Get a UK PhD studentship: 6 potent Strategies

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In a nutshell, you can win a fully-funded PhD studentship in the UK as an international student if : (a) your master’s grades are higher than average PhD applicants in the UK, (b) you have relevant research experience and references, (c) your research proposal addresses the apparent as well as concealed needs of the professor as well as grant provider, (d) and most importantly, your clarity on what will you make out of this PhD.

In this post, I am going to explain some extra things that can give you an upper hand when applying for a PhD studentship in the UK as an international student. A UK PhD is totally worth it for your if you are an international student who gets a full-funded PhD studentship. Your goals of pursuing the PhD project should be aligned with the studentship goals, you should convince the professor right from the start that you are the best person for the job, and you have acquired relevant research experience under somebody who can vouch for you.

Average PhD stipend in the United Kingdom (UK)- except London£18,769 per year
Average PhD stipend in London£16,062 per year
Average living cost (including rent) for students in the United Kingdom (UK) (for larger cities e.g., London)£25,932 per year
Average living cost (including rent) for students in the United Kingdom (UK) (for smaller cities e.g., Nottingham)£13,668 per year
Average post-doc salary in the United Kingdom (UK) (work in university after PhD)£33,593 per year
Average post-PhD salary in the United Kingdom (UK) (work in industry after PhD)£28,000 per year
Useful numbers for international PhD aspirants looking to get a PhD in the United Kingdom (UK) and settle after graduation.

Also Read: How to fund a PhD as an international student In the UK?

1. Your goals of doing a PhD are aligned with the studentship goals

The first thing that matters in securing a PhD studentship in the UK is that your goals are aligned with the goals of a prospective PhD studentship project. Most of the PhD studentship projects are oriented toward specific goals depending on the preferences of the grant provider.

  • If the PhD studentship is offered by the university itself then you may need to focus on the prospective PhD advisor’s work. This means your proposed PhD project should appeal to PhD advisor’s research direction.
  • If the PhD studentship is offered by an external body, for instance, Industry CASE PhD studentships are funded by an employer. You then need to focus on the priorities and problems of the organization backing your PhD studentship.
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PhD studentship offered by the industry: If your goal is to pursue a career in industry then you might prefer to grab a PhD studentship that is industry oriented. PhD studentship offered by academia: On the other hand, if you intend to go to academia then your academic credentials, teaching experience, and research experience should present that you are interested in an academic career after PhD. Please note that most doctoral degree recipients leave academia after two or three years.

2. Contact the professor like a salesman

Of course, you feel lured by the funding package, and obviously, the research topic proposed in the PhD studentship advertisement excites you, However, there is one catch in PhD studies- the PhD advisor or your prospective professor. This is the person who will own you during your PhD. So, make sure to thoroughly search about the prospective professor.

You should search about professors as you are going to hire them for the next 3-4 years and you cannot afford to waste your money and time. Your compatibility with your professor from research work to an affinity for face-to-face conversations does matter more in successful PhD completion than your brilliance.

Further Reading: How to approach a potential PhD supervisor

Approach the professor like you are selling yourself. Literally, a professor or a selection committee is going to take a bet on you or we can say invest in you with this PhD studentship. Your job is to start assuring them that you are worthy of their investment of time and money.

  1. Start persuading the prospective professor right from the first email
  2. Try different mediums e.g., video conversations for better presentation and showcase of your abilities.
  5 Common Questions Applicants ask about PhD stipend?
How to address the supervisor for PhD studentship
How to introduce yourself to a professor
How to get prospective supervisor’s attention
Best time to email to the prospective advisor
What documents to attach with your email
How to follow up

3. Your research proposal should be strategic

If you are an international PhD student then you might need to go the extra mile to strengthen your application. One of the main edges you can get is that your research proposal is aligning with the professor’s work. Therefore, when writing the research proposal you need to consider the interests and benefits of all three parties involved.

