Can you self-fund a PhD in the UK?

Contents

  1. Is PhD in the UK free for international students?
  2. Why a UK PhD is not funded?
  3. How much does it cost to do PhD in the UK for international students?
  4. Other Facts you should know if you want to pursue a self-funded PhD in the UK
  5. Is it smart to attend a PhD program without funding?
  6. Drawbacks of a self-funded PhD in the UK
  7. Reasons to Self-Fund your PhD
  8. Do you need funding for a PhD?
  9. Wrapping it up
  10. FAQs: Can you self-fund a PhD in the UK?

Although 92% of UK PhD supervisors agree that doctoral students should be provided funding, self-funding a PhD is the norm in many fields of study.

When deciding to self-fund a PhD in the UK you need to make a careful analysis of (i) the post-PhD career prospects, (ii) the job opportunities a PhD can open for you in your particular area of study (iii) the time and opportunity cost you will have along with financial costs for a PhD in the UK.

If you are thinking about self-funding your PhD in the UK like many other international PhD students (link) then you must know these things

  1. Tuition fees can really drain your bank. The tuition fee can rise every year. You may be charged with other additional costs such as bench fee, PhD extension fee, re-submission fee, etc.
  2. You might lose your savings and get into debt. Apart from fees, you may need to bear the monthly living expense which may vary depending on what area you live in and what kind of lifestyle you can bear.
  3. A self-funded PhD might not be the best option to prepare for an academic career. The brutally competitive environment of academia is already filtering candidates with multiple postdocs, high-impact publications, and many other criteria they have to get the best they can (although that is another debate). Self-funding a PhD means you are signing up for post-PhD academic struggles.
  4. A self-funded PhD might not be the best way to pursue a non-academic career. First, there is an opportunity cost of losing earnings. Second, employers care more about experience than an advanced research degree which most jobs do not require. Third, working under managers who have more experience but fewer academic qualifications than you is really not good for your health or job satisfaction.

Is PhD in the UK free for international students?

PhD is not free in the UK, even local students need to pay the fee or acquire some kind of financial aid to support themselves during PhD years.

Every year there are more and more international students applying for a UK PhD. This increasing demand and low supply of funding push the universities to enroll self-funded PhD students.

As an international PhD applicant, if you want to get a free PhD in the UK, you are expected to bring some funding either from your own country or secure a PhD scholarship offered by the prospective university.

Why a UK PhD is not funded?

The most criticized thing in the UK PhD system is the funding options for PhD students, especially for international PhD students.

The major reasons are

  1. You are a consumer of Education as a PhD student in the UK. Unlike many other parts of Europe, the UK does not consider PhD as a job. This encourages the perspective that you are a consumer of education and not a producer of original knowledge for the benefit of society. Therefore, you are not provided a salary against your input. I have discussed this in detail: Why are PhD students paid poorly?
  2. UK PhD supervisors may not hire PhD students from their own grants. The UK funding system discourages and makes it difficult for PhD supervisors to hire PhD students from their own grants. So, if a University, department, or your intended research team does not have support from DTPs (Doctoral training partnerships) grant then a PhD supervisor will struggle to hire you.
  3. A yearly increasing number of PhD applicants for UK PhD positions. Despite losing international PhD students to other nations, the UK remains the most popular PhD destination outside of the US. This high demand for a UK PhD and supply of PhD positions may not change for some time, thus, leaving the funding situation unattended by the UK policymakers.
  4. UK government funding options. UKRI Grants/ Research Councils Funding. UKRI allocates a major portion of grants under DTCs (Doctoral Training Centers) around 70% for local UK students. This means high competition from ever-increasing PhD applicants against fewer funds. REF grants on the hands are usually reserved for the elite departments, plus they encourage inter-departmental competition for limited funds. This may not be healthy in an already questionable working culture of academia.

This notion of the supervisor ‘being removed’ from the recruitment process came up several times. For example: “(I would like to have) the agency to pick your own students rather than going through the DTP process which removes the supervisor from the student.”

UK Research Supervision Survey

Why Are There So Many Self-Funded International PhD Student In The UK?

A UK PhD is still worth a lot when it comes to career prospects in or outside academia. This is the reason why hundreds of international PhD applicants “hedge their bets” each year to get into a UK PhD program.

