Living on a PhD stipend in London

When hiring PhD students, I often get asked about money by fresh graduates who are trying to work out “how much is enough?”

But first, some background for the uninitiated. People studying for PhDs in the UK are treated as students, not employees. Furthermore, most science and engineering PhD students are paid a stipend large enough to approximately cover their living expenses. Being a bursary, this is not taxable, and PhD students also get a range of other benefits reserved for the unemployed and/or deserving, such as a waiver of the local property tax, the council tax. The exact amount of the bursary has varied over time – in 1997 when I started my PhD the national minimum set by the physical sciences funding council EPSRC was about £7,100 (in 2011 GBP), whereas today its £13,590.  However, this is a minimum and students in London are usually given about an additional £1200, and students in shortage engineering subjects and/or collaborating with companies are often given a top-up of up to maybe another £4000 (this is the most I have heard of).

So, the bursary paid probably varies between about £13,500 and about £18,000. Now, if you were paying 6% of your salary into a pension, this would be the equivalent of a pre-tax salary of about £16,000 – £23,000. UK average incomes are about £25,000 and average graduate initial salaries are about that sort of number. So, doing a PhD isn’t going to make you rich, but its not a million miles away from a normal graduate salary. For the sort of PhD students I hire they are probably taking a 20% pay cut from what they would get in industry, plus they have to deal with living in London rather than a provincial city like, say, Derby or Nottingham.

Now, the key thing about money is to remember that being a single person living on something similar to UK average earnings shouldn’t be that hard. In fact, whatever our income, we can probably spend it, and more. So the key point about money is this: spend less than you make.

If you spend less than you make, lots of wonderful things happen. For a start, you stop paying your bank interest just to buy food on the day before pay day, because you have a cash balance. You stop having to worry about unexpected bills like the car breaking down, because you have a cash balance. Your friend needs a loan? No problem. Have it as a gift. You want to buy that shiny wonderful thing that promises a better life? Whip out the debit card, because you’ve got the money. If you live within your means, money doesn’t have any power over your life any more.

The way to do this isn’t to be a complete skinflint, its just to be intentional about the choices you make. In the end, you can’t spend more than you make forever. So, given that our desires are probably much greater than our means, spending now means not spending later – spending on credit just means we can avoid acknowledging that fact until the bank forces us to at some point down the road.

How do we be intentional? Its called budgeting. Now, making a budget is easy. The difficult part is making it work. Notice, I didn’t say “sticking to it” – this isn’t an exercise in hair-shirt self-flagellation. You’re not going to stick to it; reality never works out like our plans. The point is to review how things actually turned out – what cost more, what cost less, the things you forgot to include – and revise the budget. Then, you can start to cull the things you don’t need, the things we all spend money on that, it turns out, we wouldn’t spend money on if we went back and did everything over. So the point of the spending review is to learn, reflect and revise.

Now, sorry to say this, but that’s going involve some dull stuff, like downloading bank statements and categorising where the money went. But, do it every 2 weeks or so for 20 minutes and within a couple of months a picture will start to emerge that gives you the information to improve your plan. My big tip here would be – don’t sweat the small stuff. If its less than 5% of your weekly spending, its a drop in the ocean. If you’re spending £15,000 a year, thats 1.5 million pennies. Excel doesn’t even have that many rows in a sheet. So the expression about looking after the pennies might be true, but the thousands of pounds won’t look after themselves – inflation has robbed this pithy little bit of wisdom of some of its power.

Right, so thats the preliminaries. Now the main event? Is £15,000 enough to live on in London? Well, lets call it £300 per week (pw) in round numbers.

If you share a 3-bed flat with two others in zone two, you most likely pay about £120-130 per week. Bills are probably about £3000 a year, or £20 pw. So you have about £150 pw to live on.

Food: Food probably costs anywhere from £30 pw to £60 pw, depending on where you shop, how much you drink and how many restaurants you go to.