  1. Your research interest: You can only get through a PhD grind if you are deeply invested in your topic
  2. Your professor’s interest: PhD advisors expect some compatibility in their research work and your research topic
  3. Your PhD grant provider: A research topic that appeals to specific focuses and interests of funding organizations has better chances

Further Reading: 5 Things a Good PhD Research Proposal Doesn’t Need to Be

Your PhD research proposal is the only thing that can make the most difference at the time of application. This is where you can get ahead of the other applicants.

The most common PhD studentship projects goals will be

  1. Your proposed research proposal alignment with the current research direction by the supervisory team.
  2. Appropriation of research proposal for the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This framework emphasizes that research should be interdisciplinary. 
Research Proposal flow chart. What should you include in a research proposal in order to win a PhD studentship in UK?

4. Take a gap year to acquire some research experience

It’s a good idea to take a pre-PhD gap year to get some research experience. I also took a gap year to decide for PhD as well as gain more research experience. In short, this research experience is also helpful in convincing the professor and selection committee that you are familiar with the research methods and approaches.

The research experience you gain during the pre-PhD gap year can benefit you in many ways like

  1. It will let you ‘decide by doing’ on whether you want to take this kind of work in the future.
  2. It will provide the opportunity for relevant research experience. Your understanding or research will refine and that may help you in your research proposal writing for a PhD application.
  3. Your supervisor during this research assistantship or internship will become a strong referee for your ability to do a PhD. The people you take research assistantship or internship with will be the strong referees for your PhD application
  4. You may get a name or credits for any publications that come out of that research project.

Further Reading: The value of a PhD gap year

5. Make sure your grades are shining

It goes obvious that your previous grades should be shining. Despite this, many say that PhD selection committee doesn’t give weightage to master’s or bachelor’s grades. The reality is the hiring committee of a PhD studentship has few metrics to evaluate your potential for a PhD. Even though the grades you earn during coursework may not represent your potential to do an independent PhD project. Thus, they are likely to give weightage to their excellent previous academic record.

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Minimum grades for PhD studentship in the UK are usually mentioned in the advertisement. Mostly you need a UK upper second class degree or eq Make sure to provide higher than minimum grades.

Also Read: How I (Eventually) Won a PhD Studentship – and How You Can Boost Your Chances of Success

6. Provide a high English proficiency score

If English is not your first language then make sure to provide a high English proficiency score. A high Band (score) on the English proficiency test like IELTS can convince the professor and selection committee that you have the ability to communicate effectively in English. For international students, English proficiency is of importance in almost every European country, however, in the UK it can really give you an edge.

Pros of getting a PhD studentshipCons of getting a PhD Studentship
A studentship means the department really values your researchYou may feel less freedom in choosing your research topic
Funding for training and conferencesTime constraints and deadlines may put pressure on you
The research topic is of interest to your PhD advisor
A modest monthly PhD stipend means you are not constantly worried about living costs

Also Read: What are the benefits of doing PhD in UK?

FAQs regarding PhD studentship in the UK

Am I eligible for a PhD studentship in the UK?

Usually, to apply for a PhD studentship in the UK you are required to have a relevant master’s degree with higher scores than upper second class grade or equivalent if you are an international student. Second, you need to show that you have previous research experience as well as interest in the project. Finally, you need to show how and what will you make out of your PhD.

As an international student is it easy to get a PhD studentship in the UK?

Fully-funded PhD studentships are fiercely competitive. As an international student, you may be disadvantaged because most PhD studentships are targeted toward UK applicants. To get an upper hand, you can do two things. First, stand out in your PhD studentship application with better research topic understanding, relevancy, and interest. Second, explore external funding options for your PhD.

Who awards PhD studentships?

PhD studentship projects are awarded by different funding organizations in the UK. (a) First, research councils that come under the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) fund universities for PhD student’s projects. (b) Second, universities themselves also offer PhD students projects in the UK from their own grants and bursaries. (c) Third, many professional third-party institutions provide doctoral research studentships. (d) Finally, besides academic funding options, PhD studentships are also offered by the industry these studentships usually pay higher than other types of funding.

Does a PhD studentship provide funds for other training and conferences?

Usually, a fully-funded PhD studentship in the UK provides financial support for relevant training and conferences. Still, you can apply for external grants, if your PhD studentship package does not provide funds for any training, conferences, and other research expenses.