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1.3 PhD Funding Guide

PhD students generally require funding for a number of reasons:

  • Most universities will charge a fee for PhD's which is similar to that for taught courses, despite the contact time being less. This fee is to cover staff time and resources provided.
  • You may need money for travel, fieldwork, equipment, or other resources necessary for your project itself.
  • Unless you are studying part-time, you will also need to find a way to meet your daily living costs while studying.

Just like undergraduate and graduate programmes, there are funding sources available for PhD work. This guide provides an overview of where to look and who to ask.

Types of PhD Funding

PhD funding can be of a number of types:

  • Grants, often called scholarships, studentships or fellowships, which you don't have to pay back
  • Loans, which have to be paid back
  • Fee waivers, which involve the university suspending some or all of the fees
  • Work arrangements, where the student provides a service to the department in return for fee waivers or a grant
  • In-kind services, such as the provision of equipment or knowledge in return for work.

Sources for PhD Funding

Research Councils

The most popular sources of PhD funding in the UK are the Research Councils. These are government-funded bodies which specialise in funding research in particular areas. They have scholarships for a fixed number of PhD students, which cover both fees and maintenance. The councils are:

Research councils award scholarships based on a 'competition'. Applicants need the support or “sponsorship” of a university department, and most departments are limited in how many people they can sponsor. They must complete a form, including references and sections filled by the department. Proposals are normally reviewed by other experts who rate their strength. Points are awarded for different areas of strength, such as having a viable proposal, having a good BA and MA mark and contributing to the research council's thematic areas. The proposals with the most points will receive scholarships. A few university departments are also given research council scholarships which they can allocate internally. Most often, supervisors and departments will work closely with students to produce the strongest possible proposal for the funding competition.


Some universities, colleges and research institutes have their own funding available or are willing to offer fee waivers for outstanding candidates. Often these will be advertised publicly and will involve a competition similar to that for the Research Councils.

Commercial and charitable organisations

Organisations outside the academic sector sometimes fund PhD's entirely or in cooperation with a university. Usually, these will be specific projects relating to the body's research interests. For instance, NGO's may fund research on their area of activity, such as environmental protection or cancer treatments, and companies may fund research which will help them develop new projects. There are also schemes which specifically fund PhD's as a matter of course. For instance, science and engineering students may have access to CASE (Cooperative Awards in Science and Engineering) studentships, which are part-funded by a company, NGO or government department, and involve work placements with the funding organisation. They are often linked to a guaranteed job at the funding organisation. There are some charitable trusts which exist mainly to fund research. These include the Leverhulme Trust, the Carnegie Trust and the British Academy. Although they usually fund postdoctoral research, some of these bodies may also fund PhD's. Women should also consider the British Federation of Women Graduates, which funds PhD's for female scholars.

Overseas sources

Students from outside the UK often have funding from within their country of origin. Governments will sometimes pay for talented scholars or government employees to study in the UK. There are also UK and EU schemes to attract overseas students.

PhD's attached to major research projects

Some universities operate as the site of major research projects, funded by large grants from the government, the European Union or from corporations or NGO's. One or more PhD studentships are sometimes included as part of these major proposals, funded under policies such as the EU Research Framework Programmes or by bodies such as the Research Councils and the Leverhulme Trust (separately from the PhD studentship competition). Unlike regular PhD studentships, these have to be part of the predefined project, and the project is usually narrowly defined in advance of students applying. A student is normally hired to work on a narrow area which is already part of the project, supervised by senior staff in the project. They often also have to act as a research assistant on the project. Positions also occasionally appear which are funded by or in relation to a particular lecturer, and require work connected to the lecturer's specialisms. Opportunities connected to existing research activities are usually publicly advertised and can be found in common academic job sources.


Students who do not obtain funding may seek to finance their own study. PhD students may work part-time while studying. Most PhD students take on at least a little work as casual tutors, hall wardens, student union bar staff and suchlike. Those who self-fund usually also have full or part-time jobs outside academia. Some rely on previous savings, funding from parents, or wealthy benefactors. Students working in an area they are also studying can often use their job to gather data, rely on existing knowledge obtained in the workplace, and advance their career through study. Funding sources such as Professional and Career Development Loans may be available to people studying work-related PhD's.

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