Postgraduate funding in the social sciences

Еnjoyed your undergraduate course so much you want to stay in academia? Whilst postgraduate study in the social sciences is wonderful and demanding, funding it can be a challenge in itself. This article contains information on the most common sources of funding within the social sciences.


MA Funding


Postgraduate study is not funded in the same way as undergraduate degrees. Whereas those studying a first-time undergraduate degrees are able to call on government-backed loans through the SLC (Student Loans Company), no such function exists for postgraduates: you're on your own! As such, the funding that is available tends to have higher costs (in the form of interest payments, for example), be less accessible (such as targeting specific minority groups or involving means-testing), or be highly competitive (in the form of scholarships or bursaries). For more information see the main wiki article: Funding Postgraduate Study. However, as a general rule, you need to be looking to invest quite a bit of time to investigate the options, as it's much less simple than signing a form.

Unfortunately, as with many disciplines, funding for Masters' programmes is generally more limited than for PhDs within the social sciences. It's not uncommon for people intending to progress to the PhD having to self-fund their Masters before being able to secure funding for the Doctorate. This probably reflects a perception within academia that the Masters programmes often serve a function as what is sometimes rather snidely referred to as the '3+1' (as opposed to '1+3') path, in reference to the fact that people often take MAs because they enjoyed undergraduate and couldn't think of anything better to do. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this as a reason for doing a Masters, but the government appears to have decided that funding should relate to students that are adding value through research.


A note: all Masters are equal, but some are more Equal than others...

As a result, a lot of the funding is dependent upon the "type" of MA you're planning to take: is it a research Masters, or a 'normal' Masters? (hereafter referred to as a 'subject MA' rather than a 'research MA' - the 'MA' is of course a bit of a nonsense as it may be an MSc, an MPhil or an MRes, so this is being referred to in shorthand rather than as any substantive point.) A research MA may just be a subject MA with extra research modules tacked on, or it may be designed from the ground up as a dedicated research training programme. Regardless, there are certain minimum requirements that the ESRC specifies in order to accredit a programme. Increasingly, research MAs are being seen as 'highly desirable' (read:semi-compulsory) for those wanting to do a PhD, regardless of whether they're looking to be ESRC funded. So, if you're choosing a Masters and wanting to keep your options open for a PhD, it's definitely worth investigating accredited courses.

Edit 2013: since the ESRC reformed its funding to go via the DTCs (Doctoral Training Centres), they seem to be less strict about this. Admissions have been decentralised to the individual DTCs, and it's up to them to decide if you have enough methodology training to be admitted. If you don't, many are willing to allow you to do this during the first year of your PhD instead. Speak to the department or centre administrator if you are unsure. Regardless, it is never a bad idea to take a course or two in research methods to give you a better idea of how to write the proposal.

Regarding your background...

No, I don't mean class: I mean prior degree. (Sociologists, don't get excited). A question that often comes up is whether someone can take a general social science taught MA, or ESRC-accredited ('1') masters/MRes, when they come from a 'different' discipline. The simple answer is in principle 'yes', but as always, 'it's a bit more complicated than that'. It is essentially down to the department's discretion as to whether they admit students. Usually, those closest will be given some sort of priority in admissions terms, but those fields a bit 'further away' are also explicitly stated by departmental admissions guidelines as acceptable preparation. So, for politics, politics and international relations would be the closest, but history, sociology, law, languages &c. would all usually warrant automatic consideration. According to standard admissions guidelines at most universities a social science course of whatever flavour is however usually specified.

This is not to say though that you can't study a masters in social science from a different background (science, arts, &c.). The first thing to do is contact any departments whose courses you may be interested in to explain your circumstances and ask whether they have in the past made exceptions for students from non-social science disciplines. In most instances the answer will be yes, but it's worth asking if they have any recommendations for things you can do to strengthen your application, such as work experience, or pre-entry reading and the like.

