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PhD Scholarships – A Guide for 2020

One way to fund your PhD is to win a scholarship from your university or from an independent organisation such as a charity, trust or research foundation.

This guide will help you understand how different types of scholarship work and what you need to apply for them. It also explains the important differences between scholarships and studentships or other types of PhD funding.

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What are PhD scholarships?

A PhD scholarship is an amount of money paid to an individual student to help them complete a PhD (or other type of doctorate).

Eligibility and selection for a scholarship are usually based on personal criteria and circumstances:

  • Merit-based scholarships are intended to help the most academically able students complete a PhD. To win one of these you need to be amongst the best students who apply, based on your existing qualifications and CV.
  • Need-based scholarships are intended to support students whose background or personal circumstances might make it harder for them to study a PhD. You might be eligible for one of these if you are from a social or demographic group that is under-represented at PhD level.

Some PhD scholarships combine these principles (for example, by seeking to identify students with high academic potential from under-represented backgrounds). It's a good idea to check the specific criteria before you apply.

PhD scholarships vs PhD studentships

Some PhD funding awards are labelled as studentships instead of scholarships.

Whereas a scholarship provides a certain amount of funding for a student to study at PhD level, a studentship funds the completion of a specific project (and is almost always ongoing throughout a PhD).

Good examples of PhD studentships are those offered by the UK's Research Councils. These awards are either linked to advertised PhD opportunities or awarded to students for the projects they propose. Either way, the studentship funding is tied to the project.

The difference between PhD scholarships and PhD studentships isn't always clear-cut, but the end result is usually the same: both are (potential) funding for you to do your PhD!

How much are PhD scholarships worth?

A PhD scholarship will almost always make a significant contribution to covering the cost of a PhD, but the exact value varies. Some awards provide full funding for fees and living costs over the typical length of your PhD. Others may simply provide a lump sum for you to put towards your expenses.

Whatever its value, a scholarshipn, unlike a PhD loan, doesn't need to be repaid.

University scholarships

The first place to look for a PhD scholarship (or other funding) should be the university you study at. Most research-intensive universities have funding available to help support their postgraduate students. Universities are also involved in awarding other funding from governments, charities or businesses.

Scholarships (and similar awards) from universities include:

  • Alumni discounts – these reduce postgraduate tuition fees (usually by 10% or so) for students who have graduated from the university before. They're most common at Masters level, but some universities offer alumni discounts for PhD study too.
  • General scholarships – these may be merit-based or need-based. They're usually not tied to specific projects and may instead be designed to help support a certain number of eligible PhD students per year.
  • Travel and research grants – these are sometimes available to students during a PhD, to help cover the cost of conference attendance, fieldwork or other research expenses. They don't offer funding 'in advance', but knowing they're available can help make your PhD more affordable.

You can learn more about these and other options, or start searching for awards, using our guide to PhD funding from universities.

International scholarships

Some PhD scholarships are specifically designed to support international students. They can be particularly helpful if you aren't eligible for other forms of public funding (such as student loans or national studentships) in the country you wish to study abroad in.

Examples of international PhD scholarships include:

  • Government funding schemes – many countries provide specific funding competitions to attract talented international researchers to their universities. A good example of this is the UK's Commonwealth Scholarships, New Zealand's International Doctoral Research Scholarships or Denmark's Danish Government Scholarships.
  • Exchange schemes – pairs or groups of countries often collaborate to fund each others' citizens for PhD study abroad at their universities. One of the most famous examples of this is the US-UK Fulbright Scholarships.
  • University awards – international scholarships are often amongst the types of funding universities offer for PhD study.

Most international scholarships are very generous, with funding available for PhD fees, living costs and travel expenses. But they can also be very competitive. See our guide to international PhD funding for more information.

Charities and trusts

PhD scholarships, grants and bursaries are also offered by some independent organisations.

Good examples include medical charities, such as the British Heart Foundation, or broader research foundations such as the Wellcome Trust or Leverhulme Trust. Many smaller bodies such as local heritage organisations, special interest groups or philanthropic societies will also contribute towards supporting PhD students and their research.

The value of charitable scholarships varies a lot. Some awards are equivalent to full PhD studentships (and may already be attached to projects). Others are small grants designed to help top up other funding.

Our guide to PhD funding from charities and trusts explains how this kind of funding works and how to go about finding and applying for it.

Combining PhD scholarships with other funding

Most PhD scholarships can be combined with other funding such as doctoral loans, income from working during a PhD, or other grants and scholarships. Smaller scholarships are often designed to be used in this way as part of a 'portfolio funding' approach to your PhD.

However, it's always worth checking the criteria for any scholarship you apply for. Some larger scholarships are designed to offer full funding and won't be awarded to applicants who have already covered part of the cost of their PhD.

Applying for PhD scholarships

Application and eligibility crtieria for PhD scholarships are as varied as the different organisations who offer them. So, your first step should always be to check the details before you apply.

Application materials

Scholarship providers will generally want to see some or all of the following:

  • A personal statement explaining your situation and funding needs. Some funders may want to know about your PhD project; others will be more interested in your background, values and career goals.
  • Details of your academic qualifications, potentially including degree transcripts. This is more likely for academic scholarships where selection committees are seeking to identify the best students who apply. Need-based scholarships may also ask you to set out your funding needs.
  • Some applications may also ask for supporting references from your previous tutors or from your prospective PhD supervisor.

If you aren't sure what you need to provide for a PhD scholarship application, get in touch with the funding body and check – it's better to take a bit more time preparing now than to waste an application because you've missed a key requirement.

Application tips

Applying for PhD scholarships can be a busy time, particularly if you're also in the process of applying for your PhD itself. Follow these steps to make the process easier (and hopefully more successful!):

  • Be organised – to maximise your chances of success you'll want to consider several scholarships and apply for at least a few. Start by putting together a shortlist, clarifying application requirements and working back from deadlines.
  • Look at things from the funder's perspective – why is this organisation funding PhD research? What are they trying to achieve? What sort of PhD student are they looking to fund? And how can you demonstrate that's you?
  • Check the criteria – we mentioned this above, but it's worth repeating: an application for a scholarship you aren't actually eligible for is a big waste of your time.

In general, it's a good idea to start your funding search early and to seek advice from your prospective supervisor (if possible). Elsewhere in this section you can read more about other types of PhD funding, or read student stories news and advice on our PhD study blog.

Last updated - 15/06/2020

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