Can you do a free PhD in the UK? A complete guide

How do I apply for a PhD in the UK?

In a nutshell, these are the best steps you can take to ensure a free PhD in the UK.

  1. You should start with grabbing any research opportunities even during your master’s.
  2. Identify and target the prospective UK PhD supervisor. This is the person that matters most for your PhD.
  3. Read the works of these researchers and then start an email conversation with them.
  4. If you both agree on going forward then search for PhD funding opportunities.
  5. The least competitive funding opportunities can be grabbed from your home country and the most competitive are the elite scholarship offers you found regurgitated on every scholarship website out there.
  6. If you have secured funding before applying to the university, you won half the game.
  7. Apply formally to the university. Make sure to stand out on each document.
  8. Be yourself in a PhD interview.

Read More: 10 things top UK universities look for in PhD applicants?

Table of Contents

What documents are needed for PhD application?

  • Provide a convincing & unique research proposal. A research proposal is the most important document.
  • Provide your previous transcripts. Your grades don’t matter for successful PhD completion but they do matter to the hiring committee because they got a few indicators to evaluate you and numbers are the easiest way to filter candidates out.
  • Provide good English language scores if English tests are not exempted for you.
  • Provide reference letters. These letters can be 2-3 pages long. The best bet is that these letters explain your specific strengths with a concise description of previous evidence.

When should I apply for PhD UK?

  • Keep track of PhD scholarship deadlines. Any international scholarship e.g., commonwealth or any funding opportunity from your home country has deadlines months earlier than the UK PhD application deadlines.
  • Do you really need a PhD? Make sure you really do for the next steps in your career. This is the whole purpose of setting this blog up. Be very honest and clear to yourself that working on a thesis project which may not have much monetary value after 3-4 years of working on it is the only thing you want to do.

Suggested Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Deciding if You Should Get a PhD and Become a Professor

What makes a good PhD candidate?

A good PhD candidate is the one who really needs a PhD for the next steps of her career. PhD supervisors really have an eye for recognizing this.

If you truly believe that PhD in the UK is the only way to get where you want to be after 3-4 years then you will do everything in your power to persuade the UK PhD supervisors.

That’s all that is needed in a system where a lot of PhD applicants don’t know what is a PhD for, what its purpose is, and where they need it.

A Step-by-step method to get a fully funded PhD in the UK

1. Start with your Masters

Believe it or not, if you want to really get a free PhD from a UK university then you should start working on it even during your Master’s.

29% of UK PhD supervisors valued a relevant master’s degree and a fifth of them (20 %) gave weightage to the relevance and grades of an undergraduate degree.

However, a Master’s is much more important than your undergraduate degree because it has many similarities to a PhD.

  1. Master’s courses are much more relevant to a PhD. The coursework you study in your master’s by research usually makes your ground for a research degree like the PhD. This is the reason why PhD supervisors are much more interested in your grades in these courses instead of undergraduate coursework.
  2. A Master’s thesis is like a mini PhD project. A Master’s thesis component is much more rigorous than an undergraduate final year project course. This training component in master’s can help you to understand the basics of research and how research is conducted in your subject area.
  3. A Master’s is your apprenticeship for a PhD. A Master’s also tells the prospective PhD supervisors in the UK that (a) you are able to work under a research supervisor and (b) you have the ability to collaborate on research projects within the research team. The reference letters are a way to communicate your employability and adaptability for a long and independent research project.

“Often, students think that graduate school is a lot like undergraduate study and that they’re going to take classes, write papers and take exams, and at the end of that, they’ll have a PhD,” he says. “It’s not really like that.”

Insiders offer tips on ways to stand out from the pool of graduate school applicants.

So what should you care about while doing my master’s in research?

These are the things that PhD supervisors are actively looking for in your PhD application when assessing your master’s performance.

  1. Master’s coursework performance. Believe it or not, the UK PhD supervisors are really curious about your Master’s performance. This means you need to do whatever you can to secure the highest possible grades in your master’s coursework.
  2. Master’s thesis performance. Your master thesis should be the best work you have created till now. It will have several benefits such as polishing your research skills as well as enabling you to understand what really independent research demands in your field. This will help you in the long term by making you understand what academic research is in your subject area. 
  3. Try to get published in your Master’s. You should consider your master’s thesis as a project that is to be published, preferably, in a well-recognized peer-reviewed journal.  This will help you in two ways: (a) your master supervisor will have something to write about in your recommendation letter, and (b) this publication exercise will help you understand the struggles of a peer-reviewed system. 
  4. Try to get some research experience outside of your lab. During my master’s, I go beyond my Master’s thesis project. I applied for and got accepted for some research projects besides my thesis project. The reason is the more research experience the better for a PhD application. Try to collaborate with other researchers besides your Master’s supervisor or look for any industry research internships that can increase the outcome for your academic CV.
Although not mandatory, still, It is highly recommended to have research experience before your PhD.

