PhD study in the UK differs somewhat from in other countries. To avoid confusion on the part of prospective students from other countries I’ve collected some common useful information here.
Unlike in many other countries, UK PhD programs are typically 3 years focusing only on research. There is no initial period of coursework or qualifying examination prior to PhD candidacy. Also, the PhD thesis typically needs to be submitted at the end of the 3 years (or up to 1 year later); however, student funding often doesn’t cover the additional time for writing up. In addition, many UK universities (Edinburgh among them) charge students from “overseas” much higher tuition than those from the UK or EU, and there are relatively few funding sources that can cover the difference. These facts have several important implications.
The 3 year duration and the higher tuition fees for overseas students means supporting yourself through teaching assistantships is not a viable option. Doing a PhD is a full-time job, so it is very difficult to support yourself through work at the same time. Therefore, unless you have significant savings, or are willing to take on substantial student loans (which I do not recommend) you should identify sources of funding. For many overseas students, the best opportunities are scholarships that you have to apply for directly; the University maintains a database of opportunities here.
You need to have a strong foundation for research before starting a PhD here (e.g. doing an undergraduate or master’s research project first). It is also important to have a supervisor and plausible research topic in mind at the beginning of the program, since it may be difficult to complete in 3 years otherwise. So, it a good idea to have an informed discussion about research topics with possible supervisors when applying. This means doing some work investigating possible supervisors and their research areas, not simply sending an email asking if there are funded positions available in your interest area.
It is fairly common for supervisors to obtain funding for a specific project and then advertise (as I’ve done above); in that case, you should be aware that if you are awarded the funding, you are expected to work on that topic, though moderate changes are sometimes possible. In particular, this means that if you apply indicating interest in a particular project, it’s good to explain why you’re just the right person to work on that topic, to differentiate yourself from people who respond blindly.
Some PhD programs are so-called “1+3” programs, based on the EPSRC CDT model, meaning there is a 1-year MSc at the beginning followed by 3 years of PhD. This allows more time for coursework at the beginning to prepare you for research: although it is still a good idea to know roughly what you want to do, there is more scope for exploration and identification of a supervisor during the first year. My department currently has two programs that my research overlaps with, on Robotics and Autonomous Systems and on Data Science. Funding is typically provided (at UK/EU tuition levels) for the full 4 years; however, for overseas students the higher tuition rate still applies, and funding for non-UK students may be limited.