I am an EU citizen interested in pursuing a physics PhD in either a UK university or an European one. It looks like PhD fees for UK universities are so much higher than EU universities, so my issue resides more with UK universities.

How likely is it for a physics PhD to be self funded? Do most PhDs get funded by the university or other third party funding? Are there any statistics on this since on average, £20,000 a year for 4 years is not an option for me if I have to pay these fees myself.

Any thoughts on this?

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    I think it is reasonable to be expected to be funded for a PhD. Your superviser as well as your uni should have some stake in you being successful. I recommend not to do a PhD at a place where people do not think you should be funded. Nov 5, 2018 at 9:51
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    At least in the UK, some of this becomes self-fulfilling. If a potential student doesn't get funding after all sources are exhausted they either 1) drop or delay their application or 2) self-fund. Note also the large divide between fees for home (and currently EU) resident students and others.
    – origimbo
    Nov 5, 2018 at 10:33
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    In my UK-based lab, the majority of the PhD students are EU citizens, a couple are not, and two are British citizens. Every single one of them is on a bursary (PhD is not salaried in the UK) and nobody is self-funded, while one of the domestic ones is additionally employed part time (10 hours / week) from one of our lab's industry partners.
    – penelope
    Nov 5, 2018 at 11:33
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    'Self'-funded STEM students in the UK are most likely not from the EU (they may be funded by foreign scholarships or government funding, for example). Do you want to include that case in your question or exclude it?
    – Jessica B
    Nov 5, 2018 at 15:45

5 Answers 5


Here's the thing: Doing a PhD - perhaps not in every single discipline, but certainly almost always in STEM - is a form of employment. You would be a junior researcher, with a measure of independence and a measure of supervision, and with bosses, a department and a university to answer to. You'll need to be on campus most of the week (albeit with the possibility of remote work depending on specifics); you may be required to teach if the university needs you to; you will be subject to all rules and regulations the senior academic staff is subject to, etc.

In those EU states where this is recognized, an "self-funded STEM PhD" is like "volunteer work"; universities can't rely on its existence, and if they want PhD's they have to shell out the money to pay them their wages. Not that you make a lot of money, but it's something. There are sometimes collective labor agreements which govern PhD employment.

In other states - including, AFAICR, the UK - PhD candidates are not recognized as employees. In those states, self-funded PhD are more of a recognized option, but still obviously very rare, as few people can afford to do full-time volunteer work for years.

And thus...

How likely is it for a physics phd to be self funded?

Very-to-extremely unlikely.

Do most PHDs get funded by the university or other third party funding?

This depends on the state in the EU, the university and even the individual researcher, there is no general answer. Also, it sometimes happens that you're funded by the university for some parts your PhD and by a third-party source for other parts - or even that, at the same time, both the university and one (or more) third parties fund your employment (or "stipend"). Finally, third-party funding sources sometime get pooled at the departmental or university level, so that "university-funded" can mean money from different sources.

£20,000 a year for 4 years is not an option for me if I have to pay these fees myself.

Indeed it is not, and please don't try to do this kind of volunteer work, because you'd be hurting your fellow PhDs by legitimizing such a practice.

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    "you'd be hurting your fellow PhDs by legitimizing such a practice." I don't see how anything here hurts other PhDs, can you explain what you mean by that?
    – Aaron Hall
    Nov 5, 2018 at 16:24
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    @AaronHall It's a form of social dumping. Why would a PI pay premium for good quality PhD students if others are willing to work for free? Minimum wage in general and collective bargaining agreements specifically set minimum (and often fixed) wages and salaries for a reason. A PhD supervisor I know (in a country where PhD students are employed, unionised, with paid time off and good pensions, even earning enough to buy an apartment) once turned down a self-funded PhD student because he didn't want to lead a group with two tiers of PhD students, as it may create a bad group atmosphere.
    – gerrit
    Nov 5, 2018 at 16:59
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    "Doing a PhD ... is a form of employment" - legally speaking, that is completely false in England (don't know about Welsh Universities, Scotland has a completely different legal system). PhD students are not employees. [Later] Oh I see, what you are trying to say. Very confusing wording. Nov 5, 2018 at 17:43
  • @gerrit: "Why would a PI pay premium for good quality PhD students if others are willing to work for free?" Why do people eat at fine restaurants when they can get food much cheaper at McDonalds? Quality. There may be a few, rare, excellent PhD students rich enough to self-fund themselves, but I think these people are rare enough there is no real danger they will drive down PhD stipends. Nov 5, 2018 at 18:13
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    @PeterShor: 1. People don't eat at fine restaurants, mostly. 2. I don't see PI's paying industry-level salaries to get high-quality STEM PhD candidates. And the correlation between being a highly-qualified PhD candidate and being paid more than your peers is, as far as I can tell, limited to negligible. No, it is universities who are the significant actors here. They want to keep labor costs down, which they're already doing quite well unfortunately.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 5, 2018 at 20:22

It's very uncommon. It's so uncommon that I've heard of two cases where the student offered to self-fund and the professors were surprised enough to respond with, "are you sure?" One professor even said "I don't know if our department allows self-funded students, let me check".

