How to survive doing your PhD when you have no funding? (1)

How to secure funding for your PhD, if you get admitted, is probably one of the most stressful issues the majority of  prospective PhD students are facing. The number of scholarships, grants and awards is limited compared to the number of applications, and very often the main obstacle is not getting an offer, but sorting out your finances. This begs another question: how to do your PhD and fund yourself at the same time?

Navigating the funding opportunities at the same time while preparing your PhD application requires an incredible amount of time, especially if you are an international student and you have no previous experience with the higher education in the country where you are applying for.

Seven years ago I started exploring my PhD options and the first thing I learned about the UK system was that finding a supervisor who is an expert in the topic you would like to write about and who is also willing to supervise you is the key thing. Even if you are the best candidate in the world, without a suitable supervisor you cannot get on board. At that point, I already had six years of research experience and I basically had all the data for my chosen topic collected. Luckily for me, I got two offers at the UK universities and chose Warwick. However, little did I know that while my efforts were focused on supervisors, transcripts, IELTS and references, I completely missed all the deadlines for funding opportunities thinking that scholarship applications take place once you get admitted, and not before or at the same time.

Doing a full-time PhD with no funding is extremely hard, but not impossible. Although I did apply for a scholarship in my first year, I didn’t get it. I also couldn’t get a student loan in my home country because the banks rejected an idea of funding something which is down abroad. Also, my government only offered scholarships to those studying in the country. I found myself in the dead end. My family helped me as much as they could, but due to unforeseen circumstances, I couldn’t afford my third year and, despite upgrading to PhD in my first year, I had to give up and finish my study earning an MPhil degree instead. After years of research and three years at Warwick, not completing a PhD I dreamed about was devastating.

Meanwhile, with a lot of sacrifices, I managed to save enough to start another PhD at Warwick hoping that this time my chances for getting a scholarship would be higher as I already completed an MPhil, had many years of work and research experience and published works. However, this didn’t happen and once again I found myself struggling as a self-funded student supported only by the small Frankopan Fund grant for Croatian students.

The moment I learned the reason behind my unsuccessful scholarship applications felt like going down the rabbit hole at warp 9. Academic grades counted for 50 % of points, while a research proposal, experience and published works meant much less. As a result, my entire CV and everything I had achieved meant very little because my academic grades were very good, but not excellent. The make things worse for me, I got them 10 years before coming to Warwick in the educational and grading systems which were very different and where having First Class was extremely rare. Also, I have been visually impaired since birth with autism which went undiagnosed until I came to the UK, but, as such, I managed to complete three university degrees in my home country with no rights to reasonable adjustments and struggling on an everyday basis to actually read and write. This certainly had a huge impact on my grades, and, unfortunately, my funding opportunities.

My PhD journey has been exceptionally daunting, but it did help me grow personally and professionally. Not many students will be lucky enough to have supervisors with grant money aside or to get a scholarship, which does make entire PhD experience much easier because, instead of focusing on survival, you can actually focus on your thesis. Some students have more opportunities than others because their governments or employers are supporting them, or they are eligible for doctoral loans. However, this doesn’t mean that if you are not one of them, you should give up on your dream. In the second half of this blog post, I will discuss some ideas and tips that can help you to achieve your academic goals when the universe is sending you a not very subtle message that it is not meant to be.

To be continued… 🙂


Have you been struggling with securing funding for your research degree? Are you a self-funded student? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Blanka Matkovic is the 4th year PhD candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, where she previously completed an MPhil degree in History department. Her MPhil thesis was published in the USA in 2017. Blanka’s primary interests are peace and war studies, conflict resolution, migrations and diaspora, human rights violations, the Second World War and war crimes, and dealing with the past and memory. She is the Blog Editor for the PhD Life and the Study Blog. Blanka can be contacted via email and followed on Twitter at @bmsplit.


Cover image: career-road-away-way-of-life-479578 / geraltCC0 1.0

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