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

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The first thing that came to my mind while I was planning to apply for a PhD in the UK was this daunting question: What are the chances for an international student like me to get into a funded PhD in the UK? Like you, I too have many doubts about the strengths of my UK PhD application.

In a nutshell, as an international applicant your chances to get a funded UK PhD are very good if you have (i) secured your own funding, (ii) drafted a persuasive application, (iii) provided the best grades you can, (iv) have some idea and experience of doing academic research, and (v) you seem friendly and passionate in your PhD interview.

“They get more support from the institution than they used [to] to be blunt. But also because we’ve got scholarships, they tend to attract from a wider area, students who are more together. Finally we used to be desperate for candidates so we didn’t bin anyone off no matter how ridiculous at an early stage but now we have sufficient candidates so we bin off those which are ridiculous at a fairly early stage.”

Social Sciences, Unaligned, East Midlands, Late career

PhD supervisor- UK Research Supervision Survey

In this post, I am going to dive deeper into the steps you can take to increase your chances of getting a PhD in the UK.

1. Secure the funding first

As an international student aspiring to do a PhD in the UK you need to first consider and secure any PhD funding, most probably full funding (international tuition fee + living expenses). This is because in the UK funding weighs much more than any other competence you have on your part. Therefore, securing funding prior to applying for PhD is your best bet for getting a PhD in the UK.

a) Why you should secure your own funding first?

Around 32% of UK PhD supervisors said that they prefer PhD applicants with funding. This may mean self-funding or any other form of funding you can acquire from your home country.

The UK PhD supervisors reported the reasons for prioritizing PhD applicants who have already secured the funding or scholarship

  1. DTP and PhD programs forced PhD supervisors to hire funded PhD candidates
  2. Unlike the US, UK PhD supervisors usually do not have any control over funding their PhD candidates via their own grants

“There was pressure to take them on because they came with funding and we needed them for departmental metrics, to help with teaching loads etc. Overall they struggled to complete and did not produce high quality scholarship. In many cases they really did not have any sense coming in what a PhD required (neither did I when I undertook one) but a lot of people start out on PhDs and do not finish because they don’t actually know what a PhD is.”

Anonymous PhD supervisor-UK Research Supervision Survey

b) Benefits of securing funding from your home country

First, try any scholarships and funding programs offered in your home country for a PhD in the UK because

  1. DTP or PhD program funding is increasingly competitive for an international PhD applicant. The UK research councils and other funding institutions give more priority to local PhD applicants. However, now UKRI has offered around 30% of its funds to international PhD applicants. Still, the PhD hiring process is a constant tug of war between the interests of PhD supervisor and the DTP (doctoral training program).
  2. With UKRI funding, there is still the problem of filling the gap between international and local PhD fees. This is because research council funding only covers the local PhD fee and the rest is covered by the university or the individual.
  3. There is another rising concern that the UK PhD stipend is not enough to live by (even for UK home PhD students).

Explore More: How to fund a PhD as an international student in the UK?

2. Draft an appealing application

Your UK PhD application usually consists of two major documents a research proposal, and a personal statement.

a) A persuasive PhD proposal

An overwhelming majority (70%) of UK PhD supervisors valued the quality of the research proposal as their top priority. This means drafting a persuasive PhD proposal document can really increase your chances of getting a full PhD scholarship.

  Get a UK PhD studentship: 6 potent Strategies

What do I mean by a persuasive proposal? Simply stated, it is a document that convinces the prospective research leader that you are a good match for her research and you can add value to her research team.

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.

Anonymous PhD supervisor-UK Research Supervision Survey

A persuasive research proposal may differ from one research area or subject to another. Some PhD supervisors give more weightage to “a clear and coherent project plan” and some want to see that the PhD applicant understands the uncertainties in a research project. This is because research plans may change over time.

Q: Does research alignment matter for successful PhD applications in the UK?

Your research alignment with the PhD supervisor is likely to weigh more than many other criteria. In the recent UK research and supervision survey, 60% of UK PhD supervisors reported that they actively look for research alignment of the PhD applicant with their own research.

However, in the UK, a PhD supervisor does not directly control the PhD student funding. The funded PhD recruitment is usually made through DTC and PhD programs. This may complicate the importance of the research alignment.

“[I would like] control over who I hire. Currently this is taken away through recruitment to DTC and PhD programmes. This is usually a disaster as you have to take people who may or may not actually be interested in your research. Most students simply want a PhD as another degree and do not see it as a training exercise for a research-based career. It’s just another degree to get a higher salary in the private sector. I’m fine with this attitude, but I would like to know beforehand so I can choose candidates that actually want to be researchers.”

Anonymous PhD supervisor-UK Research Supervision Survey

Q: Does my research project need to be unique?

Around 60% of UK PhD supervisors were found concerned regarding the PhD candidate’s potential to contribute to their research area. This means PhD supervisors actively look for uniqueness in your PhD project.