Transport: You won’t be driving to work in London! A travelcard from zone 2 costs £24 pw. But you could cycle, or pay more rent to live somewhere walkable, or pay less rent and more in travel. Then, do you want to car in order to get out of town? Could be £2,000 a year in tax, insurance, MOT, maintenance and gas. So thats another £40 pw, before considering capital costs. So transport could be anywhere from about £20 pw to £65 pw, depending on what you do. Me? I cycle, I use streetcar to get out of town (www.streetcar.co.uk) and I take a lot of trains, so in total I spend about £25 pw.  But to get to work, I bike.

After that, everything is optional: clothes, holidays, computers, sky tv, gig tickets, nights in the bar. So of our £150 pw we had after rent and bills, we’re down to probably £35 – £95 pw. I would say you’ll have about £70 pw unless you have a strange attachment to having a car.

How would I spend that? I’d spend £2000 a year on holiday, £1000 on clothes and leisure and I’d give away £500. Giving away money is good. It reminds it that it doesn’t own us.

Now, your sums my vary from mine. If you can’t make it work, remember that you can extend your income a bit by demonstrating and invigilating, maybe by £1000 a year.  You can try and negotiate more pay with your advisor, if he’s got the money. Maybe he does some consulting and could use your help. In essence: you can pay with the income side of the ledger too.

But, academic research doesn’t, as a rule, pay that well. Financially, the main upside is that you can keep going until you get to retirement age – there aren’t a lot of bankers in their 50s. So, if you want to be really well paid, this isn’t the vocation for you.

On the other hand, if you’re curious to find stuff out for yourself, to find new stuff, to ask and answer questions nobody knows the answers to yet, forget about the money, its only a prison anyway. Come and be a researcher! Have fun in your 20s while you still can and do a PhD. Its only for a couple of years, if the money turns out to be important then the PhD meas you’ll catch up in salary terms pretty quick once you go into industry, finance or professional services.

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About dyedavid

Professor iof Metallurgy at Imperial College, London, UK. Specialising in mechanical behaviour of aero-engine and nuclear metals; Ni superalloys, Ti and Zr alloys. Also shape memory and magnetic shape memory and twinning. Interested in atomistic modelling to develop insight into materials behaviour and the effect of alloying
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30 Responses to Living on a PhD stipend in London

  1. Evelien says:

    Thanks for this blog. I am thinking about applying to do my phd at imperial college in engineering. The salary does play a role in my decision because I thought I could not survive on 15000 pounds in London. But after reading the blog I do think it is defninitely possible so probably will apply! 🙂

  2. rosegilbert says:

    Reblogged this on rosegilbert's Blog and commented:
    Great advice.

  3. RAJESH says:

    I LIKE TO KNOW THE SAME DETAILS FOR AN INTERNATIONAL STUDENT (INDIA)’

    • dyedavid says:

      Well, the costs are similar; in the entry I assume that your fees are already paid and that you are just trying to figure out how much you need to live in London as a PhD student. International student fees, the costs of a PhD project and so one are a whole other topic of conversation that is very field dependent. For example, in my field, the fees paid translate into £500 or £1000 that the supervisor gets to run the project, but my projects typically cost upwards of £50,000 to run. So I don’t take students unless I have a grant to pay for the project costs! Good luck!

  4. kasim says:

    Tell me where to buy £30 per week food. Only water costs £15 per week. I haven’t seen anyone drinking London tap water which is acidic and make you vomit at first drink. At cheapest supermarket chains even one microwave food is around 3-4 pounds.

    Let alone drinking and restaurants, what about breakfast ? Room in zone 2 shared with 3 people will definitely kill a science student, who needs quiet and well lit environment to study until dawn.

    • dyedavid says:

      Are you trolling or serious?

      I’ve been drinking tap water my whole life. It’s fine, it easily meets EU water quality standards, every day, always.

