Postgraduate Scholarships: A Comprehensive Guide to Funding

Postgraduate Scholarships: A Comprehensive Guide to Funding

Postgraduate study isn’t cheap. Few students are in the lucky position of being able to self-fund the entire course without making a compromise that they may otherwise choose not to. Research degrees are often particularly tricky to self-fund, with PhDs taking three years to complete full-time, and up to six years part-time. Postgraduate scholarships are often more of a necessity than a luxury, but gaining one is often a difficult and confusing process.

This guide takes you through all the relevant information you need to know, putting you in the best position to get a scholarship.

Finding Scholarships

Finding a scholarship can be a real struggle for some; finding sources of funding is perhaps even more tricky than finding a course. There seems to be endless amounts of paperwork, red tape and bureaucracy that is placed between you and the finance you’re after. Finding a postgraduate scholarship needn’t be a tedious task though, if you know where to look, what to apply for and what to ignore.

Networking around your school or department can be especially useful during the early stages of finding scholarships for postgraduate degrees. Build relationships with the academics at undergraduate level or even whilst completing your masters. Academics are often in charge of making decisions as to where any funding is spent, so get to know them. We don’t suggest bribing them, but networking is never a bad thing.

What many prospective students fail to realise is that there is no single scholarship that is suitable for all, and those who do realise this, often then don’t know where to look when, for example, they find out that university funding won’t be right for them. We’ve broken down potential funding sources into four separate fields and given each one a full review below, making it easy for you to identify which funding source (or sources) will be right for you.

University Funding

The majority of British universities offer scholarships, bursaries or discounts of some sort for postgrad students. This funding is sometimes provided by alumni donations and is usually limited in availability. The most common form of support provided by universities is a discount on fees, offered to students who studied at the institution at undergraduate level. It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t something that every university offers, but it is a growing trend.

Historically, every university offered a selection of scholarships, usually based around an open competition. Due to how students now apply for Research Council funding (see below), these scholarships have all but disappeared. Some institutions do still offer them, but most university’s scholarships are in fact provided for by a Research Council, which is then distributed by the particular department.

Research Council Funding

There are seven Research Councils in the UK: the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

The Research Councils provide funding for course fees, along with maintenance and a budget to cover research material and travel costs. As such, these are usually fiercely competitive and only a minority will ever be successful in their application.

As previously mentioned, students used to apply directly to the relevant Research Council in order to secure funding for their degree. This has now been phased out, and Research Council funding is now handled directly by the universities themselves. University departments or schools usually secure a block of funding available from the Research Council and then distributes this in a fashion it deems appropriate. The Research Councils also provide studentships for PhD students. Again, these are applied for through the university. There is more detailed information on PhD studentships below.

PhD Scholarships and Research Funding

If there is one thing that is more fiercely fought over than scholarships for masters degrees, it is PhD scholarships and funding (often referred to as studentships). These studentships can often add up to values of over £50,000 over the duration of the study and can provide students with the money they need to focus their full attention on their PhD. As such, the competition for such studentships is anything but mild. Studentships are sometimes attached to supervisors at particular universities, so in order to be eligible, you have to be researching that particular subject, at that specific institution with the right supervisor. It’s unlikely that you’ll chance your way into such a situation.

Some PhD studentships are part of larger project that has been granted to a particular department or supervisor. This is quite a common occurrence for research in the Sciences, where students work within a research group, collaborating with others throughout their degree. Whilst this doesn’t suit some students, for others it is a great chance to gain experience of working as part of a larger team, bringing together a greater amount of skills and expertise. These types of setups are what produce some of the headline research discoveries you may have heard of on the news.

Funding from Universities and Research Councils are usually based heavily on your academic record and/or your area of research. This goes for both masters level and PhD funding. Whilst the grants are large, sometimes topping £10,000 for a masters, the application process is very formal and competitive. Applicants hoping to secure funding from the AHRC and ESRC should be aware that the competition is usually extremely fierce, with only a very small percentage being successful each year.

Charity Scholarships and Funding

Britain boasts thousands of charities, many of which are actively involved in the higher education sector, eager to help the latest minds and future great thinkers to succeed. Whilst some of these charities are massive, multi-million pound organisations like Cancer Research UK, others are less well known, often run by a small group of volunteers. What they both have in common though, is a desire to help others. Whether it be, for example, supporting somebody who wants to research a new treatment for prostate cancer, or helping a student complete their PhD in Italian renaissance and early baroque music.

