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Advice needed: External Funding for a UK PhD (Cambridge University)


User: A_Ka - 16 January 2022 21:34

Hello fellow PhD-ers,

Angelina here, a neuroscience graduate looking for a PhD in the UK.

Due to circumstances beyond my control and a study delay in my Master's, I was unable to apply on time for the internal funding opportunities offered by Cambridge where I'd love to do my PhD. Unfortunately, I thus missed the deadlines even for internal funding for the spring 2023 intake. I am now in a position where I need to apply for external funding.

Can anyone advice on what would be a good starting point? I have already started researching options, but extra help and advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks everyone in advance! Tons! :)

User: rewt - 17 January 2022 10:46

Can you delay your PhD start data so you can apply for internal funding? Internal funding is a lot easier to get that external funding. Or even better apply for an already funded PhD. I am not joking in that external funding is very competitive.

The best starting point is asking your prospective supervisor. Ask if they know any PhD awards or where they apply for funding in general. Unfortunately there are no central databases of available funding but you could try Marie-Curie or the large bioscience funds, Wellcome trust etc.

I wish I could be more help and goodluck.

User: A_Ka - 13 March 2022 16:43

Many thanks for your thoughts! You are absolutely right - I contacted about 70 different external funders and did not get a single positive response.

In the meantime, I got an offer to start a fully funded PhD this fall. It's not at the institution that I was hoping to work at, but it's a very compelling offer still. Part of me still wonders whether I should simply try again next year when I stand a chance of getting internal funding, and whether that would be more valuable. Another part of me thinks it's best to just start this September instead of losing another year when things would still be uncertain and given that I know that I want to do a PhD and am ready to start one this year.

I kind of wish I had known better and had started applying earlier so that I could stand a chance of getting internal funding. At the same time, there are reasons why I couldn't start earlier and there's probably no point overthinking this now and beating myself up. I still feel mostly bad though and don't seem to be able to just be happy that I got a very competitive PhD, which would be fully funded, and appreciate this wonderful opportunity.

Any thoughts? :( :)

User: Benedikt - 18 March 2022 23:13

Hallo there!
I had the same situation last year. Because of the covid pandemic. It was very hard for me to accept and understand that I didn't have time to apply for internal funding.
I didn't wait until next year to apply for internal funding and applied for fully funded PhD.
I pulled myself together and decided not to spend another year applying for internal funding next year. And I didn't regret my decision. I had a very interesting dissertation topic.
I wrote the best thesis in my group. And I advise you not to waste your time. If it happened, it had to happen. Don't waste your time, make your decisions!
Good luck!

User: directdrive - 24 March 2022 11:05

My advice to this is, and always will be, follow the money. If you have a fully-funded PhD offer (and it's a compelling one, good supervisory fit, etc) then take it. They don't come along every day. There's no guarantee you'll get internal funding if you wait. Doesn't hurt to try and get over the Oxbridge fantasies either.

User: abababa - 29 March 2022 00:27

Unfortunately what external funding means in the UK from a student perspective is a bank loan on a self-funded PhD.

The problem (and it is a problem) in the UK, is that PhD funding goes to established PIs, who are then expected to recruit students. Which they do on jobs.ac.uk, and often attach many strings, using the PhD as an RA, because they had to put in the work to get the funding.

Other countries, e.g. Canada, have a system whereby a prospective PhD get can funding, then 'shop around' the best Unis to see which can give them the best offer to deliver on it. Which imo is a vastly better system. The problem is the UK and other countries are stuck in that rut of having funding decided by councils that are swayed by established researchers who want the funding to go to them for CV/employment/prestige purpose.

It is, in some rare cases, possible to connect up with a professor and assist them with a grant on the premise that, if successful, you'll apply for and (theoretically) assume the resulting role. But this is rare and prone to failure (~5% of grant applications succeed).

The reality with 'find external funding', is they expect you to either, to use the vernacular, pony up, or find a mythical industry sponsor to write them a blank cheque.