Officially for the 1+3, the ESRC doesn't care what subject your undergraduate degree is in, so don't fret too much on that score:

  • 3.2 Graduates from any subject or discipline may apply, so long as they meet the ESRC's requirements for academic (i.e. a 2.1) and residential eligibility described in Section 2 (2.28-2.43).

Therefore it's really up to the departments filtering quota and competition applicants. If you do come from a different academic background, it's essential that your proposal and references are up to scratch in order to demonstrate that you've got the requisite basic knowledge of what you plan to research. However, the '1' is usually taught from scratch so that will equip you with the methodological knowledge to investigate it. However, you do need to evidence interest and preparation. As such, if you're coming from an undergraduate background in something that is ostensibly completely unrelated (like chemistry) it might be worthwhile taking a year out to allow you to complete some basic reading, do work experience, and develop a convincing proposal sufficient to compete with candidates who've been doing this for three years. This is by no means impossible, but it does require commitment.

The five main funding routes:

Self Funding - Savings / Lovely parents / Lottery winnings

You may be extremely lucky/clever and have saved chunks of your undergraduate loan in a high-interest account, back when such things actually existed. You may have a trust fund. You may have a rich relative with a soft spot for you who decides to put you through an extra year of education. You may have 'ethnic sources' of personal funding as one rather prominent TSR member once memorably put it. In any case, if you happen to have a chunk of money sitting around and are able to use it to fund your Masters, this is a self-evidently large advantage. You need to ensure that you've set aside enough money: Your fees may range from £3,000 - £30,000 (although most are definitely in the lower end of the spectrum) and you'll need enough money for your living costs, which will vary according to where you are. Generally the North=cheap and the South=expensive. Oxford, for example, reckon you'll need at least £8,000 in living costs for a year's MA (bearing in mind that MAs last the full 12 months due to the dissertation.) So for this option to be viable (assuming you're not planning on getting income from other sources too), you'll probably need at least £10,000. Which is not cheap. However, if you don't happen to have a nest egg, never fret...



Since the SLC doesn't fund postgraduate study, your main sources of finance are either the CDL (career development loan) or the professional loan scheme. The latter are only available on certain courses (primarily: those wanting to be solicitors) but the former is open to most soc sci postgraduates enrolled on Masters or PhD programmes. They are run by three banks (stroke government departments) - Barclays, The Royal Bank of Scotland and The Co-operative Bank - and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). CDLs have several distinctive features. The first is that repayments are frozen for 12-14 months - enabling you to complete your MA without repayments. During this period, the interest is paid for by the DIUS. The second is that only a certain chunk of the loan amount - £3,000 - £8,000 - can be used to pay living expenses. For example, if the full £8,000 is taken, no more than £4,000 can be taken for living - the rest must pay the fees. This can be extremely inconvenient, and as a result many CDL students also subsidise themselves with a part-time jobs.

A brilliant page of advice on the CDLs, including residency requirements, is available at Prospects' Guide to Funding postgraduate study with a loan


ESRC Funding - the '1+3'

The ESRC is the major funding body for social science postgraduate researchers in the UK. They fund Masters degrees for those intending to go on to progress to the PhD (and a PhD proposal forms part of the application procedure). The funding is awarded for Masters degrees on a 1+3 basis, i.e. 1 year for the Masters plus 3 for the PhD (although this can also be a 2+2 in the case of eligible 2-year MPhils). In order to be eligible, you have to apply for an eligible Masters degree (see above), at a recognised department. Preferably, this should be a department with quota places (for more information on quotas, see section below).

Competition is intense (particularly in the 2009 cohort, as more students are staying on in the face of an uncertain jobs market). If you're a current undergrad, you will most likely need to be predicted a first, and be able to substantiate this with good current grades (yes, they will look at your first and second year marks, so if you've only started working in your final year this won't look good). You also need strong references and a good proposal (see Writing a PhD thesis proposal). The application deadlines close very early (usually the winter of the previous year), but the funding is good - your university fees paid up to £3,300 (or thereabouts), nearly £13,000 in an annual tax-free stipend, plus a £750 research budget and college fees paid, if you're studying at Oxford or Cambridge.

