If you have set your heart on completing a PhD subject, then the last thing you need is confusion how the funding works. The differences between studentships, scholarships and loans can seem crazy. But don’t worry, here are some pointers to help find your way to PhD funding.

First things first, what is PhD funding?

UK universities are complex organizations requiring a lot of money to keep their operations functioning. They employ a lot of people and provide facilities for teaching and research. Most of this comes from the Government one way or another.
There are five different sources of funding for PhD’s in the UK: –

  • The Government, through organisations such as the UKRI etc
  • Postgraduate Research Loans, which are offered to individual PhD students
  • Universities offer their own funded PhD courses which are termed Studentships
  • Charities and Trusts support individual PhD students through the award of Scholarships and Bursaries
  • Companies seek answers to business-critical problems by investing in research. This effort can be supported by partnering with a relevant University.

The significance of these different sources will become clear when you start looking for a PhD to apply for.

What do I do first?

The simplest way to find PhD funding is to look for existing projects with your current university, or from another that specializes in the same area. Make time to consider your options as the course progresses. You could be preparing to step into work once you have completed your masters degree, or you could have already considered the possibility of staying on to continue your studies.

Remaining within the structure and support network of your current university offers the most security. This is because you can draw upon the knowledge of your academic colleagues and potential supervisors to consider the routes that you could take with them.

However, if you have been working and are considering a change of direction by stepping back into study then you will have to start from scratch. This involves researching which location and research academic team would be best placed for your particular specialty.

Where does the funding come into it?

If your current/previous university is a research-intensive institution it is likely they will be actively bidding for research grants from bodies such as the UKRI each year. If they are successful in winning these then each bid will require that they recruit a number of PhD students.

These individuals will be supervised to conduct the research in order to further our knowledge in a specific area and the results of the work will be peer reviewed. These are called Funded Studentships. Postgraduate Studentships lists the details of these from leading universities all year round.

Most of the research funding in the UK is for STEM subjects because the physical sciences are a Government priority for trade and employment. However, research funding in the social sciences is widely available, and arguably they contribute as much to the economy through the service sector.

Many will also include a stipend, which is an additional living cost allowance. This rate is set by the UKRI and in 2021 the amount was up to £15,609 paid in regular installments.

University Studentships

In addition, the university may be structured to offer PhD studentships that are funded by the university itself. You can find these from universities that have a well-established expertise in a specific area.

They can be organized around a specific facility or named academic who has a recognised reputation in a subject. Studentships are usually offered once a year in a block, and applicants are invited to apply in advance with the successful candidates usually selected in the early spring .

Sometimes these are awarded based on a competition because the demand for places will be high. Tuition fee discounts and Alumni bursaries can help to entice current masters students to remain (or return) to their previous universities.

Companies seeking answers to problems through research

Universities that have connections to industry are able to develop funded studentships that have direct applicability to a specific service. These can offer some of the most interesting opportunities because they are directly contributing to the discovery of new knowledge of significance to global challenges.

Find PhD funding via scholarships from Charities and Trusts

There are a large number of charitable organisations that distribute funds to assist with postgraduate study. These are usually based on academic results and they are widely used by international students seeking a place in a UK university.

These are Merit Scholarships, and while they probably won’t cover all the costs associated with a PhD, they are nevertheless very useful additional sources of support. You can find funded PhD opportunities on Postgraduate Studentships.

Government Doctorate Loan

The UK Government Doctoral Loan scheme opens each summer and this will pay up to £11,222 each year to cover the costs of your course. The loan is paid directly to you. You can use it for your course fees and living costs.

Remember that this sum is divided into the length of the programme you take, so if you are thinking about a part time PhD which could have a duration of more than 3 years then the amount paid will be equivalent to the costs for each year. You have to start playing some of it back when you get a full-time job. It will be added to any existing student loan debt

One thing to bear in mind with the loan is that you can mix and match any scholarships you might be awarded with a loan – it’s not an either/or. This is very useful point if you are not able to secure a studentship for your PhD when you start your course.

International access to research funding has been improved

Recent changes to the UK Study Visa scheme have come into effect so that international students can stay on beyond the end of their study period while they pursue a career. The significance of this from a funding perspective is that International students are now eligible to apply for studentships offered by the UKRI. This is a real help when you want to find PhD funding.

Don’t forget tuition fees

Universities are also obliged to charge you for tuition This varies from course to course but there will be modules of teaching within the programme you enrol onto.

The fees for these are set in line with the Research Council rates, and for 2020/21 the cost was £4,327. These will vary according to the subject, and International students will be expected to pay much more. Look out for advertised studentships that include tuition fees is you can.