A master’s is the real opportunity to prepare yourself for top universities in the UK.

  • If you really make things right during this period you can achieve the goals of an academic career.
  • If you are considering industry after PhD then that’s a different story and you must consider the costs of doing a Master’s as well as a PhD.

“Research experience is the best preparation for graduate school, and these days is virtually a requirement.”

Katherine Sledge Moore, University of Michigan

2. Prepare your documents

Before applying for PhD scholarships in the UK you need some preparations. These preparations can be

  1. Your awareness regarding funding deadlines. Some PhD scholarship deadlines, especially from your home country can be 6-8 months earlier before the last date of PhD application submission. This means you need to start a year ahead.
  2. Make sure the required documents for PhD scholarship are in order. There are many documents which you need to get attested. So make sure your affairs are in order ahead. Make sure to get verification and recognition from your local authorities as well as any required verifications from International organizations.
  3. English proficiency tests. If English is not your first language then you may need to give an English language test there. There are a lot of English proficiency tests that you can use to determine or prove your proficiency in English. 
  4. Graduate tests. Although many UK universities do not require graduate tests e.g., GRE or GMAT. However, if they are required by your intended institution then you need to write these tests too. Graduate tests show your competence however, tests may or may not compensate for some discrepancies in your profile. Therefore, make sure that they are worth the effort because they are usually optional in the UK.
  5. Reference Letters. Your recommenders are also busy professors. You need to request them ahead of your funding or application deadlines. Also, being professionally responsible provide relevant materials to make them recall some experiences that they can write down in your recommendation letters. This will increase the probability of time and thought they can give to your reference letter.
  6. An Academic CV is a summary of what you have already accomplished. The key to a convincing CV is that it can show how your previous works are aligned to each PhD position you are applying for.

“More applications from international candidates from a range of countries, who are seen as ‘hedging their bets’ rather than putting time and effort into creating a strong application .”

UK PhD Supervisor- UK Research and Supervision survey

3. Free PhD in the UK: Why checking PhD Scholarships from your Home Country is better?

The biggest hurdle for international PhD applicants in the UK is acquiring the PhD funding.

UK PhD supervisors also recognized this problem and a huge majority of them (92%) reported that there should be more opportunities to recruit funded doctoral candidates.

This happens due to certain system difficulties as well as limited funds allocation to international students by the biggest research funding organization (UKRI).

“Outside of a DTP (which are essentially the richer, more established institutions) doctoral funding has become almost impossible to obtain. The system has reinforced the divide between haves and have nots. It is grossly unfair and detrimental to research quality.”

UK PhD Supervisor- UK Research and Supervision survey

A third (32%) of UK PhD supervisors said that they prioritize PhD applicants with funding. This may mean self-funding or any other funding from the home country.

“I would ideally take more diverse students who align with my group’s inclusive research culture and research philosophy. But I keep receiving funding only for white male students from privileged backgrounds, who I am then forced to take, and then have problems supervising since their research culture does not align with the groups.” Anonymous

UK PhD Supervisor- UK Research and Supervision survey

All in all your best bet is to look forward to these three types of opportunities

  1. UK PhD funding offers from your home country
  2. Industry-funded studentship projects
  3. Doctoral training programs

Acquiring PhD funding from your home country is comparatively much easier…. link here than competing for UK PhD studentships.

“The UKRI DTP structure has significantly reduced the opportunity of my research group to grow compared to when it was possible to write PhD projects into grant applications. This is especially the case in cross-disciplinary research.”

UK PhD Supervisor- UK Research and Supervision survey

Read More: 5 (simple) ways to increase your chances to get a funded PhD in the UK

4. Check the researcher’s and prospective supervisors’ work

Unlike in the US, in the UK you are expected to be an independent student who already has a good understanding of executing the independent research project.

This means the PhD researchers in the UK expect you to be able to read their work, give it a full thought, take down notes and prepare some notes for discussion right at the first email.

“Originality for me probably, it has to be something that hasn’t been fully done before so there is really a need for that particular topic”.

Arts & Humanities, Russell Group, West Midlands, Late career

So, what should you take care of while writing the first email to your prospective PhD supervisor in the UK?

  1. Show genuine interest. The key to a successful PhD scholarship is that you are interested in a researcher’s work. These researchers are very good at recognizing those students who really are enthusiastic about that research area from those who just consider a PhD as an extended master’s, which does more harm than good by the way.
  2. Convince the prospective PhD supervisor. You must convince the researchers that you need to work on this topic and how this research project will help you accomplish your future goals. As an international student, you are expected to engage with them in a series of back-and-forth emails. These emails as well as telephonic conversations can help you a lot when creating your own research proposal for the PhD application.
  3. Understand the subject area literature and its current standings. To hook your prospective supervisors with email conversations you must first understand the work that is already done on a specific problem. This may mean reading the works of your prospective PhD supervisor and sometimes other members of the research team. This helps you to submit a research proposal that is closely aligned with the prospective supervisor’s research goals and interests. 
Writing in an email to a potential PhD advisor: you need to focus on what value can you add value to the professor.