The perceived future incentives which let the PhD applicants from around the world to do so are

  1. Best research facilities. The UK being a developed nation attracts lots of researchers from around the world. A good number of them are from developing countries where these researchers might not have the same labs, equipment, or funding to pursue their scholarly passions. UK research environment, culture, and funds are the main reasons that attract these PhD applicants.
  2. Attractive post-PhD academic career in the UK. Like many European nations, a UK PhD is generally expected to help in getting an academic job (e.g., post-doc contract). However, the real situation might differ as UK universities often hire lecturers and researchers from other institutions.
  3. Attractive post-PhD industry career in the UK. I am sure that many international PhD applicants are ambitious for a post-PhD academic career. Still, there are many PhD applicants who consider PhD as an extended master’s as reported by the UK PhD supervisors themselves. Further, a PhD is assumed as a training ground for academia, however, more and more PhD graduates are getting hired in the industry. This might increase the perception that PhDs are more in demand or they get higher overall income. This may be the reason why so many international PhD students are self-funded in the UK. However, that might be the wrong way to look at things because PhD means you are losing your peek earning years in the industry, plus what is the use of getting a job if you are not satisfied with the position you are in?
  4. A UK PhD is well regarded in their home country. UK education and research has a good reputation around the world. This helps PhD graduates in securing jobs in their home country.
  5. A hope to settle in the UK. A lot of international PhD applicants are from countries where the equality of life is lower than in the UK. The UK is an English-speaking nation where highly educated individuals can enjoy personal freedom. Considering the high number of bachelor’s and master’s degree holders who come to study in the UK with the hope of a better life, PhD applicants are assumed to have these motives too.

“People teach, design websites, work in cafes and bars – anything to earn money in a way that hopefully leaves time for study.

As funding falls away, the arts and humanities risk becoming the playground of the wealthy

How much does it cost to do PhD in the UK for international students?

The cost of PhD may vary in the UK due to several factors including

  1. Subject Area. This one matters most as some fields of study are much more demanding than others. For instance, the fee of a biomedical science PhD is expected to be much higher than a PhD in medieval studies.
  2. University or department. Universities providing better faculty, training facilities or labs may charge you more than those who are considered average by UK pedagogical standards.
  3. Bench Fee. The subjects which require the use of expensive equipment and labs are going to cost more than those where you only need access to library resources.
  4. Cost of living in the area. Some areas such as London and Cambridge are more expensive to live in compared to other places.
  5. Travelling and visa costs. You may not consider the traveling costs because they are much less than your tuition fee for the PhD. Still, these expenses can build up fast if you visit your home country too often.
  6. PhD extension fee. Many PhD students have to extend their PhD thesis write up because of various reasons. If you are extending your PhD from the standard registration period for a PhD then you will have to pay extra.
  7. PhD resubmissions fee. If you resubmit your PhD thesis UK universities charge will charge a separate fee.
  8. Part-time PhD. The visa category for international PhD students does not allow for a part-time PhD.
  9. The Yearly increase in the PhD fee. UK universities typically raise their fee rates from around 3-5% annually. This means you should be prepared for an increase in this multi-year journey of self-funded research.
See also  Why a UK PhD is totally worth it for international Students?

PhD Tuition Fee

PhD fees vary from one UK university to another and there are several other factors to consider too.