  • And this is in the UK? Nov 5, 2018 at 12:54
  • @user134132523 one was in the UK, the other in Germany.
    – Allure
    Nov 5, 2018 at 13:04

How likely is it for a physics phd to be self funded?

As mentioned by others, this is extremely uncommon (in the UK, but also elsewhere). In the UK, when applying to a PhD in a STEM subject you’ll usually apply during a recruitment round. These invariably come with funding (from the University or an independent institute), otherwise this will be clearly marked.

So don’t worry, as long as you are applying through the normal process you’ll have funding secured for the nominal PhD duration (3–3.5 years).

  • This isn't true for non-Europeans. I (US national, unfortunately) had several offers for PhDs in UK institutions. The supervisors were enthusiastic, but I came with a 20k£ international tuition price tag. STFC simply isn't set up for us. Europe was the answer! Nov 5, 2018 at 18:50
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    @lafemmecosmique What's STFC? Nov 5, 2018 at 19:32
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    Science and Technology Facilities Council - responsible for funding UK PhD students (at least in astrophysics and particle physics). They grant N scholarships which can apply to UK or EU students (I believe). But since the cost of a non-EU international person is 3x that of British or EU students, there's not much funding left for us unfortunately. NB: Maybe the rules are different for non STFC-funded fields Nov 5, 2018 at 19:42
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    @lafemmecosmique Everybody in England pays tuition (non-EU citizens pay more, true) but it’s included in the stipend. But, true, not all funding agencies fund non-EU foreigners. Nov 5, 2018 at 21:58

I’ve heard of a self funded astrophysicist who funded his PhD through tutoring. Self funding does happen and it sometimes gives more freedom in terms of research direction. What you lose in cash, you gain in terms of research direction choice. An industry funded position might provide an application for research, and it’s great if that aligns with your own desires.

I can’t give you a complete overview like the other answers, but I’ll add some resources that I’d use if I was looking for a PhD position in the UK. I’m in the UK.

You can find some current positions on jobs.ac.uk. As you can see, some list a salary (a "stipend", which can be tax free).

It’s also worth checking out the websites of individual institutions, where they will list any conditions associated with funded positions. Sometimes it has to go to a UK citizen (I’ve seen engineering positions advertised that request this and it might become more prevalent with Brexit looming).

It’s also worthwhile checking out the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme. These are industry positions but the academic partner will look to sign the associate up for an academic qualification, sometimes an MRes, sometimes a PhD (where the funding is long enough). Funding for the fees comes out of the KTP budget. You can see the salaries for this are higher than the stipend but you’ll pay tax on it, so the difference isn’t as big as it seems.


The majority of PhDs in the UK will be funded by the UK Government. Most commonly a Lab head will apply with a project to the funding council and if allocated a studentship will advertise for a student to fill it. There are also some cases of PhD programs where the program will advertise for many students at once, and the students will choose the lab from a selection associated with the program. This second route is much rarer however. In STEM it is rare for students to be funded by the university, and even rarer for students to be funded by the lab head (most grants forbid spending the money on students).

Note that in the UK, PhD students are students and not normally employees. They do not get employement rights, they are not covered by health and saftey at work legislation, but conversely they can't be sacked or made redundent. Legally, they are under no obligation to do what their "boss" (i.e. supervisor) says.

PhDs funded by the UK government are only open to UK or EU nationals (or at least those funded by the councils I have knowldge of: Biology and Biotechnology research council, Medical research countil, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council). After the 29th of March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU, it is likely they will only be open to UK citzens.

Students from outside the EU are generally COUNTED as self-funded. However, most often this means that their government or a charity in their country has given them the money, and they give it to the university. We do occasionally have overseas students from wealthy families who are genuinely self-funded. Both types of self-funded student are usually very welcome as there is no limit on what the student can be charged, both in tuition fees and in the "bench fees" that cover the cost of experiments (such bench fees can often form a significant part of the reserach income for a whole lab).

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