Funding for PhD study is a little more complicated than it is for other degrees. There are lots of different ways a student can be funded and your situation may also change during the 3-4 years (or more) it takes to complete a doctorate.
This short guide is here to introduce PhD funding as a whole, explaining how it works for different types of project and student. We've also outlined a good route to take for your funding search and suggested a few things to bear in mind.
Think of this page as your 'PhD funding 101' and remember that there's more detailed information about specific funding options elsewhere on FindAPhD.
Let's start with the obvious question: who might actually help you pay for a PhD? All sorts of organisations provide funding for doctoral research, but we can divide them into a few broad types:
It's sometimes possible to work alongside a PhD, but this is rarely a practical (or sensible) source of full funding, so we haven't listed it above.
Now that you know where PhD funding comes from, let's think about how this looks from a student's point of view. We're generalising again, but there are roughly three types of funding situation:
Which group you fit into will depend on a lot of factors, but it won't necessarily be determined by your subject. It's true that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students tend to be fully funded (it's harder to self-fund in these fields) but not all fully funded students are doing STEM research.
You may also find that your situation changes during your PhD. It's possible to begin as a self-funded student and win partial (or even full) funding later on.
Knowing a bit more about how PhD funding works will help you make sense of a (potentially) confusing range of options. But where do you go from here?
The following is a very general route. It assumes that you're just starting out with your funding search (perhaps whilst working on your overall PhD application). Chances are you're already some way along, in which case you can skip a few steps.
It's best not to contact a potential supervisor just to talk for funding, but if you're already in conversation with one it makes sense to get their advice on your search. They'll have a good idea what is and isn't worth focussing on and they may also know about specific funders or scholarships for your field.
Lots of PhD projects are actually advertised with funding attached. They're much more common in STEM, but that doesn't mean there aren't any in subjects like English, Philosophy or Sociology. Find one and your funding search gets a lot simpler.
You might be proposing your own PhD topic or considering applying for an advertised project without funding (or with funding you aren't eligible for). Either way, the next step is looking for a studentship or scholarship to 'attach' to your PhD.
The best place to look for one is probably your university. They'll have awards of their own but will also distribute government funding (such as UK Research Council studentships) or larger charitable grants.
In some fields this should really be step #1, but you'll know if so (or your supervisor will tell you). Otherwise, this option is worth a try if you've got this far without finding full funding.
Try to think of relevant companies or organisations that might take an interest in your research or its results. Common sense can guide you here: it's unlikely that an automative manufacturer will pay for your PhD in eighteenth-century lyric poetry; equally, the Arts Council probably won't help you design a new electric car.
By this point you've moved from looking for full funding to looking for partial funding (at least for now). There are still lots of options available to you though, in the form of smaller grants and fee waivers.
Your university may be able to help here, either through a fee discount or a partial scholarship. Now is also the time to be approaching smaller charities and trusts (of which there are many).
It's perfectly possible to pay for a PhD yourself, particularly if you're in a field that lends itself to flexible working and lower research expenses (the Arts and Humanities are the classic example here, but there are others).
Self funding isn't easy though. PhD loans and part-time work can offset a lot of your fees and day-to-day expenses, but you'll never be able to completely ignore the financial side of things.
Our advice would be to discuss things with a prospective PhD supervisor and get their advice on the amount of time you'll have for work, as well as how realistic it might be to find more complete funding later in your project.
Hopefully by now you have a better idea how PhD funding works and where to get started with your search. We recommend you spend some time with our more detailed funding guides but here are a few general tips to keep in the back of your head as you set off:
So there you have it: a quick and – hopefully – simple introduction to funding a PhD. Why not take a look at our detailed guides to different types of funding, or our advice on funding applications. You can also find student stories, news and advice on our blog.
Last updated – 16/09/20