Please see section below for the full run-down on the ESRC application process.


A note on the 1+3/+3 division and ELQs

The 1+3 is for those who have not undertaken an ESRC-recognised research MA. The +3 is for those who have. They are therefore mutually incompatible and you cannot apply for both. You will notice however that there is some ambiguity in the 1+3 route - people applying for the 1+3 tend to be final year undergrads intending to progress straight onto the MA (or recent graduates) but it's not uncommon for students to first study for an (ESRC unrecognised) subject MA in order to make a more competitive application (therefore ending up with two Masters). However, this may change due to the government's cunning wheeze to hoik the fees up for those who already have a Masters - this is called the ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Qualification) Strategy. This means that government fees funding for students taking a Masters if they already hold a Masters (an equivalent qualification) has been withdrawn, meaning that the fees may be exponentially higher. Since 2009 is the first cohort where it will be properly implemented the implications are somewhat untested - but for more information have a look at the HEFCE's website on ELQs:

Edit 2013: the ESRC under the DTCs are increasingly more flexible about qualifying MAs a a result of this. They are often wiling to consider unorthodox routes, such as a 2+2 qualification. Speak to them if you are unsure.

A note on Commitment

A question that frequently comes up is whether taking up a 1+3 place commits you to a university, and a topic, for the full four years. The simple answer is 'yes'. The full answer is 'it's a little more complicated than that' (the catchphrase of the PhD student - I should get that printed on a T-Shirt) but in general, you must be aware that applying for a 1+3 place commits you to that university, that topic, and that supervisor for a full four years, Masters and PhD. You cannot apply for a 1+3 with the intention of switching universities after the masters. This is for numerous reasons: firstly the funding is awarded either directly to a DTC and to a student on the understanding that they will be working with a particular university and supervisor but in either case the fit and compatibility of the student with the department is a critical factor in awarding the funding. As such, the funding belongs to your supervisor and department as much as it does to you. Do not take up a 1+3 place if you are not at the very least fully expecting to stay there for the duration.

However, there are of course circumstances where this is not the case. The major exception is where your supervisor leaves, in which case it is perfectly normal to go with them. If you suffer a major personal or academic calamity (death/serious illness in the family which forces you to move, or your supervisor leaving, for example) then there is some flexibility: after all, having a student drop out is no better than having them leave, and if those are the only two options there will be support available to you to help you continue studying. However, transfer applications are difficult to make and not often approved. Applications need to be approved by both supervisors (incoming and outgoing), both universities, and the ESRC - and I'm sure you can imagine that there are plenty of reasons why each would want to dissent (although if you're switching within a DTC, this may be less difficult). As such, you should under no circumstances assume that the option will be available on tap. However, if you find yourself in unforseeable and awful circumstances in the future, it is highly likely that the members of your supervision team will do everything they can to support you.

In addition, there is more mundane flexibility built into the system. If you are a woman (one hopes) and fall pregnant, there is maternity leave available (6 months' paid, and 6 months' unpaid), and likewise there is less generous cover for paternity leave. It is possible to take unpaid sabbaticals and in some cases paid study abroad, which extends your submission date. In any case, if you feel you need to take time off for whatever reason, the first person to contact is your supervisor who will be able to advise of possible options.

With regards to the topic, it is expected that the focus of your research will evolve and shift over the four years. However, as aluded to above, funding is awarded partly on the basis of compatibility (and technically if you change the topic altogether you are required to submit a new proposal to the ESRC for approval, which is not automatic). That said, do not worry too much about sticking to the letter of your proposal. Most supervisors will be sensitive to the fact that interests will shift, and will try to help direct you towards the most suitable angles on your topic.

