Funding for researchers considering a PhD  

Written by: Lisa Stienen

Are you exploring your career options and thinking about starting a PhD? Are you excited about the prospect of spending time and energy on a subject that you are passionate about? Are you fascinated by discovering new things and even more by the process of discovery? If so, it sounds like doing a PhD might be a suitable next step in your career path.  

A PhD is the highest academic degree that one can earn, and it requires hard work, dedication, and discipline. Having a PhD opens many doors, both professionally and privately. If you choose the correct subject area, the degree is not only a key to an academic career but ensures you are in high demand from industry. Even more importantly, a PhD can open the world for you and connect you with lifelong friends and mentors. 

If you decide to take the next step in your academic career and pursue a doctorate, there are often challenges to overcome. One is funding: not only because the funding opportunities are not clear, but also because the application process is often complicated and confusing.  

Depending on where you start your PhD, you can spend from 3 to 8 years doing your PhD. It is an extended period that can involve prohibitive costs. While countries such as Germany, Denmark, Austria, Sweden, and Norway do not levy student fees for doctoral studies, doctoral students in other countries sometimes pay high fees for their degrees. In the U.S., for example, the average cost of a doctorate is 114,300 USD if you do not have financial support from the university [1]). Also, to be considered is the loss of income while you are doing your PhD. 

As such, it is important to find the appropriate funding. Funding support, depending on where you are, and the source of funding, may use different terminologies. Funding that supports PhD students may be called scholarships, stipends, fellowships, and grants. As the terminologies are different, it is important to keep this in mind and broaden your search terms and to read the fine print to fully understand what the funding opportunity provides. Ideally, you would need to have funding that supports tuition fees (you are still a student after all), any additional research-related costs, and importantly, funding that supports your living expenses. Some funding may not cover your expenses fully, but it does not mean that you should dismiss these opportunities, small amounts can add up to meaningful sums, and you can also build your funding record while you are at it. What all scholarships, fellowships, stipends, and grants have in common, however, is that, unlike a loan, they do not have to be repaid.  

Where to start looking for funding – the university where you plan to do your PhD 

The first point of contact for a scholarship should be the university where you would like to do your PhD. Especially if you are studying at a research-intensive university, there is usually the possibility to apply for scholarships. In addition to these, the university may also offer travel and research grants. These are available to students primarily during their doctoral studies to help cover the costs of attending conferences, fieldwork, or other research expenses. 

National scholarships 

At the heart of many country’s research capacity-building programs is funding support for PhD training. These funds are usually administered through the main science funders of the country and often have citizenship/permanent residency requirements for the recipients.  

Some examples include The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)’s Doc.CH program, which provides fully funded support for PhD students who are Swiss nationals or have completed their master’s degree in Switzerland, in the social sciences and humanities. In the USA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the primary biomedical research funder and provides PhD funding support, including the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award, which supports diversity in biomedical research and recipients must be citizens or permanent residents of the USA. For most students in science and engineering in the USA, the National Science Foundation is a great source of PhD funding.  

International mobility scholarships  

Another option is international scholarships. There are organizations and institutes that offer scholarships exclusively for international students. Particularly if you are not eligible for other funding options in the country where you want to study, this option can be helpful. International scholarships are often prestigious and very generous and, in addition to doctoral fees, some even cover living expenses and travel costs.  

In Germany, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is the primary organization supporting non-EU students to do their Ph.D. in Germany and provides full stipend support for the duration of your studies. The Australian government provides funding for its Research Training Program (RTP), whereby funds are available for both domestic and international students doing a research master’s degree of a doctorate. The Australian RTP is administered by Australian universities, so if you are interested in doing your PhD in Australia, you will be able to find relevant information through the university that you would like to study. In the UK, several funding programs are available for international students, including the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, which supports students who are citizens of Commonwealth countries, and the Marshall Scholarships, for students who are US citizens. If you are interested in studying in the US, the Fullbright Foreign Student Program supports students from over 150 countries. If you are interested to study in Japan, the Japanese government has the Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship for international students. The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) supports women in developing countries with Ph.D. fellowships. In Austria, the Austrian Academy of Sciences supports excellent PhD students from any discipline with a generous stipend for 3 years.  

Foundation scholarships 

In addition to governmental and intergovernmental funding agencies, several foundations also support international mobility of research students. For example, The Canon Foundation promotes the international culture and the scientific relations between Europe and Japan and offers Fellowships for doctoral students from Europe to study in Japan and vice versa. The Blanceflor Scholarship from the Foundation Blanceflor Boncompagni Ludovisi, née Bildt offers Ph.D. students from Sweden and Italy the opportunity to conduct their research in Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, or the USA.  

In Germany, the Heinrich Böll Foundation offers Ph.D. scholarships for doctoral students. The Fonds der Chemischen Industrie (FCI)  provides funding for chemistry students such as the Kekulé Fellowship. In the area of humanities research, the Gerda Henkel Foundation offers scholarships for doctoral students worldwide. The independent, non-profit foundation Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds supports biomedicine research with a fellowship for doctoral students.  

In the USA, the Hertz Foundation seeks innovators in science and technology and supports Ph.D. students with a very generous annual fellowship. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) supports international PhD students who are women, to study in the USA. 

Subject-specific foundation grants 

Foundations and societies dedicated to subject areas also often provide PhD scholarships for their members. Some examples include the ACCP Foundation provides the Future Grants to its members worldwide. The British Pharmacological Society funds the AJ Clark Studentship for pharmacology PhD students in the UK and Ireland. Also in the UK, the British Heart Foundation covers heart and circulatory diseases and offers studentships for Ph.D. students. Zonta International, a leading global organization supporting women, offers fellowships for female doctoral students worldwide in aerospace engineering. 

In most cases, there is the possibility of linking one’s doctoral scholarship with other financing options. Be it a doctoral loan or salary payments that one receives during the time. Especially small scholarships are often designed for such combinations. However, in the case of scholarships that cover the entire costs of doctoral studies, further funding may not be desirable. Accordingly, it is important to inform yourself in advance!  

The next step: application

Once you have decided on one of the funding options, the application process begins. The application and admission criteria for doctoral scholarships are as varied as the different organizations that offer them. Therefore, one should always check all relevant details first before applying. In most cases, however, an overview of academic qualifications is required, as well as a personal statement. Of course, you can and should contact the funding agency if there are any open questions.  

Several aspects should be considered: 

  • Check all relevant criteria: Is the grant suitable for your project? Do you meet all the stated application requirements? 
  • Be organized: Don’t forget to consider the deadlines and keep track of your applications! 
  •  “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”: Apply for a selection of different grants to have a choice and be on the safe side. 
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the funder: What can you do to convince the investors?  
  • Start your search in time!  

When it comes to ensuring that you meet all the relevant funding criteria, we designed our research funding database with this exactly in mind. Often you read scholarship information and become excited, only to read later that you are not fully eligible. To avoid this type of disappointments and time wasted, we structured funding information with the main funding criteria in mind, including career stage, any prerequisites such as particular degrees, subject area, working location, your citizenship, amount of funding and duration of funding – so that you can use filters to put in your situation and have relevant funding displayed for you. 

To make the process even easier for you, we at scientifyRESEARCH have created a list that gives you an overview of funding opportunities for PhD students. You can also sign-up for our grant alerts, so that you do not miss any relevant funding opportunities when they are posted on our website.  

Doing a PhD may be one of the most exciting times in your life – do not let financial barriers stop you from this adventure – with PhD funding information here, we hope that you are off to a great start in your PhD search and all the best for your research journey! 

[1] Average cost of a doctorate degree. Education Data Initiative.