Postgraduate loans have become a popular way to fund further study, but you should check what scholarships and bursaries are available first as these don't have to be repaid

What are scholarships and bursaries?

Scholarships and bursaries help students to fund their postgraduate study. They are provided by a range of organisations, including universities, private companies, charities and the government. However, there are some differences between them.

  • Scholarships are non-repayable sums of money that are typically awarded on the basis of academic excellence. They often come with strings attached - such as working for a specific company after you graduate, or taking extra responsibilities within the university. Winning a scholarship is usually a competitive process.
  • Bursaries are also non-repayable, but they are lump sums or annual stipends available to any student who qualifies for them. This could be students on a specific course, those who are in most financial need, or groups that are under-represented on a course or in an area of work.

Some scholarships and bursaries are specifically designed to pay for tuition fees, others to help with living costs. They may cover all your expenses or just make a small but useful contribution - you may even be able to secure funding from more than one source.

University scholarships and bursaries

The first place to look for postgraduate funding is the university you want to study at. Universities offer various scholarships and bursaries to serve a range of purposes. These include:

  • Academic excellence scholarships - funding for students in recognition of their outstanding academic credentials. These tend to be limited in number, so you'll face a lot of competition to secure the cash.
  • Disadvantaged bursaries - given to encourage students from all backgrounds to pursue further study, regardless of their personal circumstances.
  • Alumni discounts - many UK universities offer a tuition fee discount of 10% or 15% to their own students who continue on to postgraduate study.
  • Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) - students looking to find PhD funding and acquire hands-on teaching experience can complete a GTA with their university. Alongside researching and writing your thesis, you'll receive fee waivers in return for providing pastoral support and teaching duties to undergraduate students.

While the majority of university scholarships and bursaries need to be secured before the beginning of term, if you face financial, health or family difficulties you can usually apply for hardship funding at any time throughout the academic year.

Look at university websites to find details of the scholarships and bursaries they each have available.

Funding from charities and trusts

Many charities, foundations, trusts, learned society and professional bodies provide financial support for postgraduate study and PhD-level research. For example:

  • Many philanthropists leave trust funding in their name for postgraduate students. The Sir Richard Stapley Education Trust offers small grants, normally between £400 and £1,000, to UK residents studying any subject at postgraduate level. The Leverhulme Trust is another all-subjects trust fund that distributes approximately £80million per year to postgraduate students. It looks to 'fund any form of research that advances knowledge of the world and ourselves'.
  • Medical and health research is a popular field supported by charities. The Wellcome Trust offers a range of fellowships, bursaries and scholarships from affiliated charities such as Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and the Medical Research Council. CRUK offers individual grants of up to £50,000 per year to students carrying out research that heavily aligns with the charity's beliefs and movements.

Use online directories such as Trustfunding.org.uk and Charity Choice to find the right organisation and funding opportunities to suit your needs. You may also wish to consult a publication, such as Charities Digest, to find a sponsor.

Applications for charity funding are typically made directly to the organisation. You may be asked to submit a personal statement or written references from your tutor, and if you're called for interview you'll be required to give a presentation giving a brief overview of what your research will involve.

It's important to be proactive with charity funding. Some organisations have very early cut-off points for submitting applications, while others will grant funding on a first-come, first-served basis.

Government bursaries

The UK government provides non-repayable funding for postgraduate study in several different forms. These include:

If you aren't eligible for any scholarships or bursaries, the government also provides loans for postgraduate study that are similar to the undergraduate student loan. You have to repay these when you're earning above an income threshold. Find out more:

How to apply for a scholarship

The earlier you apply for scholarships, the more likely you are to win them. Most universities stipulate that you'll need an offer to study with them before you can apply for a scholarship, so do your research and make sure you're prepared to get the ball rolling as soon as possible.

As well as submitting a standard application form, which you'll find on your university's website, you'll be asked to provide a personal statement. In this statement you'll need to provide some or all of the following information:

  • a brief outline of your research project
  • your future career ambitions
  • your current employment situation and, if you're employed, a brief overview of where you work and your responsibilities in the role
  • how you're planning to fund your studies
  • the extent of your financial need.

Before you submit your application, check that it is grammatically correct and you haven't made any obvious errors. The scholarship application process is highly competitive so a polished application is vital to being considered for funding.

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