If you are able to convince some supervisors that you are the one they are looking to work with for the next three to four years then the remaining steps of a PhD application become easier. 

5. Prepare your PhD application

The Research Proposal

In the UK, especially for a PhD by thesis, you are asked to submit a research proposal. 

You need to know something about this research proposal

  1. It is a research proposal required to judge your research interests and abilities.
  2. You may refine this proposal after your PhD acceptance under the supervision of your PhD supervisor. 

Tips for making an excellent research proposal in the shortest possible time for your PhD application.

  1. Read the works of previous researchers, especially your supervisor. This will help you develop a coherent understanding of the problem you are trying to address.
  2. Contact your prospective supervisor to discuss your research proposal and research ideas with him or her. After all, this will help you prepare in advance for what is working and what you should work on in your PhD.
  3. Follow university guidelines. 
  4. Look for templates. The samples of research proposals submitted for a PhD application by students in your field are of great help. I don’t recommend copying any stuff from them. That’s a really bad idea. However, you can understand the format you are expected to adopt to generate your own PhD proposal as quickly as possible.
  5. Show your ability to complete the PhD project.
  6. Read it again and again. Reading your proposal benefits threefold. First, it will let you snake any corrections and additions in the research proposal. Second, it will let your ideas on paper rest and allow time for your brain to work on new additions to it passively. Third, you will get good preparation for your PhD interview as reading makes you revise your research proposal.

All in all your research proposal should communicate the following.

  1. Your research is aligned with the research team you are intended to work with.
  2. Your passion and interest in the topic area.
  3. Your awareness of the works already done on that particular research question.
  4. Your research question must be unique and must be of importance to the stakeholders e.g., PhD supervisor, hiring committee, grant provider, industry partner, etc.

Research Proposal for A UK PhD Studentship

A PhD studentship project usually comes with well-defined goals.

They are the most competitive funding positions in the UK.

If you want to test your metal then you can craft a highly customizable PhD research proposal for the advertised studentship.

Consider the following things while drafting your research proposal for a UK PhD studentship. 

  1. Follow the grant provider’s guidelines. UK PhD studentship is usually advertised with guidelines for a research proposal. If not, check the guidelines from the grant provider’s website or ask the contact email about guidance for it. This will help you to highly target your research proposal for the specific needs and preferences of the grant
  2. Make sure you understand the interests of all the stakeholders. In order to win a PhD studentship, you must be aware of what everyone’s interests are. Usually, everybody from the prospective PhD supervisor, department, and grant provider has differences in their priorities. This will help you address the needs of all as much as you can in your research approach.
  3. Bank on the research areas which are less explored in the advertised topic area. Sometimes it is a good idea to explore the literature on the particular topic area and focus on the questions which are less focused. However, sometimes the opposite can be true too. An in-depth understanding of the relevant literature will most likely help you to decide where you can focus.

A UK PhD studentship is highly competitive so make sure you understand the cost of time and effort invested in preparing your application for each advertised studentship project.

“At the moment we select students based on markers of prior success , which are often biased towards privilege rather than potential. I don’t see how this can change without a dedicated effort to support diversity.” Anonymous

UK PhD Supervisor- UK Research and Supervision survey

6. Formally apply to the university

Now you have got many things in order from securing funding to drafting your research proposal and persuading your prospective UK PhD supervisor. All these can really increase your chances of getting a fully funded PhD for free in the UK.

There are several documents that hold an important position in your PhD application in the UK e.g., academic CV and reference letters.

However, I would like to highlight the importance of your personal statement for the PhD.

Personal Statement

Apart from the research proposal, universities require you to write a personal statement for your PhD application.

A personal statement is your chance of standing out from your scores and other obstacles and overcoming any cracks in your PhD application.

Can you do a free PhD in the UK ?What to include in Personal Statement for a PhD
What are the requirements to apply for a PhD?