      You shouldn’t need to work at home, you have a desk and office. It’s most effective to work regular hours steadily over 3 years than to vainly try to work 24/7, especially for knowledge workers. And this is the beginning of a professional career right? You are learning to be effective working a regular working week – when you have kids then working at odd hours won’t be possible, so you need to learn to be effective now.

      Then, what I quoted was for a shared flat – 1 bedroom each, plus living room, kitchen, bathroom. Certainly not sharing bedrooms – only children and married people do that in the UK. No, that won’t get you a luxury flat inMayfair, but it will get you something decent. Remember, the average Londoner’s pre-tax earnings are about £30k pre-tax, or about £22k after tax. So on £17k as a single person you are better off than many.

      On food, I was thinking of Sainsbury’s. Microwave single meals in convenience stores cost about £3 each, sure. But, these are not nutritiously wise as a main source of food, nor good value. A group of four cooking fresh, real food, can eat well for £10. In fact, a significant public health focus is trying to wean the unwise off of expensive, nutritionally poor convenience food.

      So no, I disagree with your criticisms. If you want to live expensively, and badly, then of course you can do so easily, in any Western city. But it is possible to live economically and well in London if you are intentional about it.

      Good luck!

      • Jeremie says:

        I think 30£pw for food is too low, which means 7*3=21 meal+drinks+desserts for 30£. (or 1.42£ for per meal) I think main problem is rents in London. Universities have to provide cheap and comfortable rooms (may be very small rooms) for their graduate students, especially in London. Conversely, for example, Imperial College doesnt offer any accommodation for PhD students. They have an agreement with “GradPad London” for MSc/Phd students and their prices are starting from 200£ pw for a room. (900£ per month.) It is ridiculously expensive for a PhD student.

      • dyedavid says:

        On costs in general, you will note that this post is now quite old… I’m getting around to revising it with more current costs. But they still aren’t far off. It depends on how you shop and where you eat. If you are sharing a flat then I think you can go to Sainsbury’s and cook a healthy and nutritious main meal for four for £10 (£2.50each), have breakfast of yoghurt and granola for breakfast, and bring in lunch and reheat in a microwave and come in at a total of £4.30 per person per day.

        On your accommodation point, UK universities don’t generally accommodate students except for undergraduates in year 1. I wouldn’t regard all-in packages like “Grad Pad” as best value – wealthy students go for it because its easy, and those sorts of packages are an increasing part of the student / young professional accommodation market in London, but they aren’t cheap, as you observe. The traditional route for students and young professionals in London is to rent a shared flat or house further out and then share the bills, minimise travel costs and cook at home – this is much cheaper.

  5. Irrelephant says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks a ton for writing this blog. It relieved some of my major concerns about relocating to London. I am married and I have been admitted with full scholarship at King’s and I am really looking forward to work on something I am passionate about. I was just wondering, how would living costs scale when I have a partner living with me (shared rooms out of questions because of this) ? Also I have over 6 years of engineering industry experience. Is it possible (i know legally it is according to the Tier-4 visa) to work part time in industry while doing the Ph.D. Would you recommend it? what are your thoughts on this ?
    Thanks again for this blog 🙂

    • dyedavid says:

      Hi there,
      I was looking at the (new) accommodation advice pages that Imperial has the other day, and your post is reminding me that I probably need to update the accommodation costs bit – inflation has occurred since 2011. Food and transport, utilities are essentially flat (CPI=2%), but rents have gone up quite a bit – over 20%. On the other hand, at Imperial, our standard stipend in the Faculty of Engineering is now about £16,500, and the top end is probably now £20,000.

      If you want to do your own research, look up places convenient to your workplaces on rightmove.co.uk, zoopla.co.uk, loot etc. For Kings, you are next to Charing Cross station (to SouthEast London and Kent) and close to Waterloo (to Clapham and points south and west), so I would look at places 20-30 mins train ride from there. E.g. Earlsfield has lots of young families and 20-somethings, and looks on Zoopla to be about £950-£1050 per month for a 1bed flat (£242 per week). I knew a couple who lived in a Studio in Maida Vale for many years, so you could even go smaller and into a more expensive area if you wanted. You are trading cost / space / niceness, basically. Renting somewhere in London takes about 3 weeks, so you are best off to come, then get somewhere temporary for a few weeks while you find somewhere, then move again after 6-12 months once you know the city a bit better.