  1. STEM Subjects PhD fee. The Edinburgh university, for example, charges £28,000 for PhD with Integrated Study (link) – 4 Years (Full-Time) in Natural Language Processing, Wind and Marine Energy Systems and Structures. At the University of Sheffield, a PhD in the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering demand £25,700 annually from international PhD students. However, the University of Sussex charge as low as £22,975 for STEM subjects that require dedicated labs.
  2. Life sciences PhD fee. The story is not much different in life sciences which also require heavy use of research labs with expensive equipment. Thus, charging a bench fee increases the cost of an overall PhD in the UK. Edinburgh University in our example charges £28,000 for a PhD in Biomedical Sciences while a PhD in Neuroscience can cost you £25,700 per annum at the University of Sheffield.
  3. Social Science and Business PhD fee. Here the story gets interesting where universities like Leeds Trinity University only charge you £12,500 for a social science and business PhD. Whereas, in sharp contrast, the Edinburgh university can charge you £25,300 for a PhD in Accounting and £23,350 for a full-time Statistics PhD. More, prestigious institutions like the University of Bristol also charge high rates (£25,300 per year) for a PhD in Psychology. Leeds Trinity University is not a single example of a cheap university there are many more UK institutions that charge you around £12,000- £13,000 for a PhD. Birmingham City University and De Montfort University, for example, will charge you around £13,200 per annum for any PhD in Humanities, Business & Law, Social Work, Community, Education, or Media.
  4. Arts & Humanities PhD fee. Now discussing humanities PhD fees we can again start to look at high-ranking institutions like the University of Edinburgh and Sheffield where you are expected to pay £23,350 for a full-time PhD in Medieval Studies and £22,510 per annum for a PhD in Music respectively. On the contrary, there are institutions e.g., the University of Huddersfield that can let you take any Architecture, Art and Design, Drama, English, Fashion, Journalism and Media, or Music PhD for £16,000 per annum.

“One of the main problems is that universities, both in the UK and overseas, tend to operate beyond their carrying capacity and accept more PhD students than they can afford. In Europe, however, universities treat graduate researchers like employees which may push colleges to get more funding to satisfy the demand. Due this lack of money, self-funding becomes an adaptation strategy or a plan B.”

Thousands pursue PhDs without research funding every year
PhDPhD fee for International StudentsLab/ Bench Fees
STEM SciencesMin- £20,000
Max- £28,000
£4000-£8000
Life sciencesMin- £20,000
Max- £28,000
£4000-£8000
HumanitiesMin- £13,000
Max- £20,000
N/A
Social SciencesMin- £13,000
Max- £25,000
N/A
How much does it cost to do PhD in the UK for international students?
These international PhD student fee rates in the UK are sorted out to give you an idea of the cost you may bear by self-funding your PhD.

The data and examples of PhD programs I collected may be limited.

“…. the dearth of jobs in academia – may also deter potential arts postgraduates. “Because you’re not in any way guaranteed a job at the end, the huge cost of paying for three or four years of study can be a real barrier to entry”

As funding falls away, the arts and humanities risk becoming the playground of the wealthy

Cost of living in the UK

Just like the PhD fee, the living cost varies from one area to another. However, living cost for student is increasing every year making lives of self funded PhD students more difficult than it ever was.

Combine it with (i) stigma towards self funded PhD student in the research teams, (ii) constant pressure to come up with funds for various academic training opportunities e.g., fieldwork, conference travel etc. , and (iii) declining hope for future prospects and the picture is not prettier then it initially was.

University AreaAverage Cost of living (per month)
University of London£985
Durham University£887
Queen Mary University of London£860
University of Sheffield £862
University of Huddersfield£761
University of Leicester£789
University of Edinburgh£731
These cost of living are estimated by the budget calculator for international students and the real costs may vary on lifestyle, rent of the place, or your spending habits.

10 Cheapest Universities in the UK for PhD

As we have seen above that some universities can be cheaper to do a humanities PhD and some may offer an inexpensive PhD in science & technology. Further, the bench fee, PhD extension fee, and your personal expenses (living cost) near that university area may also make offers affordable that are expensive at first glance.

Despite all that complexity, here is a short list of cheap universities (especially for international students) in the UK where you can do your PhD.

InstitutionClassroom PhDPhD that requires LabCost of living nearby
Leeds Trinity University£12,500£12,500£855
University of Cumbria£14,180£17,180£754
Staffordshire University£13,000£13,000£817
Teesside University£11,750£14,500£702
Leeds Beckett University£14,000£14,000£832
London Metropolitan University£14,500£14,500£860
The University of Bolton£12,000£12,000£852
University of Chester£12,000£17,142£798
All fees are subject to yearly and inflationary rises. Please note, in addition to the PhD tuition fee, there may be additional costs for things like thesis write-up fee, equipment, materials, printing, textbooks, trips, fieldwork, and specialist conferences fees.

