Funding your PhD

Finding funding is a very important part of applying to do a PhD. It needs more work if your field of study doesn’t attract much funding in general. There were no funded projects anywhere that suited my field of interest and research topic an I had to apply for competitive funding within the University. I am partially funded by the Doctoral college at our university and my Tuition fees are reduced from Overseas to UK/EU rates. Best way to explain is – I am now equivalent to a self-funded home student paying home fees and rent and living expenses.

I’d like to tell you a bit about how I secured this funding, how long it took, and what was expected out of my application. I had to acquire a general understanding of the process of applying for a PhD and attend a few Researcher Development Programme (RDP) workshops by the Doctoral college on how to apply to do a PhD and how to write a funding application. As I had just finished masters at this university, I was able to sign on to these workshops which gave me a good headstart. But this knowledge can quite easily be gathered online. Read my blog from last year to get a general overview of the process of applying to do a PhD here.

Funding opportunities and offers vary largely between fields, universities and funding bodies and their priorities. This is key to your applications and whilst it is always good to have options, it might be difficult to manage writing funding applications for many universities or funding bodies. At our University, The Research Group I wanted to be a part of did not offer funding directly under it – and I know some universities do, but the University’s Doctoral College accepted applications from across all fields and faculties. As an international student, under the Doctoral College Studentship Award (DCSA), I would be eligible to receive either a fee reduction or a 25% discount on international tuition fees. You might also be interested to know, in 2018 they rolled out a new studentship for International students wanting to pursue a doctoral degree in 2019 called the Vice-Chancellor Studentship Award (VCSA). What helped me the most was having an option to apply for DCSA (by ticking a box) on my VCSA application. This way I was applying for two studentships with one application. I was pretty adamant I wanted to stay in Surrey – which might not be the best way to look for a PhD some would say, but I’d argue it helps to know exactly what you want – university, research group, under who, country/place even. Meaning, if I didn’t get to do a PhD here, I would probably have not done one at all.

Funding applications are basically asking you to show that you are capable of conducting research and have thought about it thoroughly. Here’s what I had to write for my VCSA application.

  1. Costs – Providing an estimate of project Costs excluding fees and stipend like consumables and travel for research, conferences etc., and clearly stating how these costs will be met, for example, by applying to travel grants with the conference. And if applying for financial support for materials needed for research, a breakdown of quantities and associated costs.
  2. A lay summary of my project (150 words)
  3. Supervision team and relevance for this study – providing a brief summary of the background and expertise of the supervisors I had identified as suitable for the project (250 words),
  4. A personal statement – a very good opportunity to explain how my previous experience had prepared me for doctoral research and this project in particular and also say how it would help with my career plans (250-500 words),
  5. Research proposal – I used this space to detail out the gap in research, study plan and timeline, and anticipated outcomes of my proposed research project (500-1000 wordS).
  6. University Research strategy – This is where you can explain how your proposed research is valuable for the University, Department and Research group but also advance University’s research strategies. This is an important one and might be phrased differently under different universities or funding bodies but they all have it and are usually listed as Research Strategy and Research Themes.
  7. Collaborators – Description and rationale for collaboration with preferably, If I remember it right, not a higher Education Institution. This again ties with university’s research strategies and themes and I reckon they were keen on developing connections with the industry.

A good funding application details out all of these sections thoroughly and coherently. My application and research proposal was built with the help of my supervisors and there were many revisions made and I have to warn it is a time-consuming process. For October 2019 intake, I started working on my funding application by the end of September 2018 – at the end of my masters. Most funding applications have a very early deadline and mine was the first week of January 2019. I heard back in March 2019 and was unsuccessful with my VCSA application as I did not meet the collaborator criteria. This was apparently the case for many applications under FHMS and a second call for applications was announced in May 2019. I was able to tick that box for my next application but was unable to secure the VCSA studentship that covered full overseas tuition and stipend. But I was offered the Fee reduction under DCSA in July 2019 and I was very thrilled!! – if you knew what a massive drop in fees it is. Overall, It took me about 10 months to sort out my fee reduction funding and then get into my Visa processes.

I’d like to emphasise here on the importance of starting early, and basing your preparation for applying on choosing the right or relevant university/research group, supervisory team that supports your research interests and career goals the best. Do not be disheartened if you are unsuccessful the first time as it usually is very competitive, but keep trying! I wish you good luck!