How to Apply for PhD Funding – Advice, Tips & FAQs
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How to Apply for PhD Funding – Advice, Tips & FAQs

You've found a great project at the perfect university and you're all set to get going with your research. There's just one question left: how are you actually going to fund your PhD?

The first step is to get to know the different types of PhD funding. But what about actually applying for them? How do you decide where to start? How do you stay organised? And, ultimately, how do you convince someone to help pay for your PhD?

This guide is here to help with those questions. We've distilled the most important PhD funding advice into six simple tips, followed by some FAQs to cover common questions.

Applying for PhD funding – the basics

First things first, how do PhD funding applications actually work? It obviously depends on the type of funding you apply for, but here are some general pointers to get you started.

Applying for PhD funding vs applying for a PhD

If your PhD is advertised as a funded project then you won't need to make a separate application for funding: you simply apply for the PhD opportunity and get the stipend or studentship that comes with it. This is common in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. If that's you, you don't really need the advice on this page – you can just get started finding a funded PhD!

If you're proposing your own PhD topic then you will need to apply for funding separately. This is common in Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects, though some STEM projects are also advertised for self-funded students. If you're one of them then the information here is designed to help you.

Where to apply

A lot of PhD funding is already allocated to universities, even if the money itself comes from an external source. This is the case for UK Research Council studentships as well as many scholarships from large charities like the Leverhulme Trust or the Wolfson Foundation.

You normally apply for this kind of funding after the university has accepted your PhD application. Sometimes it's a completely separate process, or you may automatically be entered into consideration for a PhD scholarship from your university.

Other funding bodies like smaller charities or learned societies will usually accept applications directly from students. They may also want confirmation that you've been accepted for a PhD before they'll consider you.

Applications for the PhD loan go directly to student finance. You'll need to say where you plan to do your PhD, but you don't need to have finished applying for it yet.

Deadlines

Deadlines for PhD funding are usually set quite far in advance. You may need to begin your funding application during the winter or early spring of the academic year before your degree starts. This provides time for funders to assess applications and select candidates (most PhD scholarships and studentships are awarded competitively).

Deadlines for student loans are more relaxed as only your basic eligibility needs to be checked. For example, you can actually apply for a UK PhD loan at any point up until three months before the end of your degree.

What you'll need

Application requirements for PhD funding are similar to those for a PhD.

You'll normally need to provide details of your existing or pending qualifications, a proposal for the project you plan to research, and some form of personal statement that explains your broader goals and establishes your 'fit' with this scholarship or studentship. Some funders may also ask to see an appropriate academic CV and references.

Bear in mind that the things a funder wants to see may be slightly different to the things a university wants to see. For example, they may care less about the academic detail and methodology for your project and more about how its outcomes support their own objectives.

PhD funding tips

Applying for PhD funding isn't quite the same as applying for a PhD. You'll need to plan for multiple options and outcomes and organise your applications accordingly. You may also need to think slightly differently about how you present and talk about your PhD plans.

Here are some tips to increase your chances of success:

Tip 1 – Work out how much funding you definitely need

The first step in applying for funding should be to work out the rough cost of your PhD. Fees will be similar for most PhDs in the UK, but living costs and other expenses will depend on your subject and circumstances. It's a good idea to get a rough estimate for yours.

Now, subtract from that any funding you may be able to access automatically. This could include things like alumni discounts from your university or student finance like the UK PhD loan.

Once you've done this, you'll know how much funding is essential to make your PhD viable and you can prioritise your options accordingly (we'll get to that soon).

The reality is that applications for full studentships (like those from the AHRC, ESRC and other UK Research Councils) are very competitive. They should still be your Plan A, but that doesn't mean you can't also be working on a Plan B.

Tip 2 – Don't put all your eggs in one basket

This follows from the above, but it's worth picking out (yes, we care about you too, skim readers).

You want a full PhD studentship. Having one is clearly better than borrowing money, using your own savings or working part-time to fund a PhD (and it's an awful lot better than having to do all three).

But you can't just assume you'll get a particular studentship. So don't.

At the very least, have a couple of alternatives in mind (i.e. funding opportunities from your university as well as a UKRI studentship). You should also be thinking now about what you'll do if you don't get a particular funding option. Can you begin your project as a wholly or partially self-funded student? What other grants might you apply for in that case, and when?

This brings us to. . .

Tip 3 – Be really organised

Some of the most boring and obvious advice for a PhD funding search also happens to be some of the most effective.

First of all, make a list of the different funding options you might apply for. Include details of the amounts they offer, their specific eligibility criteria and, most importantly, their deadlines.

Next, work backwards from those deadlines and plan your application process. It might be a good idea to split this into phases, starting with the earliest deadlines for the best funding and moving on to less ideal (but potentially viable) options that leave you more time prepare.

Let's say you're looking to fund a Social Sciences PhD. You know that the deadline for Economic and Social Research Council funding at your university is in January and you focus on getting everying ready for that application, before Christmas. This is phase one.

Meanwhile, you're also making a list of alternative sources of full funding, from your university and some independent trusts and charities. If your ESRC application isn't successful, you're instantly ready to pick yourself up and go to phase two.

Finally, you've read up on the UK PhD loan system and determined that this is a viable (though not ideal) option, if all else fails. There's no real deadline for this and applications don't generally open until June. So, if it comes to it, that's phase three.

It's a lot of work, but it's also good training in organisational and project management skills – fairly handy on a PhD.

Tip 4 – Don't beg and don't spam

This advice should be self-explanatory and, given that you've bothered to read this far, you shouldn't need it. Still though, you might be surprised to learn just how many low quality applications some funders receive.