Other Facts you should know if you want to pursue a self-funded PhD in the UK

1. How many years is PhD in the UK?

Usually, the PhD in the UK is 3 years (link) if you are considering PhD by thesis only. However, more and more universities are offering integrated PhD programs (4 years), where you first sign up for a master’s by research (1 year) and then are offered a PhD position for 3 years.

2. Is proof of funds required for a UK student visa for PhD?

Yes, you are required to provide proof of funds to get a visa for UK PhD. Sometimes you need to prove that you have the PhD fee as well as funds to bear the cost of living for at least a year in the UK. If you have dependents the cost may accumulate.

See also  Get a UK PhD studentship: 6 potent Strategies

Exemptions from the proof of fund. If you are a national of a specific country you may not need to provide financial evidence to the UK visa & immigration department. However, some UK universities may still demand financial evidence from you for their own concerns. Read this post to know who needs a visa to study for a PhD in the UK.

You can take help from the international office of your target university to get exact information on the amount of financial proof and other requirements you need to provide.

3. How do PhD students make money UK?

By now you might have realized how hard it is to get a PhD funding in the UK. Now, if you are thinking of doing a self-funded PhD in the UK. You may think about the option of earning while studying in the UK.

There are two major sources of income for international PhD students in the UK.

  1. PhD Stipend. If you are provided financial support for your PhD then you are likely to get a monthly stipend. This is considered enough by some and not enough by many others.
  2. Part-time work. You are allowed to work part-time while doing PhD in the UK. This can be a good way to earn an extra income. However, this work can slow down your PhD progress. This means you may not be able to complete a rigorous work of research in the time period of 3 or 4 years. Also, note that you are only allowed to do a certain type of work as an international PhD student in the UK.

Is it smart to attend a PhD program without funding?

I have discussed in detail why a PhD without funding may not be possible for international students. If you are thinking of self-funding your PhD you must take it as an investment in your future career. If you consider PhD too sacred to consider as a financial investment then that is a whole new argument.

“The best jobs are outside academia, not only in terms of salaries, but also in terms of satisfaction. Because a career in academia is very hard. First of all, gaining a tenure takes many years of work and frustration after the PhD.”

Labour market perspectives for PhD graduates in Europe

However, the real question here is a PhD really for you. To answer this question you need to ask some further questions from yourself.

These are the reasons that you should not do a PhD. It is a big undertaking and can be a thing that is started without much thought of the future. The best thing to do is “start with the end in mind” that way you know where you are heading!

1. Am I aiming for an academic career?

There are very few fields where you will find ample post-PhD academic opportunities.

If you really want an academic career and you are researching a subject area that is lucrative and in demand then you don’t need to self-fund your PhD.

This means that PhDs that really lead to good academic jobs are most likely to be at least fully funded.

Otherwise, if you are studying a subject area where funding is scarce then post-PhD opportunities will also be scarce as well as precarious.

Suggested Reading: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time

2. How important is a doctorate in my field?

Do you really need a PhD to get the position you want? I am arguing this because, first, though there are benefits to doing a PhD in the UK and there are many jobs that may require an advanced research degree, 99% of industry careers don’t require a PhD.

Second, and the most important thing is your job satisfaction. There are risks of disengagement when PhD graduates are over-qualified for the job, especially after self-funding a degree that they thought is a good investment for their future prospects.

All people getting their PhD some decades ago had some kind of luxury position. They were the highest level of education, they came to the system like being wanted, being needed and this is a completely different situation as it is today.

Labour market perspectives for PhD graduates in Europe

3. Am I ready to spend four or more years on a dissertation?

Self-funding a PhD in the UK as an international student might cost you your peak earning years. This risk is higher if you are a fresh graduate or in an early career in the industry.

This is what most of the PhD graduates call the opportunity cost of doing a PhD. Time being the most important thing we have as mortals need to be managed effectively. Otherwise, we may regret putting our mental and financial resources into a multi-year project which might not lead to the results we want from it.

4. What do I want to achieve with this title?

88% of PhD students believe that their doctorate will positively impact their career prospects. A reasonable argument is that by taking a loan you will be investing in yourself. Later, this can lead to increasing your market value after you graduate.

Many areas of studies such as the humanities or social science PhDs have a norm of self-funding the PhD in the UK.