Whilst a number of charities may be publicised on a universities funding page, most charities that offer these funds are often unheard of and difficult to find. The charities often look for specific students too, so not all charity funding is applicable to every prospective postgraduate student. This can be used to your advantage though, especially if you are eligible. To demonstrate this there are funding options available specifically for vegans and vegetarians, those who live in a particular geographical area, and for women of UK origin who have previously lived and worked in East Africa. The criteria for some may seem eccentric; it’s often because the money comes from long-deceased patrons and their wishes, but if you are eligible, there is no reason for you not to apply.

Before applying for funding from charities, you should contact them to find out if you are eligible to make an application. It saves time, both for you and the charity.

It is worth bearing in mind though, that due to the expanse of charities operating in the UK, finding one that is willing to provide funding for your postgraduate study could take a while. As the charities are generally a lot smaller than the publicly-funded research councils, it’s unlikely for an applicant to receive funding that would fully cover their student fees. Keep this in mind, as you may wish to apply to more than one charity, for smaller amounts of funding, along with supporting yourself with a career development loan or other funding options.

Applying for a Scholarship: Application Advice

Once you’ve decided on which source of funding would be best for you to apply to, it’s time to apply. Cue nervous breakdown number two. Having managed to sift through a plethora of scholarship providers and options, finding a few that you feel would be perfect for you (and you would be a perfect candidate for them), you realise it is time to start taking the steps to make it happen. This can be even more daunting than finding a scholarship in the first place, after all, you often only get one shot in a year to submit your application. Once again, we’ve done the research for you though, and below is most of the advice you’ll need to apply for your scholarship. We say most because some subjects and scholarships require very specific applications, containing particular evidence of work, portfolios or proof of identity/religion/ethnic background. Obviously, we can’t advise on such specifics, but the information below can stand you in good stead, acting as a solid base for any scholarship application.

How to complete a Scholarship Application Form

For something that is so simple, it is surprising how many students manage to get this part of the scholarship application process wrong. Application forms in general, ask you specific questions, giving you areas to write your answers. Start by reading the questions carefully, then reading them again, just like you would during an examination. Copy out the questions, think carefully about your answers and jot down some ideas on a separate piece of paper. It is surprising how quickly you use up all the space when you need to cross out words you’ve misspelled or even whole sentences that don’t read as they should.

Once you’ve got answers to all the questions written down, carefully copy your answers over to the actual application form. Make sure you answer every question, and pay attention to the size of the answer boxes. If you’ve written three-sides of A4 and the answer box only allows for a short sentence, you’ve probably gone overboard; the box sizes are there for guidance.

Unless the application form specifically states that extra sheets of paper shouldn’t be included, it’s safe to guess that they won’t mind an extra couple of pages. Don’t send them your entire life works, they won’t read it. Attaching your CV and personal statement is always a good move however. As with all application forms, be honest and truthful, especially if it asks you for specific facts such as financial information or qualifications.

Writing your Personal Statement for Funding

Your personal statement is the key part of your application, and the one thing that will often make or break your application. Institutions will mull over each one carefully, whilst to charities and trusts, your personal statement is often the part they are most interested in. Taking the time to get it right is therefore absolutely paramount. Your personal statement should eloquently tell the potential funder why you would be a deserved receiver of the funds.

Writing the perfect personal statement is no easy feat, and there is no set formula. Whilst others can help you and give you advice, ultimately it is something that only you can write. With that in mind, talk about yourself, describing your skills and your passion for the subject, explaining that you have a genuine interest and love for the subject. Aim for between 500 and 800 words in length, make sure it reads well and there are no spelling mistakes within a five-mile radius.

Personal statements should be tailored specifically to each funding source. A personal statement for funding from a university or Research Council will focus heavily on academic achievements and passion for the subject. Because these scholarships are not means tested, you shouldn’t bring financial reasoning into your statement. Whilst the awarding panel may be touched by your story of financial hardship, they will ultimately be looking for somebody with academic prowess, so focus your writing on your skillset and achievements.

Unlike personal statements sent to the institutions, an application for funding from a charity should generally include a personal statement that explains why you have a deficit in funds. Whilst there are charities that reward academic success and award those with a proven track record, many more are interested in supporting those who are passionate about the subject, but due to financial issues, would not normally be able to complete the degree without struggle. This isn’t to say that they want to hear a talent show style sob story though. Talk about how you have exhausted other means of funding, such as career development loans or part-time work to self-fund. It’s also worth letting the charity know if you were unsuccessful with your application to a Research Council if you held exceptional grades.