Departmental/University funding

As you might imagine, this is a bit idiosyncratic. Unlike the ESRC, this is entirely decentralised, and so the terms of the funding are at the discretion of the University/Faculty/Department providing the money. The resource you'll really need in order to investigate these is time: since nothing is centrally co-ordinated, it involves trawling through the websites of any universities you may be interested in, and searching for relevant third party sponsors. There are some websites which attempt to collate funding information - such as and also the Times Higher Education Supplement - but these are by no means infalliable and are no substitute for ferreting around University websites yourself. Another method is to email the course convenor and ask how previous students have funded the course; this alerts them to you as an applicant and may prompt them to tell you about funding that isn't widely advertised.

The decentralisation also, obviously, translates into levels of funding. Many university and departmental Masters and PhD scholarships match this level but a lot fall well short, and this is particularly the case at Masters level. It's most common to see 1-year funding providing a fee waiver plus a little bit of money for living expenses, but often this is nowhere near enough to live off and so candidates may need to investigate other sources of funding in addition to a departmental MA scholarship, such as part-time work.

Specific Masers funding also almost always only last for a year, so you will need to reapply for PhD sponsorship (in contrast to the ESRC 1+3 programme, whereby you can be awarded a full four-years funding). There is, of course, nothing to stop you taking up departmental MA funding and then re-applying for the 1+3 or +3. This route is also an important source for those ineligible for ESRC money, either through residency, or because they are not studying for an accredited research Masters.

University funding may identify incredibly specific requirements - Oxford's Clarendon fund, for instance, which is probably the most generous, has some frankly baffling nationality-based eligibility profiles - see this page and this one). Some may only be open to UK residents, others may be sponsored by some far-off country. Have a look around and see what you can find - you may get lucky!

Working 9-5 (on the night shift...)

Fitting in a part-time job around Masters level study can be tricky, but many manage it. Social scientists are at an advantage in this regard since we don't need to spend hours in a lab! Masters timetables in the soc scis seem to be around the 4 - 8 hours per week mark, so if you're organised with your time it's entirely possible to fit around part time work (some even manage to work full-time, but this generally comes at the cost of sleep or sanity, whichever goes first). As with undergrad, bar work, retail, admin and weekend jobs are all popular options. The other possibility is a part-time Masters (over 2 or 3 years) with a full-time job and a secondment day. This is not always possible, but can be an option if, for example, you want to study a Masters without a career break.

PhD Funding


PhD funding in the social science is not as generous, extensive, prevalent or undiscriminating as in the sciences (more's the pity) but there is still reasonable amounts around. Unlike in science departments, it's perfectly common for departments to house many PhD students without funding (usually overseas, part time, or doing GTA work) and this is an unfortunate consequence of studying in a high-demand field where the supply of necessary research is lower. Nevertheless, if you are organised and talented, there is plenty of information on funding out there, and academics are generally very keen to retain, foster and aid bright students with a promising chance of a research career. Therefore, if you're contemplating PhD study and are worried about funding, your first port of call should probably be a supervisor in your home department who will be able to provide a realistic assessment of your chances, coupled with information about any awards within your department for which you might be eligible. Whilst it's definitely worth looking further afield, maintaining good relationships with your current department is often the most fruitful way of securing funding, regardless of where this funding it housed.


A note: Home or Away?

Whether you are classed as a Home (UK) or overseas student can have big implications for your eligibility for certain forms of funding. For the decentralised awards, this will depend entirely on the specific criteria of the award in question, so if you are in any doubt, you will need to contact the bursary administrator direct. For the ESRC, see section below.

