What's the difference between masters and PhD funding?

What's the difference between masters and PhD funding?

Postgraduate study is a way of taking your subject to a new level and can also provide the skills, knowledge and contacts for your chosen career but one obstacle may stand in the way – money.

Currently there is no central loan scheme for postgraduates, just the professional and career development loans accessed by a small minority of students. They are considerably more expensive than undergraduate loans. Influential bodies are lobbying the Government for a postgraduate loan scheme, similar to that for undergraduate degrees and pilot schemes are under way to seek out new ways of funding. All this is likely to take time.

But it's not all bad news, because tuition fees are generally lower than those paid by undergraduates. Money for doctoral research has been largely preserved, despite the public funding cuts. Finding financial support for a masters degree is more of a challenge. If you spend time tracking down scholarships, bursaries and fee discounts you may reduce the cost. It’s likely to prove a test of your creativity and ingenuity, not to mention your research skills.

Funding a taught masters

The number of taught masters courses has exploded over the last two decades and they now make up a fifth of the higher education market. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) nearly three quarters of postgraduate taught students (PGT) are self-financing.

With no money from the research councils, the best way to find a funded taught masters degree is to enrol on one of the public service courses leading to careers in teaching, social work or healthcare. They come under the Government's student loan scheme so you can borrow the money and pay it back through the tax system when you're working.

The other main source of funded masters courses is the four-year integrated masters (IM) degree, usually found in STEM – maths, science, engineering and technology – subjects. These are usually three years of undergraduate study and one of masters or two of each.

Universities will sometimes discount the fees for specific courses they want to promote. They also offer scholarships to attract the best students and can give bursary help based on family income. You can find these advertised on university websites or seek them out through our searchable database. Offers range from 10% alumni discount to tuition fee waivers of 50% or higher for some courses. Scholarships are offered for both home and EU and overseas students, though they sometimes differ in amount.

Nervousness over the effect of the near trebling of undergraduate fees on the postgraduate market has led universities to offer a record number of deals to attract students, so it’s worth putting in the time to seek them out.

Masters scholarships and bursaries usually come tied to a particular course or faculty, and rarely contribute to living costs.

Another useful avenue to pursue is funding from charities and trusts. An amazing number of small trusts and charities will give money towards the cost of a postgraduate study. Perhaps you were born in a particular area, or relatives worked in a profession or sector that provides grants or you are from a particular ethnic minority in the UK? If so you may be able to apply for money towards travel, books or fees and living costs.

The learned societies representing subject disciplines hold funds for education, as do some banks and large companies. These grants can be found listed in books you can find in the library or through searchable databases.

It’s worth looking at the HEFCE pilot projects being run at 20 universities to trial new ways of funding postgraduate courses. They include studentships linked to work placements, new types of loans, fee waivers for mentoring and a range of new bursaries.

Beyond this you will have to pay both the fees and your living costs. Though 72% of PGT students are self-financing, many of them will have found some financial support to help pay their way.

Research masters funding

You do the work on research masters courses overseen by tutors and the fees are usually cheaper.

Large numbers of postgraduate research (PGR) students are also self-funded, but there is a wider range of financial backers for research. Funding from societies and charities with aligned interests, from the research councils, and from university faculties themselves is much more common for postgraduate research courses.

In 2012̶ 13, 15% of PGR students received UK Research Council funding. But council funding for stand-alone one year courses is rare. Research masters are seen as a precursor to a PhD and are usually linked in some way to doctoral training. An example is the four-year funding for a one-year masters and three-year PhD provided by the Economic and Social Research Council. Sometimes courses are split into a two-year research masters followed by two years of doctoral research.

This has led critics of the system to call masters degrees the ‘broken bridge’ of postgraduate study. If you can’t afford to do a masters, then you can’t go on to doctoral research.

PhD funding

Research councils, universities, charities and industry provide funding for doctoral research. The universities hold the money and you have to apply to them for the place, rather than to the bodies that fund them.

The same goes for the big charities, though some have individual awards for specific projects or travel for which individual students can apply. The Wellcome Trust, for example, advertises studentships on its website but partner universities choose the students.

But Wellcome also has research training fellowships open to individual clinicians who can choose their own university, project and supervisor.

Competition is fierce for studentships and you have to make sure your research interest matches that of the funder and apply early, usually by the spring before starting work in the autumn.

Studentships are advertised on university websites and this website carries a searchable database of current opportunities.

University departments bid for a block of money for research in a given area or for a specific project. The councils tell successful universities how much they will receive and this covers stipends to doctoral students. The councils publish an indicative minimum stipend for students which is £13,863 tax free for 2014̶̶ 15. Fees come out of the block grant and are not paid by the students.

Research council studentships are not the only studentships available. Universities themselves provide fee remission and living cost grants tied to specific subject areas. They range from free or reduced tuition fees to living cost stipends to a mixture of both.

You may see Doctoral Training Partnership (DTPs) advertised and these offer studentships partly funded by the councils to support PhD training in their priority areas. These programmes seek to create a bridge between academic research and the outside world and often include mandatory internships, work experience outside the field of study and even language learning.

Doctoral students can also support themselves through teaching undergraduates though hourly rates vary widely, from around £10 to £40 an hour depending on the university and the subject.

Universities also offer graduate teaching PhD studentships lasting up to five years. Students get an annual stipend for which they undertake an agreed number of hours of teaching alongside their research.

If all else fails

If all else fails you can still fund your own PhD if you can find a university tutor to supervise. Or you could do the course part-time or by distance learning while you continue in employment.

Your search for support need not stop once you start the course. New streams of funding may become available, your university may hold funds to help you along and many of the small charities and trusts will step in to help existing students.