“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”.

Late career PhD Supervisor, Arts & Humanities, Russell Group Institution, West Midlands, UK

UK Research Supervision Survey

b) Stand out in Personal Statement

Besides research proposals, research supervisors are also looking for other potentials and interests of prospective PhD students. Around 40% said that they value the PhD applicant’s enthusiasm, passion, and dedication to the research area and topic.

Often UK PhD supervisors assess your interest in the topic and other personal characteristics via interview. However, some of them also ask for personal statements. Therefore, your personal essay really tells the story that your mark sheet cannot.

What should you add to your personal statement?

  • Your enthusiasm for the subject area– make sure to convince them that you are really interested in the research topic.
  • Your ability to do independent research– any past scenarios of overcoming complex problems may help here.
  • Your passion to be a researcher– PhD being a training program for research need those who really are dedicated to making their career in it.

Do my personal abilities as a researcher matter? Indeed, your personal abilities weigh more than many other things. In fact, 21% of UK PhD supervisors said that they look for relevant skill sets in the PhD candidate. On the other hand, 18% of them said that they prioritize PhD applicants’ suitability for the team.

Do PhD supervisors look for under-represented groups to improve diversity? Even though most (82%) PhD supervisors believe that a diverse research workforce can enhance their research progress, only 11% indicated that diversity is their priority when selecting PhD applicants. However, considering the funding a selection procedure of a PhD in the UK and the major priorities of the professors I won’t recommend you to bet on such a scenario.

Overall, if you are from an underrepresented group you may get some advantages depending on the funding program in the UK.

3. Standout in academic credentials

As a general mark, as an international PhD applicant, you are good to go if your previous academic credentials fall in the top 5% of your class/ cohort. If you cannot boost your GPA now there are ways to compensate for your academic grades like portraying prerequisite GPA (higher GPA in relevant subjects).

a) Standout in Grades

The academic hiring committees in the UK do give weightage to your academic grades and achievements.

  • Master’s Grades-A near third (29%) of UK PhD supervisors mentioned in the UK Research Supervision Survey that they prefer a relevant master’s degree.
  • Undergraduate Grades-More interestingly, a fifth (20%) of the UK PhD supervisors reported that they also look for relevance and grades in an undergraduate degree.

When it came to understanding what “Academic performance” meant, this included not only degree classifications, but also ‘wider skills’

UK Research Supervision Survey

The thing is those UK professors and PhD hiring committees are also under pressure from other bodies such as UKRI and REF to ensure a PhD student’s potential to complete the PhD project. A university is penalized if they stay behind in any criteria set by these supporting institutions. Therefore, you need to present your best scores and convince the UK professor of your potential to complete a PhD.

  10 things top UK universities look for in PhD applicants?

b) Use Institutional Privilege

Although only 5% of UK PhD supervisors mentioned that they consider the research reputation of the prior institution, still other discussions give us signs that if your school is well recognized then this privilege can really increase your chances of getting accepted into a funded PhD program in the UK.

“It was also admitted that the reputation and ranking of candidates’ previous universities was considered.”

UK Research Supervision Survey

When it comes to the value of your previous institution in your UK PhD application you need to understand that academics are also humans. Professors and people on the PhD hiring committees are looking for several signs of your competence. Grades and other things like your English test scores are markers of your potential and brilliance.

Why institutional privilege works? However, these academics are also aware that these selected PhD students will work with them for the next 3-4 years. This means they will also look for people who understand a good academic culture. Due to this and many other reasons, PhD supervisors and UK institutional hiring committees may come out a little biased towards the candidates from privileged institutions and universities.

“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.” A UK PhD supervisor

UK Research Supervision Survey

c) Shining Reference Letters

Although recommendation letters have their own limitations, studies still prove that qualitative assessments such as recommendation/ reference letters offered by previous mentors are good indicators of PhD students’ potential to succeed. Despite the emphasis, only 13% of professors in the UK Research Supervision Survey said that they give value to strong references that accompany the application.

Why reference letters are important? As for a PhD student, you are expected to be a coworker of these UK professors. This means they are interested in your personality and your performance in a group. Here your previous grades and English test scores won’t be of much help for them.

So as an international student to increase your chances of a funded PhD in the UK you need to convince someone who you already knew to write some good words about your personal character, past behavior, and performance.

4. Provide some research experience

Yes, a PhD is a research project which requires you to have some know-how of research already. Due to severe competition, the bar is getting higher for those who aspire to do a PhD in the UK. This means as an international applicant looking to increase your chances for a PhD in the UK you need to go the extra mile.

a) Pre-PhD research Experience

Although not a strict prerequisite for PhD in the UK, a research experience under your belt can really go a long way.

This is because around 35% of UK PhD supervisors mentioned the importance of prior research experience, outputs, and publications in selecting PhD candidates. Therefore, to increase your chances of getting a fully-funded PhD in the UK you need to provide some evidence of research experience.