Funding routes:

ESRC Funding

ESRC funding is brilliant. It is the motherlode of funding in the social sciences. It entitles you to all sorts of perks - such as a £750 budget to attend conferences and buy books during your PhD - and is as guaranteed as it is possible for funding to be (assuming you make satisfactory progress), allowing you to concentrate on your research, not where the next rent payment is going to come from. As a result, it is über-competitive - in the 2009 application cycle, rumours were flying of as many as 20 applications per place, and interviews are becoming commonplace as departments try to weed out the best candidates from an invariably-stellar field. As a result, the application is slightly pot luck. You can help yourself by doing as well as possible academically; working as much as you can to produce a well thought-out, thorough and original research proposal; and persuading three members of staff to sing your praises in a reference (which most are only too happy to do, since they will have a good understanding of the importance of funding to postgraduates); and researching your departments to ensure that you're applying to ones with the best 'fit' possible - the right resources and the right supervisor for you. Departments will be much keener to take on students who they know they can accommodate best within their resources and staffing profile. The application procedure can be quite complex. You can either apply for a 1+3 or a +3 (see above). You need to be:


    1. Suitably qualified (with the right undergraduate and/or Masters background – see below)
    2. Suitably resident (see below)
    3. Organised, and
    4. Lucky!



You need to have a minimum of a 2.1, usually from a ‘UK academic institution’ (or the equivalent of this from overseas, as ascertained by the NARIC guide). If you’ve not managed to get a 2.1, it is possible to enhance your level attainment by taking a Masters (i.e a 2.2 plus MA is considered equivalent to a 2.1.) However, bear in mind that applicatons tend to be extremely competitive – so a 2.2 + MA, or a bare 2.1, is necessary but may not be sufficient. In the more popular disciplines it’s not uncommon for every funded student to have a first and a distinction at MA level, and this is increasingly the case with the raised popularity of the scheme.



The residency rules are very convoluted and complex. The most important details are below, as drawn from the ESRC applicants’ guide, points 2.37 – 2.43: Postgraduate Funding Guide


    1. All candidates are required to have established UK residency,
    2. A relevant connection may be necessary – through obtaining settled status (with no time restrictions on the period of future stay) having lived in the UK for the previous 3 years, but not mainly for the purposes of an undergraduate degree,
    3. EU residents simply need to have been resident in the UK for three years before the start of the degree – but this ‘’can’’ be for the purposes of a degree
    4. EU students are otherwise eligible for a fees-only award.

If you don’t tick these boxes, you’re unlikely to be eligible. The exception is if you are planning to undertake advanced quantitative work, where you may be eligible regardless. If you have any questions on your residency status, read the guide in full and contact the department to which you are applying directly in the first instance.

The application process

The ESRC has completely overhauled its postgraduate funding framework for all degrees beginning in October 2011. In previous years, the ESRC has operated a dual system, consisting of "quota" and "open competition" places, dividing up the decision making process between accredited universities and the ESRC itself. This system is no longer in operation. The new funding system involves accredited universities being organised geographically into Doctoral Training Centres (a list of these centres and their constituent universities can be found [here] A certain number of ESRC studentships is allocated (on a 5 year basis) to each Centre, and these Centres decide amongst themselves how many studentships each of their ESRC-recognised departments will receive (a list of recognised degree pathways at each university in each DTC can be found [here] It is important to remember that just because the university you have applied to is a member of a DTC, that does not necessarily mean that your subject has funding recognition. For example, the Scottish DTC consists of the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Stirling, Aberdeen, Dundee, Strathclyde and Heriot-Watt, but if you want a PhD in Language-based Area Studies (Arab World Studies for example), then only the programs at Edinburgh and Glasgow are eligible for ESRC funding.

It works thus. You can apply to as many PhD programs at as many different universities as you like, but if you want ESRC funding you need to check this [list] to see if your program is eligible for funding. You then need to check which Doctoral Training Centres these programs fall into as you CANNOT apply for ESRC funding at more than one university in the same DTC - you will automatically disqualify yourself from the funding competition if you apply for ESRC funding for a PhD in Politics at both Manchester and Lancaster, for example as they are both members of the Northwest DTC. However, you can apply for ESRC funding at universities in different DTCs - at Manchester (Northwest DTC) and Edinburgh (Scottish DTC), for example. Each DTC will have a different application deadline so you must check the relevant funding pages of the university at which you wish to win a studentship. You can apply for a place on the PhD program and apply for ESRC funding at the same time, but it advisable to have already secured your place as this will, hopefully, have given you time to discuss your proposal with your supervisor to ensure the strongest possible supporting statement for your funding application.

