skills. On completing this course, you'll be well prepared for specialist career paths both within academia and beyond.


Subject Areas and Supervisors

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies offers doctoral research supervision in the following broad areas:

  • Human rights
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Ecocide
  • Genocide studies
  • The foreign and defence policies of Commonwealth countries
  • The politics, governance and development of South Asia
  • African politics, governance and development
  • Ethnicity: conflict and accommodation in plural societies
  • The Mediterranean and the colonial powers
  • Protection of refugees
  • Minority and Indigenous rights protection
  • Dynamics of armed conflict and forced displacement
  • Twentieth-century British and Commonwealth History
  • Globalisation, security and conflict
  • The Commonwealth as an international organisation
  • British Imperial history, including decolonization
  • European colonialism in comparative perspective
  • Post-colonial legacies in the Commonwealth and beyond
  • Non-governmental public actors, civil society and development
  • Local government and decentralisation
  • British and Commonwealth intelligence communities

Before submitting an application you are advised to contact a member of the Institute's academic staff who has interests in your proposed field of study to discuss your proposal. A list of academic staff and their interests can be found here.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) is the only postgraduate academic institution in the UK devoted to the study of the Commonwealth.

Founded in 1949, its purpose is to promote interdisciplinary and inter-regional research on the Commonwealth and its member nations in the fields of history, politics, and other social sciences. Its areas of specialism include international development, governance, human rights, north-south relations, and conflict and security. 

The School of Advanced Study

The School of Advanced Study at the University of London brings together nine internationally renowned research institutes to form the UK's national centre for the support of researchers and the promotion of research in the humanities.

Course Structure

Full-time study for the PhD degree entails three or a maximum of four years' independent research, culminating in the writing of a thesis of not more than 100,000 words. Part-time students complete the same programme in five, or a maximum of six years.

After submission of the thesis, you will attend an oral examination conducted by an internal examiner, from the University of London, and an external examiner, normally from another British university.

There is no formal coursework, but you will be expected to participate in a weekly seminar on Work in Progress and to present a paper every year from their second year onwards. In your first year you are required to attend a weekly class on Techniques of Scholarship. You are also encouraged to participate in the regular seminars held at the Institute during the academic year.

Distance Learning

The School of Advanced Study offers students with an appropriate topic and level of local resource the opportunity to undertake a PhD by distance learning. These students are required to attend our London campus at set intervals to complete an intensive research training module, for upgrade, and for the viva but will otherwise study at their own location. This option is available to UK, EU and international students on the same basis as our on-campus PhD programmes (three years full time, six years part time). Fees are the same as for our on-campus PhD programmes. Please note that not all institutes and supervisors offer this option, and that some topics are not appropriate to be studied this way.

If you would like to be considered for our Research Degree programme via Distance Learning, please download and fill out the Research Degrees by Distance Learning form, to attach to your online application.

Opportunities and Facilities

Students pursue their academic interests in the friendly and supportive environment of the Institute; their research is enhanced by the outstanding libraries of the University of London, including the Institute’s own prestigious collection.

More broadly, the School of Advanced Study itself offers excellent resources for inter-disciplinary research by bringing together nine internationally renowned research institutes that support the promotion of research in the humanities.

Much like the Institute itself, the School offers a broad range of events, seminars and conferences that we encourage our research students to engage with.

Our research students can also take advantage of a varied and challenging research training programme, with general research skills training and research methodologies courses provided through the School and subject-specific training provided within the institutes.

How to Apply

Before submitting an application you are advised to contact a member of the academic staff who has interests in your proposed field of study to discuss your proposal. A list of academic staff and their interests can be found here.

Before agreeing to accept you, the School will require you to submit a research proposal, so it is worthwhile having this drafted ahead of a formal application. Guidelines on drafting your research proposal.

Candidates will normally receive an initial response to their application within 28 working days. Those who have been formally interviewed will normally be informed within one week as to whether they are to be offered a place.

Note: in accordance with regulations research students will be registered for the MPhil degree in the first instance. Upgrading to PhD will be considered in the second year for full-time students and in the third or fourth year for part-time students

Fees and Funding


We offer online guidance and information regarding our tuition fees, payment and fee status.


Our students fund their studies in a variety of ways including scholarships, bursaries and fellowships, as well as government loans and postgraduate loans.

We offer a range of bursaries and studentships for applicants on our programmes, including Institute and course specific scholarships.

The School is part of the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP), through which we are able to offer a number of studentships in humanities disciplines.


The Institute registers students for MPhil/PhD study only when principal supervision is offered by the staff listed below. It is, however, possible to arrange co-supervision with particular experts in the Colleges of the University of London, and, on occasion, with experts from institutions outside the University of London (e.g. the British Library) when such experts are also Teachers of the University of London.  In cases where it is more appropriate for MPhil/PhD students to be registered at a College of the University, the Institute is happy to offer informal advice.