Pursuing such PhDs may not lead you to a great career but can be a source of self-satisfaction. So, even for a humanities PhD, make sure to plan for post-PhD options according to the labor market.

However, people like me can agree that there are much more efficient and less arduous ways to learn, explore, and satisfy your intellectual hunger.

A PhD is considered a contribution to a particular field of study and you have to work to contribute. This makes you scientific labor, if you are self-funding your PhD, this means you are not getting paid to work.

5. Am I doing PhD because of escapism?

Escapism is very rampant among PhD candidates. However, escapism observed in PhD students from developed nations is very different from that of those who are coming from the developing world.

PhD students from developed nations. First, the PhD students from developed nations are unconsciously escaping from the fact that school is over and they may prefer to stay in the well-known academic environment instead of joining the grind of the early industry jobs.

For instance, staying in the academy and self-funding their PhD might let the students of developing countries feel that they are progressing. However, many call it the illusion of progress.

What is the future of Early Career Researchers? What can we do to improve this? Andrew tells the story of his experience and his frustration with the system.

PhD students from developing nations. On the other hand, those of us who are grown up in struggling economies and strict conformist cultures may want to do a PhD in a developed country in the hope of getting better employment and settlement opportunities in the libertarian developed world.

While this is a worthy goal considering the lack of opportunities in developing nations for these highly talented individuals, however, there are risks involved as well e.g., change of host country government policies to merge immigrants or lack of certain job opportunities for your particular area of work in the host nation.

Suggested Reading: When are you too old for a PhD?

6. Can I afford to do a PhD?

Affording a PhD can be in terms of time and energy too, however, here I would like to discuss affording self-funding for a PhD.

If you have the financial resources enough to get you through the 3-4 years of a PhD in the UK then by all means go for it. If not then please consider many aspects while investing in a degree this expensive.

Drawbacks of a self-funded PhD in the UK

It is easy to understand that there are more drawbacks than benefits of self-funding your PhD in the UK. However, to make the picture clear for you let’s discuss these pros and cons one by one.

Pros

a) Destitution Excuse. You have the excuse of no money. As a self-funded student, you can apply for many discounts and waivers on certain fees and any additional costs. For instance, you can write applications for discounts on bench fees, and conference attendance fees. Also, you may be preferred for any paid teaching opportunities.

See also  5 (simple) ways to increase your chances to get a funded PhD in UK

b) Liberty on time. As a self-funded PhD student you are free of any responsibilities assigned to many funded PhD students. Therefore, you can use this freedom to focus your mental and financial resources to complete your PhD thesis faster.

c) Liberty of intellectually. We all think of doing PhD because we want to work on a project that we are interested in. However, many funded PhD students also have to consider the priorities and interests of the grant provider as well as the research team focus in order to justify the investment. However, you as a self-funding PhD student are free in setting the direction of your research project.

Cons

a) You miss a funded opportunity. What if a funded opportunity comes later and you are doing this self-funding decision in hurry? What if you increase your chances of getting a funded PhD in the UK by improving your application and performing well in PhD interviews. For example, if you are not clearing the interviews you may need to ask for feedback and improve.

b) Lost earnings for the next 3-4 years. Some may argue that a funded PhD in the UK does not cost you a loss of income. I may disagree (like many) and argue that the UK PhD stipend is not enough for PhD students. Still, we can agree on the fact that a funded PhD scholarship is a great thing to keep you out of debt.

Staying out of debt is important because of the prevalence of precarious (if any) job opportunities in academia. Graduating with the burden of debt can make your life a lot harder even after your complete your PhD.

If you are an international PhD student staying debt free becomes more crucial. You may not have the luxuries of UK home students who can fall back on other loans in case of any unsuspected mishaps.

c) Challenges in getting the most out of your PhD. A PhD is really designed for those who want to work in the academy. This means you as a PhD student need to learn various aspects of academic and scientific responsibilities. Honing these skills can help you become a good academic .

However, the cost of self-funding your PhD as an international student in the UK might lead you to work part-time. These increased part-time work hours can occupy the time other funded PhD students will have for funded conferences, workshops, and even teaching responsibilities.