After application: after the universities in a DTC have received all the applications for funding, representatives for each recognised subject pathway at each university will meet to agree a list of first choice candidates and a list of reserve candidates for the allocated studentships. These recommendations are then sent to the Executive Board of the DTC for approval. Universities are responsible, not the ESRC, for determining the eligibility of their nominees - but the ESRC will perform random checks throughout the year.

How many can you apply for? As stated above, in any one DTC you may only apply for ONE studentship at ONE university. However, you can apply for more than one studentship so long as the universities you are applying to are members of DIFFERENT DTCs.

A note: Do you have a head for figures?

If you're an economist, or plan to take 'advanced quantitative training' (such as the Essex Summer School), and have an ESRC award, you're eligible for extra cash. This is known as the Advanced Quantitative Methods (AQM) Enhanced Stipend and gives you an extra £3,000 a year. The rationale behind this is a) trying to attract talented economists to research (rather than the lush green pastures, and expensive cars, of Investment Banking) and b) encouraging the production, as a result of government pressure on the research councils, of socially justifiable research - ie. research that can be 'proven' to be of some validity or use (what the AHRC are calling 'economic value'). It is easier, for example, to sell some graphs showing that X causes Y to Joe Public than it is an ethnographic study of check-out workers in Grimsby. The general effect of this has been to provoke untrammeled rage in those who use qualitative research, particularly, it must be said, sociologists (understandably given that observation is the stock trade of social research). As anyone who has sat through an ESRC masters will know, this is particularly ironic given how much of a focus there is on the validity of different epistemological positions in research practice. Hilarious - particularly for the economists.

Edit 2013: there are also some conditions under which residency rules are relaxed for the AQM pathway, although this is down to the individual DTC to decide. See this for further details:

Departmental/University Funding and GTA work

As for the Masters students, there’s usually limited departmental and university funding available for those who aren’t successful, or aren’t eligible for, external awards. Often applying for external awards will be a condition of nomination for this funding, so it’s worth applying for ESRC consideration in the first instance and contacting the relevant departments to ask what other alternatives they may have available. This may involve filling in separate forms, it may not – so ensure that you’re aware in advance of the deadline whether or not this is the case. The difference with PhD awards is that they tend to be more concentrated and more generous – rather than funding say, five people on a fees-only basis, Universities will tend to fund one with a fees-and-stipend bursary. There may be GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant) work associated with the bursary, or there may be the opportunity to do this separately – this is worth doing not only because it’s well remunerated, but because it’s an excellent opportunity to develop your CV and also (dare I say it) fun.


The self-funding option: working and studying part-time

For the PhD, loans aren't available (since it's such a long course) and you're likely to have exhausted your savings by now, so the self-funding options are somewhat different. The main prospect is to study for a part-time PhD (over 5-7 years) whilst working part- (or even full-) time alongside. This is by no means an easy option, and the drop-out rate for part-time PhD students is much higher than full-timers, due to the increased workload, sense of increased isolation, and the sheer endlessness of the task. Nevertheless, several students make it work for them: for example, I've come across numerous part-timers studying in relevant jobs that directly aid them with their social research (such as the police, charities, local government or legal firms). If you've already attained a research masters then you should already have sufficient qualifications for many research jobs.


Other funding Agencies

There are a select number of non-English national funding agencies listed on the ESRC website here, but they have incredibly specific nationality and subject requirements. Their main portal for overseas students can be found here. Charity funding can also be a possible option, as can industry sponsorship. Unfortunately, collated information on these routes are very lacking, so google is probably your friend if you’ve exhausted all the other possibilities. Most UK and EU students will have many other options, and there is usually University provision available for funding especially talented overseas students – but if this draws a blank, try funding agencies in your home country, as many will contribute to UK study - for further information, see this page.


Also See

Got postgrad questions which aren't covered above? Then visit the Postgraduate Forum to get your answers.

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