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Posted on 7 Jul '22

The Realities of Funding a PhD with the UK Doctoral Loan

When it comes to applying for a PhD, there's no escpaing the topic of funding. The ideal option is to find a funded project. But what happens if you're unsuccessful or you've missed the deadline? The doctoral loan is something to consider.

I started my PhD in October 2019 after unsuccessfully applying for Research Council funding. Having been told during my Bachelors that there was no point in pursuing a PhD without a funding award, I was very apprehensive. But my impatient attitude and unwavering determination brought me into the world of self-funding – using the doctoral loan as part of that.

Now coming to the end of my PhD, I can safely inform you that having the doctoral loan is not a bad thing. Although self-funding can come with many difficulties, it also offers a level of freedom.

Applying for the loan

If you’ve applied for student finance before then you’ll be familiar with the process. If not, then you can create a new account or apply by post. The application deadline is nine months before the first day of your last academic year, so you don’t need to be a new starter to apply.

At the moment, you can request up to £28,673 that will be paid in three instalments per year until the end of the course. You can read more about eligibility, the application process, and repayments in our up-to-date guide.

One tip from me:

Make sure you check the length of your course before budgeting!

I assumed my PhD course was three years, as that is the encouraged submission period, however it officially runs to three and a half, meaning the loan is paid over four. This meant I received less each semester than I originally planned for.

How it all works

At the start of each semester I receive one out of the three instalments for the year. When the money is paid into your account will depend on your university and their registered semester dates, but everything will be outlined in a payment schedule that you’ll receive once your application has been approved.

Unlike for the undergraduate degree, tuition fees are not paid directly out of the loan. As the doctoral loan is also intended to cover living costs, you have to set up tuition fee payments yourself.

Each university will have their own payment plans available. My fees are covered by two payments given at the start of both the first and second semester. These payments are due about a week after I receive the loan instalment.

While it can seem like a lot now, it’s actually quite simple in practice, particularly if you can set up a direct debit.

Is it enough to live on?

The simple answer is no, not if you are intending to use the loan to fund your whole PhD.

I started my course full-time in October 2019. Having applied for the total amount according to my start date (£25,700), I receive £6,425 a year. The average tuition fees for PhD study in the UK are around £4,327 per year, which leaves about £2,000 for rent and living expenses.

You will need a job, or some substantial savings.

Having to work during your PhD can actually be beneficial. I started my first year working as a waitress; it wasn’t exactly my calling in life, but it paid the bills . After a bit of job hunting, I stumbled across an advert for a part-time content writing job. It was perfect! I was excited for the opportunity to develop my writing skills in the professional market. (Spoiler alert, I got the job!)

Working during a PhD may not be ideal, but it could help you in the long run. It’s no secret that breaking into the academic job market can be extremely difficult and many PhD graduates choose to enter industry rather than academia. Although you might have to work longer hours and a six-day week, by the time you graduate you will have a few years of work experience under your belt (and maybe even some new friends).

In fact, some Research Councils now require their funded students to partake in work placements to increase employability after graduation.

My number one tip is to always have one day off a week. The PhD is mentally strenuous and, without breaks, you risk burning out. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Prioritise mental health and quality research over excessive hours under mental strain.

If you find that you are struggling, talk to your supervisor and perhaps look into transferring to part-time study. While your loan will then be split between more years, extending your submission deadline will allow for a healthier work-study-life balance.

Additional funding

A PhD often comes with a lot of unforeseen expenses. Travel costs, conference fees, books, and equipment can all add up and cause strain on the already tight financial situation. Being self-funded, however, can often put you at the front of the queue for bursaries, grants, and awards.

Departments will usually have additional funding available to help cover conference expenses, outside engagement events, and equipment. Additionally, check if your university offers topic specific prizes that you might be eligible for. Finally, it’s also worth doing a bit of research on external funding bodies or institutions (like libraries, archives, and so on). Many run short term paid fellowships, offer essay prizes (for work you're probably doing anyway), or will contribute to the cost of attending their own events.

Imposter syndrome

So, here’s the big question: what’s it actually like to start a PhD as a loan-funded student?

As I arrived early on a Monday morning, located my desk, sorted my pile of books, and arranged my tea collection, I was ready for my first day as a PhD student. As the morning progressed other researchers at different stages of their PhD arrived. Everybody was welcoming, chatty, and willing to offer advice for new starters. After a while I noticed that most people asked the same questions: “what’s your name?”, “what’s your research on?”, and “who are you funded by?”. As it turned out, I was the only self-funded student on this floor.

Having received the dreaded rejection letter four months prior, I was worried others might consider me inferior. Funding is extremely competitive and while your academic track record does come into consideration by research councils, so will your university’s specialisms and the fit of your supervisor.

Here’s the thing though:

A university will not admit a student they don’t believe to be capable.

I was the only one who thought myself lesser. Nobody judged me for self-funding, and it turned out there were many others using the government loan, just not on this floor. Those asking my funding body were simply looking for a shared experience, not to cast judgement.

Everyone will feel imposter syndrome at some point in their life; don’t let your funding method be a cause of it.

They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!

The greatest benefit of self-funding with a doctoral loan is that your PhD remains completely in your control. Many funding bodies will require students to meet specific criteria, participate in certain events, and work towards pre-set deadlines. However, when self-funding, you are solely responsible for your activities. You can do as much or as little as you like, though of course you will still need to write that dissertation. . .




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Last Updated: 07 July 2022