Dr David James Cantor

Director of the Refugee Law Initiative; Reader in Human Rights Law

Email | Research Profile


Dr David James Cantor researches on the protection of refugees and other displaced persons. He has carried out in-depth fieldwork on displacement, armed conflict and organised violence in Colombia and across Latin America, and is a recognised specialist in this field. David has a particular interest in refugee law, human rights law and certain aspects of the international law of armed conflict. He previously worked for the Refugee Legal Centre and UNHCR, and is currently the Director of the Refugee Law Initiative and an Economic and Social Research Council Future Research Leader.

During 2016-17, Dr Cantor will be working part-time at the university in order to carry out a part-time secondment as Senior Advisor to the UNHCR Americas Bureau.


  • Protection of refugees and other displaced persons, particularly during situations of armed conflict

  • Human Rights and refugee law


Dr Corinne Lennox

Senior Lecturer in Human Rights

Email | Research Profile


BA (McMaster), MA (Essex), MSc, PhD (LSE)

Research interests include: human rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples; civil society mobilisation; human rights and development; social mobilisation of Afro-descendants in Latin America; Dalits and caste-based discrimination; international relations and human rights; the role of international organisations in the protection of minority and indigenous rights.


  • Minority rights protection
  • Ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities
  • Multiculturalism
  • Human rights and development and human rights-based approaches to development
  • UN human rights mechanisms
  • Transnational social mobilisation and norm entrepreneurship
  • Indigenous peoples' rights
  • Afro-descendants in Latin America
  • Dalits and caste-based discrimination
  • Roma in Europe

Professor Philip Murphy 

Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Email | Research Profile


BA & DPhil (Oxford)

Twentieth-century British and Commonwealth history, including aspects of post-war British decolonization particularly in Africa, and post-war African politics. 

Forthcoming book about the British Monarchy and the Post-War Commonwealth for Oxford University Press. 

Also an interest in the Conservative party, right wing politics in Britain, and the European colonial empires since the nineteenth century. 

Intelligence History, MI5 (the Security Service) in the colonial Empire, and the activities of the British, Commonwealth and US intelligence communities in the twentieth century.


  • Twentieth Century British and Commonwealth History


    Post-War British Decolonisation


Dr Sue Onslow

Senior Lecturer; Deputy Institute Director

Email | Research Profile


British foreign policy and decolonisation; Southern Africa (particularly South Africa and Zimbabwe); the Commonwealth.


  • Southern Africa 1974-1994, especially liberation movements, white minority regimes, and the Cold War struggle
  • Post-war British politics, decolonisation, and foreign policy
  • Britain's bilateral and multilateral Commonwealth relationships between 1965-1990
  • Oral history methodology

Dr Damien Short

Director of the Human Rights Consortium

Email | Research Profile


LLB (University of Wales), MA, PhD (Essex)

Dr Damien Short is Director of the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) and a Reader in Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study. He has spent his entire professional career working in the field of human rights, both as a scholar and human rights advocate.

He has researched and published extensively in the areas of indigenous peoples’ rights, genocide studies, reconciliation projects and environmental human rights. He is currently researching the human rights impacts of extreme energy processes (e.g Tar Sands and Fracking - see our designated HRC website http://extremeenergy.org) . Dr Short is a regular academic contributor to the United Nation’s ‘Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ and an academic consultant for the ‘Ethical Trade Task Force’ of the Soil Association.

He is also Assistant Editor of the International Journal of Human Rights (Taylor and Francis) and Editor-in-chief of the Journal of Human Rights in the Commonwealth (University of London) and convenor of the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Rights Study Group and an active member of the International Network of Genocide Scholars.

Dr Short has also worked with a variety of NGOs including Amnesty International, War on Want, Survival International, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs; and with a range of campaign groups including Eradicating Ecocide, Biofuelwatch, Climate Justice Collective and the UK Tar Sands Network.

He currently advises local anti-fracking groups in the UK and county councils on the human rights implications of unconventional (extreme) energy extraction processes such as fracking. 


  • Sociological and anthropological approaches to human rights
  • Indigenous rights
  • Reconciliation initiatives
  • Ecocide
  • Genocide Studies


Dr Sarah Singer

Lecturer in Refugee Law

Email | Research Profile


Dr Sarah Singer is Lecturer in Refugee Law at the Refugee Law Initiative, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is Programme Director of the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies, the first postgraduate distance learning programme of its kind, run by the Refugee Law Initiative and delivered through University of London International Programmes.

She also teaches the law component of the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is Managing Editor of the International Community Law Review, a peer reviewed academic journal published by Brill; Martinus Nijhoff.

Her current research addresses the challenges posed to national and international public policy by asylum seekers who are suspected of serious criminality but cannot be removed from the territory of the host State. Sarah previously worked as an immigration caseworker at the House of Commons and has received a number of awards for her research including the prestigious Modern Law Review Scholarship.


  • Refugee law and policy, human rights and migration
  • Asylum seekers and other migrants suspected of serious criminality
  • Terrorism, anti-terrorist measures and foreign nationals