      I doubt you’ll find part-time professional engineering jobs (readily) in London! But, as I say in the post, there are ways to boost income – tutoring (e.g. maths to kids), university teaching (labs, marking, tutorials), consultancy (via supervisor, probably), summer schools (kids again), outreach, …

  6. Sukitta says:

    Hi,

    I am thinking to apply for phd in London. I am an international student, so I am curious will every phd students in science receives stipend? I will apply phd in science field.

    Sukitta

    • dyedavid says:

      Sukkita,
      This depends on fees status. The UK government provides quite generous stipends for students with a ‘home’ fees status studying in physical sciences and engineering, possibly in biological sciences and medicine as well. ‘home’ is defined here. For overseas students, depending on your nationality, place of residence, academic track record, field and proposed institution of study, then there are a variety of scholarships available. Bear in mind that, in addition to your living costs, fees are around £25k/yr for 3yrs for a PhD in most UK universities in the sciences. At Imperial, in engineering, we have about 800 overseas research postgraduate students (out of 2900). I am guesstimating, but maybe 200 of these are on scholarships we allocate, 100 are CSC, 200 are on other types of scholarship (Malaysian government, for example) and 300 self-funded. Much of this depends on the supervisor and research area – I don’t tend to take self-funded students because of the costs of my projects (maybe £40k on top of the fees), and because of the area that I work in. In some areas, you also have to be aware of ATAS clearance – i.e. I would probably not be allowed to take an Iranian national to work on titanium alloys for jet engines, whereas automotive steels would probably be OK. As with all things in a PhD, you need to find both a supervisor and funding – a coupled problem.

  7. KWAME says:

    wow, really informative. i just got a Phd Scholarship to study in London south bank with a stipend of 15000 pounds/ year. i have a wife as well that a i plan bring along to the UK (am Ghanaian).would i be able to save enough and survive whiles studying for the 3 years period?

    • dyedavid says:

      It depends on how expensively you want to live! But, if you set an accommodation budget of £120 pw, then look at findproperly.co.uk, it gives you lots of options within a 45 min commute by public transport. South Bank is close to Waterloo, so trains that get you into Waterloo or tube lines that serve Waterloo will be your friend. On moving to London, or anywhere, probably the place you first rent is just a landing point for 6 months while you find your way around the city and make friends anyway, and then find somewhere the optimises the commute/space/distance tradeoff to your satisfaction.

  8. Ali says:

    Hi,

    I have an offer from Imperial College with a £16000 scholarship (tax-free). Is it possible for a married Phd student to live with this stipend? I am really concerned about the renting prices, and if I rent a house in the suburbs, the transportation costs might be high…

    Thanks, Ali

    • dyedavid says:

      Nb the costings in this post are a few years old now. But they are still in the right ball-park. Look at findproperly.com to get ideas about costs/commute time and areas. Its well worth finding ways to cut your commute costs, like cycling. If your partner is working, then yes, absolutely, £16k is enough. If not, then its trickier. I doubt you’ll afford to rent a whole house unless you live a long way away – I know investment banker couples who live in studios. But, very many people live in London on £16k cash per year, it all depends on what lifestyle you ‘need.’

  9. karunakar says:

    Dear David,

    I have admission to UCL with studentship of 20500 Pound/Year (tax free) (its by Alan Turing institue) and tuition is also paid by them, I am married with 2 minor kids.

    Can i get family visa with this scholarship and is it feasible to bring family and leave comfortably in London with this money. I have 9 yrs of IT experience.

    Regards,
    Karunakar

    • dyedavid says:

      In UK/London terms, thats quite a high studentship level, very prestigious. For a single person living in London, sharing a flat, it would be ample, with money left over to travel on holiday and so on. They wouldn’t be wealthy, but as a student stipend, it would be generous.

