The programme I am on is a 1 + 3 programme and that is not what it means in my case.
I think these are normally PhDs with an integrated MSc, so the first year is your MSc year and you get more training and support and quite often you will be working on the same or a similar project so you are able to hit the ground running when you start the PhD properly. Other courses have the MSc as a "rotation" year where you get to work on different projects or in different departments to get a better idea of what subject or supervisor you want for your main 3 year project. In some courses the 1st year is more focused on training and you get more support, but doesn't lead to a formal, separate qualification. I have never heard of a 1+3 programme where the final year is an optional year at the end, rather than an integral part of the course at the beginning, but that doesn't mean they don't exist!
I have been told that the 1+3 programme in the format I have described is becoming more and more common as it helps to speed up the early stages of a PhD because students are already acclimatised and makes it more likely that people will finish on time.
My understanding of a 1+3 (at least in my university) is that it is a way for a person to go direct into a PhD programme straight from their undergrad. Therefore, although they are registered as a PhD student they are more like a masters student in the first year (taking appropriate modules, [for credits in my uni's case]) and then the '3' years is their PhD. May be different elsewhere though.
I have just completed a 1+3 program at my University. The "1" bit was for the first year MSc training, which was a separate qualification that I was awarded. The "3" was the 3 years afterwards for the PhD. And then I actually took a 4th an extra year which was unfunded to finish writing up, after the 3 year PhD funding ended. In terms of the PhD part, you are still expected to finish it in 3 years, but most unis will allow it to go over into a 4th year. You cannot go over the 4th year to submit however, there are very severe penalties for this!
I would assume it was a PhD with an integrated Masters too, I'm doing one of these currently. The format of mine is that you do an MRes in the first year, where the first term is a taught course with exams, and the remaining months are spent on your research project. Then other than having to write up your MRes thesis at the end of the first year, you carry on more-or-less seamlessly with your research for the remaining 3 years.
i'd agree with the others, that it usually means a 1 year masters followed by the 3 year phd. and they are quite common, especially amongst those with external funding - often it's a requirement of getting certain funding that you do it on the 1+3 basis.
Personally i've found it to be quite good. I intially wasn't very keen on doing an additional year, but it was actually really useful in getting to know the uni and department, get settled in, start working with your supervisors and thinking about your project etc - it really helps you to hit the ground running when your actual phd starts.
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