Updated 1 June 2020
Cost is a huge factor for a student deciding whether to pursue a PhD.
As a PhD course can take several years to complete, ongoing finances can be complex and difficult to manage, with many factors influencing costs.
This article will help to outline the real costs of undertaking a PhD to help you make the right decisions about how to finance your study, with advice on keeping the costs down.
Here are some of the basic costs involved in studying for a PhD:
PhD tuition fees can vary depending on where in the UK you study and whether you are a UK or international student.
PhD fees in the UK are regulated by an organisation called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI). The current fee rate is £4,327 per year for full-time study and this is reviewed annually to reflect GDP changes. The fee is halved for part-time study.
If a university wishes to charge higher fees than those set by the UKRI, the student must not be asked to pay this difference, so you can be fairly confident that the set figure will be the final fee. This regulation applies only to UK and EU students (and EU students have been assured that this will continue for the next academic year, regardless of political factors such as Brexit).
International students may be asked to pay the full amount of tuition fees as set by the institution, which can sometimes be over £20,000 per annum. The top universities can demand higher fees, so location has a bearing on tuition fee costs.
Cost of living can vary depending on which part of the country you choose to study in. University College London estimates annual living costs for students to be around £15,000.
Newcastle Upon Tyne universities estimate that £12,000 will cover yearly costs for students in the North East of the UK.
If you are committed to a full-time research project, you may not have time to earn income on the side, so covering your basic costs might become tricky. As a PhD can take several years to complete, any potential living costs need to be calculated over the long term and balanced with any available funding.
For part-time study, many students opt for self-funding, which means they earn their own money to cover living costs for the duration of the course. The time commitment for part-time study is usually half that of a full-time course but, as a result, it lasts twice as long.
If this is your preferred method, be sure that your financial plan has the longevity needed to cover potentially 6 to 8 years, or more, of study.
This route is often more suited to those with family or existing work commitments. A spouse may help to cover living costs during the study period, or the income generated by maintaining work alongside study can be enough to cover costs.
As well as the obvious fees and living expenses, studying for a PhD has many hidden costs that will need to be taken into consideration when planning finances:
If an individual completes an undergraduate degree followed quickly by a master’s degree, they may then decide to take some time to gain experience in the workplace before continuing their postgraduate studies. During this time, they may achieve some career progression and be earning a good salary.
The commitment needed to study at PhD level often requires students to take time out of the workplace while they work on their research programme. This can incur a substantial loss of earnings in the short term.
If a student is absent from the workplace for several years, there is also the lost potential for promotion during that time, which contributes to the overall financial impact of obtaining a PhD.
This should be balanced with the knowledge that a PhD is a well respected qualification and can lead to higher future earning potential in the longer-term.
The nature of a complex research programme means that specialist equipment may be necessary, often paid for by the student. This also applies to the usual materials needed for study such as books, stationery and software.
For those studying STEM subjects at PhD level, extra costs known as ‘bench fees’ can apply when using laboratory equipment and consumables. These can be significant, so should be discussed during the application process.
Institutions can also charge additional fees beyond the basic course tuition fees. These fees can cover things such as enrolment, course extension, thesis resubmission and reinstatement in cases where the student has taken a break from the course.
Of course, not all of these fees will apply to every student, but an awareness of them helps with financial planning.
Some courses attract Additional Programme Costs in addition to the standard tuition fees. These additional costs are set by individual institutions and can range from £100 to several £1000s, depending on the nature of the research involved.
Obtaining a PhD is a long and intense process, which means that there is the potential for the course to over-run. This is very common and should be taken into consideration when predicting costs and arranging funding.
To help cover your costs, it may be necessary to work while studying to fund a PhD and, in this case, a part-time course may be more suitable. This allows the student to spread the cost over a longer period while earning a part-time income.
As living costs are the biggest expense when studying, adopting a modest lifestyle, keeping outgoings low and shopping around for affordable accommodation can make a big difference in how far your money stretches.
When choosing your PhD course, you should, of course, choose the one that suits your research goals best. However, your costs can be significantly reduced by choosing to study outside of London.
The motivations driving the student will often determine whether it is beneficial to study at PhD level once time and financial costs have been considered.
For students wishing to pursue a career in academia, obtaining a PhD allows them to improve their employment prospects and make valuable connections with their peers. This can outweigh the costs of study in the longer term.
There is no doubt that doctorate-level study allows a student to meet like-minded people and build connections with senior academics. Working within a prestigious university or with a well-known expert can lead to fantastic employment opportunities.
In some fields of work, a PhD comes with a status and recognition that sets the candidate apart from the competition. The research-focused science and pharmaceutical industries can provide lucrative career options that will repay the investment made many times over.
For the candidate who is confident that their career will benefit and earning potential will increase, a PhD can be an effective means to an end.
However, not all industries require a PhD to make it to the top, so careful research and consideration is needed to determine whether a lengthy and expensive PhD course is the right path. A PhD is not a golden ticket – some employers prefer on-the-job experience or vocational training, or may wish to train you within the company.
For many students, the love of their subject and a thirst for knowledge drives their decision to study for a PhD, rather than any career aspirations. For these students, the opportunity to have university backing to carry out research is very appealing. Although the drive here is not necessarily future earning potential, the reward of being allowed the time and resources to pursue their own research makes a PhD worthwhile.
Knowing that they have contributed to advances in their chosen field by completing original research is incredibly rewarding to someone dedicated to their specialist subject.
With some estimates putting the total cost of a PhD in the UK to be around £100,000, students must be sure that pursuing this level study is right for them.
Although the associated costs are high, there are several ways a student can receive financial help, through scholarships, studentships or grants. Alternatively, students can self fund their PhD by working alongside their studies.
Whichever route is chosen, obtaining a PhD can be hugely beneficial for the graduate, opening doors and providing opportunities that may not be available otherwise.
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