So you’ve decided to do a PhD – it’s a great decision that will allow you to expand your horizons and build knowledge in an area of your interest. But what next? As an international student, getting funding for your PhD is extremely difficult in the UK. Research councils don’t fund you, and there are limited scholarships on offer that are directed at international students.
This time last year, I had offers from some of the best Universities in the world but no funding to accompany them with. With a heavy heart, I turned down those offers and applied with a fresh perspective the following year, receiving full funding to undertake a PhD in Bioengineering at Imperial College London. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way for anyone who might be going through the same process:
Choose Universities based on the scholarships they have on offer for international students. When I was shortlisting my top schools, one of the first things I checked was scholarships for international students. There may also be some country-specific scholarships that Universities can offer.
Get in touch with supervisors early. As early as September/November, or as soon as term starts. Write a short but specific cover letter i.e. why you are interested in their field of research, what experience you have that fits with their research interests, and attach your most up-to-date CV. Most scholarship deadlines are fairly early so building a good relationship with your supervisor before these come around can only benefit your application. In your initial emails, you may even want to ask for a Skype call to discuss research projects in the lab.
Ask to visit the lab to get a feel of the environment. This is because you’re likely to spend most of your time in the lab if you’re a science or engineering PhD. Meeting your prospective supervisor in person also allows you to see whether you would be a good fit in their lab and under their style of supervision. If you can’t visit the lab, initiate a Skype call and ask to be introduced to other students (working on similar projects) in the lab.
Inquire early on about funding. Be up-front about your overseas student status and show them that you have done some research about potential funding sources. These could be University scholarships or external funding sources i.e. British Council, Commonwealth etc. Your supervisor may be able to recommend schemes or offer you full/partial funding depending on the project and University.
Look for funded positions on findaphd.com. Findaphd.com is a goldmine for international students because you can customize your search to include PhD positions that offer funding to international students (in your field of interest). The positions listed will also have details about the project, supervisor and the University and you can directly contact the supervisor for more info.
Apply to as many Universities as possible. This only increases your chances of receiving funding because the competition is fierce. There are so many great international students and such few funded PhD places on offer!
Apply to University scholarships by the relevant funding deadlines and spend time writing your scholarship statements. Admissions and funding deadlines can be different – submit your application by the funding deadline. Some scholarships might require you to submit additional statements and references, in addition to your admissions application, so make sure you start working on these early. It can be easy to forget or overlook writing these statements after already receiving an offer (without funding) from the University.
Once you have applied for University scholarships, look for external funding. I looked at places like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Alzheimer’s Research UK, Antibiotic Research UK, and the British Council for funding. In addition, look for external funding catered to students from your country; for Indian students, this includes the Tata Trust, the Narotam Sekhsaria Foundation and many others.
Keep in touch with your supervisor. This is really important; keep them updated on your progress when looking for funding. They may offer useful advice or alternative ideas to apply for funding. Also, ask your Department if they will offer any studentships to international students this year. These may be unadvertised and it’s best to ask if a scheme could be tailored to your project.
Look for mentors. When I was applying for PhDs, I used my network to look for funding. Everyone in your professional/academic network has some information that could help you, or that could lead you to someone else who could help. The same happened with me; a friend’s PhD supervisor was pivotal in helping me find the right lab to work in at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), which allowed me to fine-tune my skills and get up to the level of receiving PhD funding.
Apart from this, plan your applications well. Make a list of your top schools and a list of your ‘Plan B’ schools. It’s important to have both when managing your expectations to receive funding as it is a very difficult and competitive process. After you have your list, note down their admissions AND their funding deadlines, and make a week-wise schedule of which school you’ll apply to when. You can loosely follow this to achieve your targets of submitting applications on time.