This experience might be in a famous research lab in your country or in some peer-reviewed publications in recognized journals.

Read further: How do I get research experience for a PhD?

“the students coming out of UG and actually especially Master’s students now are much less academically rigorously prepared for a PhD.”

A STEM UK PhD supervisor

b) Pre-PhD Work Experience

Any professional experience in the industry does not help much. This is because only 3% of the UK PhD supervisors indicated that professional/practical experience can increase your chances of getting hired.

If you think what you did in the industry for the past few years is highly relevant to your PhD project then you can leverage it in your application. In other words, a pre-PhD practical work experience might help more if your research area or topic requires it.

“I help to run admissions for a DPhil (doctoral programme) in the social sciences at Oxford. Professional experience is of very minor importance during the admissions process (except where it has some truly central role in the research project).

The three important things we give significant weight to are (1) academic transcript, (2) quality of research proposal/statement, and (3) admissions interview. These will typically also be the main factors for funding allocated by the university (e.g. Clarendon, DTC).

Academia Exchange

You may wonder why UK PhD supervisors give less focus to pre-PhD professional experience. The reason is academic research is very different from any work that is done in the industry. PhD is surrounded by many myths, one of them is considering PhD as an extended master’s. In contrast, it is a multi-year rigorous training program intended to develop future researchers.

  Can you work while doing a PhD in UK?

Explore More: When are you too old for a PhD?

As in the words of a UK PhD supervisor “[…] I notice a growing tide of people who seem to regard a PhD as like another Masters degree and seem completely unprepared for the rigours of PhD study.”

5. Perform well in PhD interview

In the US, international PhD applicants are usually not required to have an interview with their potential PhD supervisor. In the UK, however, PhD interview is considered important by the professors to evaluate your suitability to do a PhD in the UK. You need to really convince the professor face to face or on video that you really are most suitable for the PhD position.

Now what are UK PhD supervisors looking for during your PhD interview? Here are some signs to follow:

  • Good communication skills-Around 18% of the supervisors reported that they look for communication and interpersonal skills during the interview.
  • Good Personality fit-Similarly 18% consider a candidate’s suitability during PhD interview for their research team including the ability to take feedback and make amendments.
  • Many reported using PhD interviews to measure less tangible areas e.g., passion and enthusiasm
  • Do you really need a PhD? Another reason behind giving this much weightage to PhD interviews might be the reason that professors want to sort out PhD applicants who really want a PhD.

Another professor hinted at this in focused group discussions as “… Most students simply want a PhD as another degree and do not see it as a training exercise for a research-based career. It’s just another degree to get a higher salary in the private sector. I’m fine with this attitude, but I would like to know beforehand so I can choose candidates that actually want to be researchers.”

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

UK Research & Supervision Survey- 2021

Conclusion

Concluding the UK PhD supervisor survey these are the areas you need to stand out on if you want to get a fully funded PhD scholarship in the UK.

FactorsHow many UK PhD supervisors prioritize this factor
Quality of Application (Research Proposal- Personal essay)70%
Alignment with supervisor’s own research60%
PhD applicant’s potential to contribute to the field60%
Passion & excitement for the subject area41%
Prior research experience35%
PhD applicants who have already secured the funding32%
A relevant Master’s Degree29%
A relevant Bachelor’s Degree20%
What do UK PhD supervisors focus on when recruiting and selecting PhD applicants? These are the things you need to work on if you want to increase your chances of getting PhD in the UK

How do I get a fully funded PhD scholarship in the UK?

Simply stated you need to (a) find a researcher/ professor whose work attracts you most, (b) convince the professor by email and video chat that you are the person who can make a unique contribution to her research area, (c) check which PhD scholarships that particular university offers and prepare a persuasive application ahead of PhD scholarship deadline, and (d) apply to the university formally with highly relevant PhD proposal to that professor’s work.

Is it difficult to get funding for a PhD in the UK?

As an international applicant, if you are self-funded or have acquired funding prior to applying for a PhD then it’s not much difficult to get a PhD admission in the UK. However, if you want to secure a fully funded scholarship in UK universities (often funded by UK research councils) then it becomes really competitive. The reason is you now have to compete against a huge crowd of PhD applicants who are residents of the UK as well as everybody else on the globe.

How competitive are PhD programs in the UK?

PhD programs in the UK are fairly competitive, especially if you are applying to a top UK university. The reason is you need to get a lot of things right to be considered for top PhD applicants. However, you can avoid much competition by (a) acquiring some funding from your home country, (b) preparing an appealing research proposal and overall PhD application, and (c) providing some good grades for a relevant master’s or undergraduate degree.

How to get a PhD studentship in the UK?

PhD studentships in the UK are often attached to a pre-planned project. As an international student, you can give your best shot at getting these studentships by (a) providing examples of previous similar work. (b) aligning your research proposal to the goals of the project advertised, and (c) demonstrating that you really care about that particular area of research.