It’s not often something we like to talk about, but it’s an unavoidable fact that starting a PhD doesn’t just require time and effort, but can also be major a financial commitment. That said, there are several routes and options for funding postgraduate study. Whether you’re lucky enough to receive a research council studentship, decide to study part-time, or are able to work alongside your degree, funding a PhD is by no means impossible. Balancing work and research can be challenging and certainly requires organisation, but can also help develop new skills and lead to new opportunities. In this blog, I’ll be taking an honest look at research student finance and the practicalities of funding a postgraduate degree.
For most departments, any funding for UK/EU PhD students will come from one of seven research councils. What’s available will vary between subject, as will the application processes, but there is plenty of information on the university and department webpages to help you navigate the task of applying for funding. However, these types of funding are often extremely competitive, so be prepared to put in a lot of work and have a backup plan ready in case of disappointment. Some funding bodies will let you reapply in your first year or to defer if you’ve been unsuccessful the first time. Again, I don’t suggest counting on this as a way of funding your research, but there are certainly success stories (my own included)!
My top tips for funding applications
- Do your research (as a prospective PhD student, this should come naturally): find out what your prospective funding body looks for. This could be from their website or by talking to existing students. How does your project fit with the funding body’s values and interests?
- Contact your prospective (or existing) supervisor: they will likely have years of experience in applying for grants and funding and will be able to guide you through both defining your project and presenting it in the most persuasive way possible.
- Edit, edit and edit: a useful rule for anyone embarking on writing a thesis generally, but as funding application forms often have tight word limits, spending some time working out what to cut will be vital. My most recent funding proposal, for example, went through around 8 drafts!
- Have a plan B: whether that’s an alternative method of funding, taking some time out or trying a different career path, having considered your options beforehand can help soften the blow if things don’t turn out the way you’d hoped.
Research council funding isn’t the only way to fund your PhD however, and the good news is that there is a huge variety of part-time work on offer for York’s research students both within and outside the university. Since York is a popular tourist destination there are plenty of pubs, restaurants, shops, hotels and museums, which can often offer flexible working hours, allowing you to schedule work around research commitments. Gaining work experience outside academia can also help round out your CV, develop new skills and allow you to take a much-needed step back from your research.
There will also be opportunities to undertake paid work which is more directly related to your research and the university. This could involve teaching or demonstrating within your department; tutoring with the Writing or Maths Skills Centres; working as a research assistant for your supervisor or other academic staff; tutoring, teaching or mentoring school pupils; managing department social media; assisting with campus events such as open days and graduations; or writing blogs like this one!
It’s not the case with all subjects, especially if your research requires lab work, but with fewer contact hours than at undergraduate level, research degrees are can also be relatively flexible. However, this does not mean that balancing work and research is straightforward. Dividing your time between research and work responsibilities requires a lot of organisation. Keeping a written record of shifts and deadlines is essential to avoid things slipping off the radar. This is especially important if, like me and many other research students, your work consists of a handful of different jobs or if you work remotely in a research assistant or social media role. It can also be helpful to let your supervisor know that you are working alongside your PhD, so that you can agree on achievable deadlines and expectations.
Although managing work and research isn’t always easy, doing so can be extremely rewarding both personally and professionally and, from experience, I’d recommend anyone, funded or not, to look for opportunities to earn money and develop skills alongside research. My final piece of advice would be to be proactive. Don’t be afraid to send a speculative email or hand in a CV on spec. It won’t always work, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get!