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The Refugee Law Initiative (RLI) is a leading academic centre in the UK concentrating on  international refugee law and policy. As a PhD student at the RLI, you would be studying at a national focal point for leading and promoting cutting edge research in these fields.

With guidance from our expert supervisors, you'll carry out extensive independent research culminating in a thesis of up to 100,000 words. This research 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.

Doctoral research at the Refugee Law Initiative is primarily campus-based, but distance-based doctoral research is also possible.

Choosing to start a PhD requires careful consideration as it can be a challenging and lengthy under-taking. The University of London and specifically the School of Advanced Study (SAS), where the RLI is based is, however, an excellent and supportive environment which will support you on your new academic journey. Indeed, SAS is the UK's national research hub in the humanities and offers a world-class research environment to our research students.

In addition, the dedicated Doctoral Centre at SAS supports researchers in the humanities in the School, across the UK, and internationally. It provides a freely-accessible and wide-ranging programme of research training in skills for humanities researchers of all sorts and wherever they may be located. It also co-ordinates and facilitates paid-for short courses and summer schools run by the institutes and other centres and departments at SAS. Internally, it oversees the academic experience of MPhil and PhD students in the School and provides expertise and support in learning technology for all teaching and learning across SAS.

Course structure

The degree can be taken full time over three years (or a maximum of four) or part time over five years (or a maximum of six), with entry in either October or January.

You'll initially be registered for our MPhil and then, providing your progress has been satisfactory, be upgraded to our PhD programme.

The primary activity of the PhD programme is the writing of a thesis of up to 100,000 words. 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 your second year onwards. In your first year you are required to attend a weekly class on Techniques of Scholarship. You're also encouraged to participate in the regular seminars held at the Institute during the academic year.

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. Graduates are awarded a University of London degree.

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.

Subject areas and supervisors

The Refugee Law Initiative offers doctoral research supervision in broad areas relating to law and policy applicable to refugees and other displaced persons.

Specific areas of particular interest to current RLI academic staff reflect our projects and include:

Professor David Cantor
  • Refugee law and protection practice
  • Refugees fleeing war
  • Disasters, environment and mobility
  • Refugee protection in Latin America
  • Internal displacement
  • Criminality as a driver of displacement
Dr Sarah Singer
  • Refugee law and rights
  • Undesirable but unreturnable migrants
  • Asylum, criminality and terrorism
  • Seeking asylum in Europe
  • Humanitarian accountability in displacement situations
Dr Nicholas Maple
  • Accessing protection and solutions in Africa
  • The Global Refugee Regime
  • Refugee Camps and Urban Displacement

Opportunities and facilities

The Refugee Law Initiative is the only academic centre in the UK to concentrate specifically on international refugee law. As a national focal point for leading and promoting research in this field, the Refugee Law Initiative (RLI) works to integrate the shared interests of refugee law scholars and practitioners, stimulate collaboration between academics and nonacademics, and achieve policy impact at both national and international levels.

How to apply

Before submitting an application, you are advised to contact a member of the Refugee Law Initiative academic staff who has interests in your proposed field of study to discuss your proposal. 

Your application to the School will require you to submit a research proposal, so it is advised to have one drafted ahead of contacting RLI academic staff and submitting your formal application. Guidelines on drafting your research proposal are available here.

We would normally expect candidates for the doctoral programme to hold the equivalent of a UK first or second-class undergraduate degree and a distinction-level Masters degree. They would usually be in subjects relevant to the proposed field of doctoral research.

For the current application deadline information and modes of study, please visit the School of Advanced Study website.

Key Information

The School of Advanced Study is a unique environment in which to study the humanities.  The School strives to reflect the latest developments in thinking across the humanities disciplines it supports and to ensure that its programmes reflect this.   We are also aware that the needs of our students are constantly changing.  With that in mind, the School continually reviews the its programmes and, as part of that process, reserves the right to alter or discontinue them. 

We assure you that we carry out these exercises at no detriment to any enrolled students. Students enrolled on any programme that we discontinue will be able to complete that programme within a reasonable timeframe and with all the necessary resources at their disposal. The School will communicate any anticipated changes with students as early as possible.