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Securing PhD funding can be very difficult. There are many options, and best practice can differ between funding bodies and institutions. Look at our Funding Opportunities Page to find the right scholarship and funding options for you.

This article was written by Dan Casey for the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum.

“The whole process of applying and trying to secure funding I found especially difficult, despite the wealth of support and encouragement I got from some academics. But my persistence and motivation had paid off. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that over time you develop a resilience and experience with your applications that really helps. What I’ll say is don’t give up, persist and the rewards will be great! Some people I knew would get PhD funded 1 or 2 applications into the process but for others it’s not that straightforward, but it took me about THIRTEEN attempts! You may feel disheartened, but don’t be, it’s a competitive world out there!”

1. Sign up to the Critical Geography Forum Email List (CRIT-GEOG Forum)

The list circulates a vast supply of funded PhD opportunities from the UK and abroad. This is a great resource when you have limited time to navigate from one university website to another. You can sign up here.


2. Understand the forms

It might sound like a no-brainer but make sure you understand proposal word limits and requirements, university funding deadlines and the application process each time you apply. Each university and even departments within universities can be different (it is not as straightforward as undergraduate applications through UCAS). For instance, if you are looking at Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) or Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funding, deadlines may be very early in January for an October start. Additionally, some applications may require a personal statement, others only a CV.


3. Talk to your referees

Talk to your referees well in advance of submission. They are often very busy people and really want you to succeed but need notice to write a well-rounded reference for you. Try to give as much notice as possible, being clear when and how they should submit the reference. Be careful with who you select – choose someone who knows you well and will invest the time in writing a reference for you. I made the mistake of choosing a referee for an earlier application who did not proofread references and would write ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ multiple times, I was distraught. You will often need 2-3 referees. A good reference can make all the difference to getting or not getting funding. Some referees may also offer guidance on application procedures.


4. Choose your supervisors wisely!

Supervisors will not only be closely working with you for 3-4 years, so you’ll need to get on well, but they can help in pointing you towards different funding sources and editing your application proposal. Email potential supervisors early to show your interest, see if they’re interested in your research – in which case they will often be very kind as to help with editing your proposal before submitting your application and it will mean they are aware that you are submitting an application so might be able to make a speedier decision about it. Look at department staff pages, these will outline supervisor interests and often provide you with an email address to make contact.


5. Social support networks

It helps if you have got good friends you can rely on to proofread and help critique your proposal. The more constructive feedback you can get the more robust your application will be! This also helps with getting multiple opinions, rather than those from just academics, who tend to be very busy. It also means you can discuss interviews etc. with friends and get suggestions on how to improve from people you trust.


6. Prepare for interviews

Not everyone will be required to attend an interview, but if you are, preparation is key. Make sure you have supporting documents printed off. Re-read your proposal and personal statements and understand that any of these may be questioned further. Also, be prepared for a few challenging questions and be honest! The academics don’t want to scare you they just want to make sure they’re giving the right person funding. Also, interviews are a great learning curve. One PhD interview I had lasted a whole 1.5 hours and although I didn’t get given the place I felt that I performed well and could better prepare myself for future interviews.


7. Draw on work experience in your application

Academics are increasingly looking for individuals who have got professional experience outside of academia. It shows a multitude of skills you could bring from the workplace back to university and if that experience is in the topic of your research it shows great motivation on your part for doing the PhD. However, I went from undergraduate to masters to PhD direct so don’t necessarily worry if you don’t have significant time outside of academia, some academics will look beyond this.


8. Make your publications stand out

Publications will really impress a selection panel. Any journal articles or book chapters you may have written in the past really help you to stand out from the crowd. In academia, there’s often a saying ‘publish or perish’, so make sure to list anything relevant on an application. A PhD student is encouraged to publish alongside writing their thesis and it helps with your research impact. Publishing early is evidence that you’re likely to succeed in an academic working pressured environment. This is again, not necessary though for an application.


9. Ask for feedback!

Always ask for feedback if your funding application is unsuccessful. Often, you will receive a decision, and sometimes, many weeks later (so continue to keep considering other applications), you may be informed that your application was unsuccessful. Make sure to ask for feedback, as it is your right. You can email the departmental secretary responsible for postgraduate research applications for this. Sometimes feedback can really help you improve for your next application (as long as you take it on board!).



Don’t give up … if I gave up I wouldn’t be here today. Many times, I hear people say that the PhD application is the easy part (maybe true), but I found it increasingly difficult during my year of writing PhD and job related applications. If you are unsuccessful it doesn’t mean that you’re unsuitable for a PhD or ‘no good’ it simply means it’s not the right PhD for you, but with the right attitude there will be a PhD with your name on it. GOOD LUCK!