This may seem like a naive question, but its one I've had on my mind while working through readying my applications for a PhD in the UK. It seems bizarre to me that PhDs here are not funded by default - from my point of view, a PhD is effectively a job. It is a sort of long term graduate program for working in academia. From this point of view, it seems absurd that one could end up being in a situation where they might actually have to pay to pursue one.

One possible answer is that universities are simply admitting more students than they are capable of funding. If that is the case, then why is it the case? Surely having fewer, better funded doctoral candidates would not only improve the lot of many "students" (employees, in my view), but it would also have beneficial impacts on the employment prospects in academia for PhD students after they finish, since there will be fewer people competing for the same number of openings.

What are the incentives and cultural motivations here that keep the system as it is? How different is it in other countries? (I have heard, but been unable to decisively verify, that many European unis treat PhDs as the jobs they are).

  • Are you thinking of particular areas within academia? STEM? humanities?
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 7:33
  • 1
    You went wrong at 'a PhD is effectively a job'. It is for the person doing it. It isn't for the administrators who look at the uni finances and who set promotion (or even retention) criteria for the academics.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 7:36
  • A naïve answer but PhD students are essentially customers to the UK higher education system. UK is one of the largest exporters in the world in that sense. Ibelive this is driven by the colonial history of the UK and that many international students obtain scholarships from their home countries. PS: I did my masters at Imperial college, but couldn't do my PhD there for funding reasons.
    – Pioneer83
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 8:14
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    @JessicaB This is a very country-specific opinion. In continental Europe, most people will disagree. Around here, it very much is a job - an entry-level job with a counsiderable on-the-job training component, but a job nonetheless.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 8:44
  • 1
    @xLeitix The question asks specifically about the UK!
    – Jessica B
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 9:18

4 Answers 4


Universities themselves fund very few students. My faculty (which has 7 departments I can think of off the top of my head, and probably over 250 PhD supervisors) funds 2 students a year. These are used as strategic investments, either in a particular area the faculty wants to expand in, or more often as part of the start up package for a new academic.

So in answer "why not fewer, better funded PhDs", the answer is that any fewer would effectively be none.

In STEM subjects, a large number of PhDs are funded by external funding bodies, such as the government funded research councils. For example my department get 4 or 5 students a year from a Biology and Biotechnology Reserach Council (BBSRC) Doctoral Training Program (DTP). Importantly, government funded PhD studentships are only open to European (soon to be only British) citizens. Then there are CASE studentships that are financed jointly by government and industry. In both these cases the university has no say in how well resourced the studentship is; but they do earn the tuition fees that are paid by these outside agencies.

After our DTP and CASE studentships the most common way for a student to be financed is by a foreign government. These studentships generally are very well resourced because the university can more or less ask for as much as it likes. However payment of the student's stipend is down to that forigen government.

Finally if the student REALLY wants to do a PhD (so they can have a career that requires it one supposes), the university doesn't really care where the money comes from, as long as they get their £18k a year, they are happy and will tell supervisors to supervise them. Depending on the institution and the rank of the supervisor, various levels of compulsion might be applied to encouraging the supervisors to supervise a fee paying student. Supervisors are also often happy to take foreign students because the research funds they bring can see the rest of the a research group through a tough patch.

  • Why Universities admit students without funding? The Universities will profit from this both directly (tuition fees) and indirectly (research made by student).
  • Why supervisors supervise non-funded students? Whether student is funded from the University budget, from the grant, or self-funded plays no role in supervision process. The research produced by self-funded students may be not that good as the results produced by highly skilled student who got themselves a prestigious grant funding. However, considering that the number of students supervised to completion plays a major role in promotion process many supervisors will have to take all PhD students almost irrespective of how well they fit.
  • Why students will do this work without being payed? I don't know exactly. Maybe, because some UK Universities are so well recognised, that students believe having a PhD from such University will pay off later in their career. Maybe they want to live in the UK, because it's a nice place to live. Maybe they want to work with this particular professor in the UK. Reasons vary. What's yours?

There are enough people willing to trade off bad payment for, firstly, an extent of self-realization they wouldn't have in most regular jobs, and secondly, future career prospects. This keeps the supply of PhD candidates steady. Thus there is no incentive for universities to introduce better funding, unless these incentives are set by regulation or collective bargaining contract (like in some parts of continental Europe).


Ok I did earn my PhD in the UK, and I got fully funded position which covered my tuition and living; so I’m eligible to answer this question.

Timeframe: Just keep in mind that I was searching for a position in the middle of my master degree, and 12 months passed by till the day I put my foot at the uni as a PhD student.

Teachers: I could say based on my experience, some university professors are basically teachers. This means, they teach the slides and have no interest in research. Obviously you can’t get PhD position from them because they have no research funds, and if you do you are a fool because they are just not interested; and your PhD will be a living hell.

Cashing machines: some university policies are based on money and only money. They focus on bachelor and master degrees. These entities have no interest in research and if you get the PhD position there, your life will be living hell. Good luck asking for conference trip and so on.

High Quality professors: high quality professors are easy to find and hard to get a response from. They have the funds and they give it to you if they will feel you will bring something to the table.

Upcoming professors: I did put my bet in this category and you should too. They don’t have the fuss the high quality professors have and they are happy working with you to get the funding. These are individuals in the road to be on the top and you should be part of it.

To conclude yes there are not so many fundings, but not everyone should be a PhD student either. If you work hard enough you could still secure a fully funded PhD position.

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