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Funding sources for PhD studies in Europe

PhD positions in European countries are funded through a diverse range of sources. Understanding the different funding sources for PhD studies in Europe is pivotal: With this knowledge, prospective PhD students can turn their abstract ambition to pursue a degree in Europe into a concrete strategy.

Doing a PhD in Europe

A brief disclaimer to begin with: There is a huge variety between European countries. Therefore, when embarking on a PhD journey, it is always necessary to check out country-specific arrangements! That said, there are some general differences, for instance, doing a PhD in North America.

For starters, to qualify for PhD studies in most European countries, a master’s degree is required. Furthermore, in many European countries, PhD students are treated as employees. This means that they are formally employed, receive a salary and make pension contributions.

The money that is used to pay for PhD positions can come from a variety of sources. However, prospective students are often not aware of the wide range of possibilities to fund their PhD studies.

Knowing about different funding sources for PhD studies is crucial because often prospective candidates play an active role in securing PhD funding!

PhD funding in Europe through university budgets

The most straightforward funding arrangement is PhD funding via university budgets. This essentially means that a university has money available to invest in PhD students.

The types of PhD positions that stem from university budgets tend to ask for an individual research proposal within the framework of a specific theme. This proposal becomes an important part of the application process, in which a professor selects one or more PhD students to work with.

Prospective PhD students cannot influence this funding source. Often, they simply have to apply to an open position advertised on a university website or a job portal.

Examples of academic job portals:

PhD funding in Europe through external project grants

Many universities rely on external funding to create PhD positions. This external funding often comes in the form of research grants for specific research projects. Common sources of funding are the European Commission and national scientific research councils.

The PhD positions that are created within externally funded research projects are often clearly defined. The PhD student works as part of a larger project team and completes a set of concrete tasks.

During the application process, applicants often have to showcase how they fit into the specific project. Furthermore, they have to make suggestions of how they would approach and execute certain tasks to meet the project’s goals.

Prospective PhD students can rarely influence this funding source. Exceptions exist when they already worked with a Principal Investigator, for instance during a master’s degree. Then they could support the project proposal and grant writing process, in the hope that the project receives funding and creates a position for them.

Example sources for external project grants:

PhD funding in Europe through individual grants from governments & research councils

National scientific research councils play a dominant role in the European academic landscape. Next to providing funding for large-scale (international) research projects, many of them also offer specific individual grants for PhD studies.

The PhD positions that are created from individual grants by scientific research councils often require unique, individual PhD research projects. These projects offer room for creativity but require a high degree of independence.

Individual grants and scholarships are very competitive. Applications often involve multiple stages, including pre-proposals, proposals, and interviews. In some cases, prospective PhD students can only apply for these grants if they already have a potential supervisor and the backing of an eligible university.

Prospective PhD students have a high degree of influence when it comes to this source of funding. They have to proactively approach potential supervisors and universities well in advance of the application deadline, and develop a competitive research idea.

Example sources for individual research grants:

PhD funding in Europe through individual scholarships from foundations

There are many foundations that either support or fully fund PhD studies in Europe. These foundations are often connected to political parties, religious institutions, specific industries, companies or non-profit organisations.

The PhD studies that receive funding from foundations are diverse but tend to have a concrete link to the funding body. This link can be thematic or ideological. For instance, the foundation of a country’s Green Party is likely more inclined to fund a research project addressing climate change instead of one on fossil fuel excavation.

Furthermore, the profile of the prospective candidate is extremely important in these scholarship applications. Some foundations also target prospective PhD students from specific countries or backgrounds.

Prospective PhD students have a high degree of influence when it comes to this source of funding. They tend to be in charge of the whole application process.

Examples of PhD funding through foundations:

PhD funding through governmental scholarships from countries of origin

Several non-EU countries provide PhD scholarships for their nationals to pursue a PhD full-time and are fully funded in Europe. Thus, as an international student, these government schemes are interesting to explore.

The application process for these governmental scholarship schemes is hard to generalise. However, a common denominator is that prospective PhD students seem to have a high degree of influence when it comes to this source of funding.

Applicants usually have to undergo two application processes: One to receive the scholarship, and another one to secure a position at a European university.

Sometimes, the scholarship is attached to certain requirements after the completion of a PhD. For instance, to return to the country of origin and work in the national academic system for several years.

Examples of countries providing scholarships to conduct PhD studies in the EU are China, Turkey and Indonesia.

Part-time PhD funding in Europe through non-academic employers

If there is a connection between a PhD topic and a non-academic job, some employers enter a formal arrangement that covers PhD fees. Furthermore, they allow the PhD student to do PhD-related work during some of their ‘regular’ working hours.

Prospective PhD students are very much in charge when it comes to this source of funding. Entering an arrangement between a non-academic employer and an academic institution requires a lot of coordination. All parties have to agree in advance.

While this is not the most common PhD funding arrangement, the construction of a part-time PhD can have many advantages. For example the increased cooperation and knowledge transfer between academia and non-academic research and practice.

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