“As a self-funded student, I knew I would need to raise funds for conference travel, fieldwork and consumables,” said the student, who did not wish to be identified. “But I also budgeted how much I need to live on and how much that means I need to work each week. The current increases in living costs have completely changed that budget.”

Self-funded students ‘extremely concerned’ as cost of living bites

In turn, you might lead with less preparation (at least in the eyes of academic hiring committees) than other funded PhD students. Given the competition in the academic market, each edge a candidate has on the other counts.

This brings me to the next point.

d) Difficulties in Post-PhD academic career. If you have thoroughly searched the prospects of your PhD in academia then you may be aware of the brutal competition for unreliable post-PhD academic positions.

Further, if you are self-funding your PhD you may suffer from the biases academic hiring committees have against self-funded PhD graduates.

Reasons to Self-Fund your PhD

a) If you don’t need an academic job. If you need a PhD for a career in the industry then self-funding a PhD might make sense. Industry employers may not care about how you got your PhD or even what a PhD really is for. If the industry is your goal then self-funding your PhD may let you complete your thesis faster.

However, I won’t recommend this for most cases. The reason again is that most industry jobs do not require a PhD from you. Many employers still are biased against PhDs. Therefore, a master’s combined with the experience you will get in 3-4 years may make you more desirable than a PhD.

b) If you have sufficient funds for PhD as well as a post-PhD career struggle. If you are wealthy then do what you want to do. The rest of us who are always worried about our livelihood may not bear the financial and mental struggles of doing a PhD.

c) If you are already working in the UK and want to pursue a PhD part-time. If you are someone who is working in the UK and still not considered as a a home student. You may pursue a PhD part-time. This might be light on your pocket as well as your mind.

Do you need funding for a PhD?

After reading this post if you think that you should try for funding. There are a lot of simple steps you can take to get a funded PhD in the UK.

Besides funding you might want a detailed insight into what UK universities are looking for in PhD applicants.

Wrapping it up

As a self-funded international PhD student you are free labor as well as an income source for the universities. Self-funding a PhD is the norm in many humanities & social science subjects, however, you need to note that post-PhD academic positions in these certain areas are also precarious (if available ). Plus, there is an influx of supply for these limited positions.

If you need a PhD and you nothing important to do in your life for next 3-4 years you are welcome to self-fund your PhD. However, most of us may have other more stable and lucrative options in the non-academic world.

My advice is to dig deep in yourself to figure out that you really do need a PhD (even a self-funded one) to get where you want to be.

“Postgraduate researchers should be treated as staff rather than students, which would give them the right to access the cost of living payment, universal credit and workers’ rights,” he said.

Self-funded students ‘extremely concerned’ as cost of living bites

FAQs: Can you self-fund a PhD in the UK?

Do PhD students have to pay tuition in the UK?

Yes, if you are a self-funded PhD student in the UK then you have to pay the tuition fees as well as other additional fees e.g., bench fees, and conference fees, etc. International students need to prove to the UK visa & immigration services that they have ample funds reserved for all these costs in the UK.

Can I do a free PhD in the UK?

Yes, you can do a free PhD in the UK if you take smart steps to improve your application. This may include (i) preparing yourself during your undergraduate or master’s degree, (ii) convincing your prospective PhD supervisor in the UK that you have the potential complete a PhD successfully, (iii) taking note of UK PhD scholarships or home country scholarship requirements as well as deadlines.

Is PhD fully funded in the UK?

PhD can be fully funded in the UK if you have secured a PhD studentship offered by the UK government (UKRI), an international PhD scholarship offer (e.g., common wealthy), or have some financial support (monthly stipend + tuition fee for PhD in the UK) from your home country government.

Do you need funding for a PhD?

Doing a PhD without funding does not make sense for most applicants. First, if your field of study has ample post-PhD academic opportunities (particularly stable job contracts) then you can find a lot of funding opportunities out there. Second, you should start thinking with the end in mind, leaving all the arguments of the sacredness of knowledge persuasion, and evilness of thinking about finances. Simply put, ask yourself this one question: what career options will you have if you already hold your PhD?

Is it hard to get PhD scholarship in UK?

Yes, getting funding in UK, especially for international PhD applicants is hard. However there are less competitive ways you can fund your PhD in the UK.