Be careful when writing your statement to non-educational charities to avoid jargon and too much academic speech. A paragraph that demonstrates your knowledge of the subject wouldn’t go amiss, but charities are seldom made up of retired academics so don’t go too overboard.

How to Get a Scholarship

Before you send the scholarship application, we’ve got a little bit more information for you. This is the valuable advice that many companies will charge for, or even use in an attempt to secure a scholarship on your behalf (something we would never recommend you do). It’s not essential, but it may just help to give your application the edge needed to gain the funding you are looking for.

Masters Scholarships

There are many reasons you may choose to study a masters degree. For many, it is becoming more of a requirement in order to give them the qualifications needed for the particular job market they wish to apply for. More and more people are plain, old ‘graduates’ nowadays, and many wish to distinguish themselves from the ever-growing crowd by using a masters degree. This has led to a growth in vocational masters courses on offer from universities. Whilst research masters are still widely available (and are very popular too), taught masters are fast becoming the order of the day. It’s important to understand what masters you wish to study, and whether or not it is deemed vocational or academic, not by you, but by those who award the scholarships.

If you feel your masters is more vocational than academic, it’s worth hunting out charitable funds who look for students of such courses. Explain how it will enhance your job prospects and further your employability. If you’re looking at studying an academic masters, explain clearly why you are doing that particular subject. In this instance, you may find you have better luck securing funding from the Research Councils than charities.

PhD Scholarships

Whilst we can’t give you any insider knowledge for securing the £20,000 per year studentship you were hoping for, we can offer some specific advice for applying for funding from charities for PhD students. If you are a prospective or current PhD student, your knowledge of your subject area is probably greater than the vast majority of people on the planet, which is great. Unfortunately, many students who apply for funding from charities seem to forget this and choose to detail their exact research, in enormous amounts of detail, exerting a great deal of energy on fitting in more jargon than humanly possible. Avoid this. As has been previously mentioned, charities and their trustees are rarely made up of academics. Instead, think about communicating your research in a way that they can understand, without sounding too patronising of course.

Relating your research area to a widely-recognised figure or event can help the rest of us understand exactly what you are researching, and why it is a relevant subject to support. Whilst the trustees of charities are often exceptionally gifted, knowledgeable, experienced or all of the above, they may not be particularly well-versed in your specific field of, for example, calorie restriction and it’s effect on aging related physiological processes.

Mature Student Grants

Age is a funny thing, and our perceptions of it are perhaps even funnier. Many mature students feel that they will struggle to gain the funding they need to study their subject of choice. Whilst it is true that some funds have upper-age limits, it is also worth noting that some funds are available specifically for mature students, helping those who have taken a few years out, got a bit of experience under their belt and are looking to give education another go.

The Research Councils take no specific stance on age, neither favouring the young or those more mature. If you are a mature student though, it is something that you may well be able to use to your advantage. You may have gained valuable experience within relevant job sectors, or already completed independent research that will contribute towards your final qualification. If you do, make it clear on your personal statement, using it to your advantage. There is a lot to be said for experience, and if you’ve got it, make sure you flaunt it.

Grants for Part-time Students

Whilst scholarships from the Research Councils are often only available to those studying full-time, the same cannot be said for charity funding. Charities do not have any issue with supporting part-time students during postgraduate study, in fact, many charities feel this is a better way to use the funding available. Part-time students are very often part-time so that they can work to help fund their studies. This grit and determination gives charities the reassurance they need, showing that you are passionate, not only about the subject, but also about the course.

Point out that you are studying part-time to the charity, and turn what some see as a negative, into a positive, detailing why it makes you a better candidate for funding. It may be that you have a family, or are continuing to work, either way, there are many charities out there who would be keen to help you.

Scholarships for Current Students

Many students think that once they have enrolled, applied and been rejected for funding that they have to settle for a postgraduate life, devoid of external funding. This just simply isn’t true. In fact, applying for funding whilst currently enrolled in a postgraduate degree often stands you in better stead than applying for scholarships at the beginning of your postgraduate career. If you are in this boat, it’s usually best to look at charities for smaller amounts of funding to help you through, rather than relying on Research Councils and university funding. Charities will often make a decision within a few months, making them a perfect source for securing last minute funding. Being enrolled, and possibly nearing completion of the course can also be used to your advantage too. A student with only three months left on their masters or PhD who is asking for £400 worth of funding is a safer investment than a student who wants £200 to buy books for their first week of their six-year, part-time PhD course.

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