Following are the things you must address in your personal statement

  1. Why this research question? You also need to tell a coherent story of your previous accomplishments that lead you to this research question. This shows that you are genuinely interested in this PhD position.
  2. Why this subject area? First, you need to justify your reasons to apply for this PhD studentship project. Second, you must convey in your personal statement that you have the intention to pursue further research in this subject area, beyond the PhD. 
  3. Why this department? Every department offers a unique advantage to your research goals. You need to justify those goals and how that particular department can help you achieve them.
  4. How are you eligible to propel this project? By giving examples of similar scenarios where you worked on bigger independent projects, manage your time, and worked under pressing deadlines you are really communicating that you can handle this 3-4 year long pursuit.
  5. Are you a people person? Besides your command of the subject, the hiring committee also wants to know your interpersonal skills and abilities. After all, they are hiring their colleagues for the next 3-4 years. Show by past examples and scenarios that you are a people person and you have the ability to manage big research projects.
  6. Why do you need this PhD? The most important thing for a prospective supervisor to consider is your dire need for a PhD. You must explain how this PhD training, this department, and the prospective supervisor can help you achieve your long-term goals after the PhD.
What to include in your personal statement for PhD applications at top universities?

7. Perform well in a PhD interview

A good amount of UK professors are looking forward to your PhD interview. Just like the personal statement they are going to evaluate you here as a person.

“You could tell who really wanted it, as they were eager but not over-polished.”

When asked about what PhD supervisors look through in interview

Overall you need to take care of the following things while giving your PhD interview.

  1. Bring your personality. The professor has already read your academic CV and research proposal. They are now interested in how you are as a person as well as a colleague. In short, be genuine, friendly and that’s it. You can’t win this by pretending.
  2. Understand that everything will be great. Every interviewee feels that something was off during her interview. So you don’t need to be perfect. Maybe your response in a particular moment was the one showing your potential.
  3. Show your understanding of the research area. If you are asked any questions regarding the research topic proposed you may need to show that you really have read the relevant literature.
  4. Don’t hesitate to discuss any flaws in your CV. If there are some discrepancies and down points in your CV don’t hesitate to explain them. Prepare a justification for them and you are good to go.
  5. Use short sentences. Short sentences sound clear in a conversation. In academia we are programmed to use complex words and sentences to sound brilliant, however many psychological studies prove against this. Make sure you are using short and clear sentences in your speech. Take pauses and break the concepts to sound more clear to the interviewer.
  6. Provide more than one point of view. Professors are deliberately looking for your explanation of something. For instance, your approach to nuances while presenting conflicting solutions/ approaches to the same problem. Thus, don’t forget to use the word “however” to impress them.
  7. Show them you’re vetting them too! A PhD interview is not only your chance to present yourself, you are also checking the professors and research team. Observe to check that they really want you in their group or if will you be happy working with them as a colleague.
  8. Understand that the interview is a single factor. Even a perfect interview is not a guarantee that you will be accepted into a PhD program. There are many factors playing in a PhD hiring decision from your compatibility with the research team to the number of applicants available to them. So be patient if you don’t get a positive response even after a good interview.
Here are some questions that I was asked during my interview and questions that others I know were asked during theirs!

FAQs: Get a free PhD in the UK with full-funding

Can I Do Free PhD In the UK?

Yes, you can do a free PhD in the UK. You just need to secure a fully funded PhD scholarship. The key is to prepare early, even during your master’s. Apply for UK PhD scholarships before deadlines. Convince PhD supervisors that you are the one they need for the next break in their research.

What is the eligibility to do PhD in the UK?

You are eligible to apply for an integrated UK PhD with a bachelor’s degree only. However, a master’s is preferred if you are really looking forward to a PhD by thesis in the UK. Read this post to get detail analysis of PhD application requirements in the UK.

Is it hard to get a fully funded PhD in the UK?

Yes, if you are thinking about a funded PhD in the UK then you should be prepared for a hard journey. First, it is hard to convince the UK PhD supervisors that you are really interested in doing a PhD with them and you have the potential to complete a PhD successfully. Second, securing funding for PhD is hard for international students because UK’s biggest research grant provider limits funds allocation for them.

Is it difficult to get admission to PhD in the UK?

Yes, getting admission to a PhD in the UK is harder than you think. However, if you are determined you can increase your chances of getting funded PhD by securing funding before you apply to the university formally, convincing the professor much earlier that you are the one he needs for your next research project, and drafting a really persuasive research proposal for a research project and formally applying to the university.

Free PhD in the UK: Other Questions


What application process should you adopt for a successful PhD acceptance in the UK?

  1. Identify the UK researchers whose work interests you most or you think your topic of interest matches theirs.
  2. You need to then prepare and write a fully customized email to a PhD supervisor in the UK. This email usually includes your academic CV and your ideas about the research question. It is your first chance to hook the professor.
  3. Funding is of a lot of importance if you want to increase your chances of getting a PhD in the UK. So make sure to secure your own funding before even applying to Doctoral training programs. This helps ease a lot of competition for international PhD applicants.
  4. Apply formally to a UK PhD with all the required documents.
  5. Perform well in a PhD interview.
See also  PhD Stipend: Funding Your Doctoral Journey