As a general rule, funders will be more interested in your research than they are in your personal backstory. Or, to put it another way, the fact that you really need funding isn't enough to get it (everyone else needs funding too and scholarships are almost never first-come-first-served).

Similarly, copying and pasting the same email to multiple funders may feel like it saves time, but it probably just wastes it. It's easy to spot a copied email and, in any case, you won't have given yourself a chance to explain why your research fits each funder's objectives. That brings us to the next tip.

Tip 5 – Think like a funder

Applying for a PhD means convincing someone that your research is worth doing. Applying for funding means convincing someone that it's worth paying for.

And, sadly, no funder exists just to help any student get any PhD in any subject.

So, a key piece of advice for a successful funding application is to try and get inside the head of potential funders. What are their objectives? Why do they actually fund PhD research? What do they hope their funding will achieve?

Universities will want to maintain or raise their profile for research in certain areas. Businesses will hope to benefit commercially and / or reputationally from the research they fund. Charities will pursue a range of objectives, from combatting disease or addressing cultural issues to preserving local heritage or widening participation in education.

Whatever your funder's goals, you need to be really clear why and how you and your PhD are going to help achieve them. The best place for this is normally a personal statement or covering letter (if your funding application asks for one) but you may also need to think ahead to potential PhD interview questions, if a representative from your funding body will be present.

Tip 6 – Get help from your supervisor, if you can

Chances are that you've already been matched with a supervisor by now (particularly if you've already been accepted for your PhD). If not, you may have a supervisor in mind and have begun corresponding with them.

Either way, a prospective supervisor may be able to help more than you think. This isn't just because they're experts in your field, either; academics also have a lot of experience applying for research funding.

Here are a few of the ways they may be able to help:

  • Highlighting funding you aren't aware of – Your supervisor will be aware of specialist funders in your subject area and they may also have advance knowledge of upcoming funding opportunities
  • Helping you emphasise the right aspects of your project – Your supervisor will be used to thinking about research from a funder's point of view; they'll be able to help you decide what to include (and leave out) when pitching your research for funding
  • Acting as a referee – Your supervisor will be uniquely positioned to vouch for the potential value and impact of your project
  • Providing perspective – Not winning funding can be disheartening, but it doesn't mean your PhD is a failure; your supervisor will be able to help you pick yourself back up and move on to the next option

How much support you can expect from a supervisor will depend on your circumstances (and theirs) but you don't necessarily have to apply for PhD funding entirely on your own.

PhD funding FAQs

Here are the answers to a few common questions about PhD funding:

Can I apply for multiple funding options at the same time?

Yes. Technically you can apply for as many scholarships or studentships as you like. Just bear in mind that good funding applications take time. It's better to be organised than to over-stretch yourself.

Also, some funding options can't be combined: for example, you can't have a PhD loan if you've also been awarded funding from UKRI.

Is there a limit to how much PhD funding I can get?

Some funders will only provide full studentships to PhD students who don't already have another substantial source of support.

There's no official limit on the number of smaller grants you can combine from universities, charities and trusts (and no one to enforce one) but, again, funders may wish to focus on students who need their support the most.

How much is PhD funding worth?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of PhD funding:

  • Full studentships provide a payment for your university fees and a stipend or bursary to contribute towards your living costs
  • Partial awards either cover your fees or contribute towards living costs

Some full studentships also provide additional money for travel and research expenses such as materials and fieldwork.

In any case, the value of your PhD funding will depend on the cost associated with your PhD. As a good benchmark, a full UKRI studentship currently provides a little under £20,000 per year for fees and living costs

What can I use PhD funding to pay for?

It depends what the funding is allocated for.

Most PhD stipends or bursaries are paid directly to students for living costs. Funders won't check exactly what you spend this money on, but it's a good idea to focus on accommodation, groceries and other essentials.

Some additional funding may be provided for travel or conference expenses, in which case you'll probably need to keep the relevant reciepts.

Money paid for fees will usually go directly to your university.

When should I start looking for PhD funding?

It's a good idea to begin thinking about funding as soon as you start to seriously consider a PhD. That will give you enough time to put together the best possible application and consider alternative options if you aren't initially successful.

Can funded students also work during a PhD?

You won't normally be allowed to work full-time if you also have a full studentship, but you may be able to work part time (this is the case for UKRI PhD funding).

Is PhD funding tax free?

Government funding, such as Research Council studentships, is usually tax-free. The same is usually true of other grants and scholarships that are provided solely to help support PhD study. However, some PhD funding may be taxable if it is provided in return for services such as teaching or other work at your university.

PhD loans are always tax free, but they may affect your entitlement to some benefits, including how much Universal Credit you can claim.

Does PhD funding need to be repaid?

Studentships and scholarships don't need to be repaid after you complete your PhD. Student loans do, but their repayments are linked to earnings.

Can I get funding if I don't have a 1st or 2.1?

Having a good degree result from your Bachelors (or Masters) will help in your funding application, but it isn't the only thing funders will consider. A lower class degree may be compensated for by other factors such as relevant experience and the wider potential of your PhD project.

What happens if I don't get PhD funding?

You may still be able to begin your PhD without funding, but this will depend on your circumstances.

Some students begin by self-funding (using savings, part-time work and / or PhD student loans) in the hope of winning a full studentship during their PhD. This approach can be successful, but there's no guarantee you'll win funding later if you haven't done so in advance. So be honest about whether you can see the full doctorate through as a self-funding student.

Self-funding can also be difficult if you have to pay additional bench fees (for consumables and materials) or if the working hours for your PhD aren't flexible enough to fit around part-time work.

Last updated - 21/07/20

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