      Family costs of living etc are _much_ more complicated. Probably yes, you can get a visa for your dependents with a student visa – the UK is quite liberal about family life issues, even given the negative rhetoric about immigration. I don’t know if your spouse would be able to work while in the UK, what any professional cross-recognition issues might be, and so on. Your children would be entitled (and required) to go to (free, state) schools, would get NHS healthcare etc.

      Probably a family of four can live on £20k/yr net income living in one of the outer suburbs – lots of people do. But, the median (gross of tax) household income in London is £39k/yr (source: google “london median family income”). According to the IFS, you’d be in the 12th percentile of UK household income (https://www.ifs.org.uk/wheredoyoufitin/). So you wouldn’t be wealthy – but then, UK female employment is >67% (link) – single earner households will tend to be poorer than most, assuming the kids are school age and don’t need to be in nursery. So it really depends on whether your partner can or wants to work – you will need to explore the visa and employment issues fully.

      Probably you need to visit London and spend a few weeks really doing the research on the ground in order to really make an educated decision, with so much cost and effort at stake.

      Best Wishes!

  10. Phd Notepad says:

    Woow! I have taken notes on how to financially plan to thrive as a Phd student in London from your post even though this is about 6 years old now since you posted it.

  11. errtins says:

    Hello,
    I got a scholarship for Imperial, 314pw and I am single.
    To work in South Kensington, which areas should I look at to rent? I have read that South Kensington itself is super expensive.

    Which areas have a commute which doesn’t sap you? Which are the most popular among staff?

    Thanks for the blog.

    • dyedavid says:

      findproperly.com is my top tip for area/commute matching. Surface tube is better than deep tube – ie west on the Picadilly and District lines. Even better is bike. There are lots of areas to think about – Battersea/Clapham, Ealing, Acton Town among many.

  12. Students who struggle to live on a stipend are usually people who drink a lot and eat out all the time. When you cook and bring lunch with you, food expenses aren’t too bad. Also, at Imperial we’re lucky to have nice restaurants – in SCR you can get a filling and delicious hot lunch for just over 4 GBP. I prefer this place than most restaurants 🙂

  13. Jenna says:

    Hello David,

    Thanks for the really helpful comments. I was just offered a position to study an MSc. in Biomedical Engineering at Imperial. I am an international student and am looking into what is the most economical choice for places to live. My preference would be to share a flat, but since I am international, do you have any tips on where or how I could get into contact with other students in the same position as me? I heard GrabPad was a good place to look, but it appears to be expensive. Also any other tips on living in London would be most appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Jenna

    • dyedavid says:

      Dear Jenna,
      Imperial has got a lot better at this in recent years – see the guide at the Accomodation Service pages. Also worth looking at findproperly.com – website that does travel time calculations and property searches. The rental market in London is quick quick turnover – probably a search would take 1 week, then move in 3-5 weeks later. So a common strategy when moving cities is to move somewhere close-ish by on your own for the first few months (e.g. specialist student accommodation), get some friends together and then once you have been able to walk some candidate areas and get to know the city, search with them and rent somewhere together going forward. As well as specialist private student/graduate accommodation there are sites like spareroom.co.uk that are worth looking at. But again, you need to be physically here to meet people and look at places – don’t rent somewhere without seeing it! Probably you end up paying a premium for the specialist student / recent graduate accommodation for the first few months that you can safely rent from afar, if that is the way you go, then once you have people to rent a house with friends, costs will come down.

  14. Fik says:

    Hi. This post remains very helpful, even though it’s a couple of years old. I just got a PhD offer (paid) at Essex with a stipend of 14k. Now, it’s not clear if it’s per year or not. Is it possible for it not to be per year? I really hope it is per year cos I couldn’t function otherwise if it isn’t. Do you have any advice on how to function optimally with these funds in Essex? Both in terms of rent and other living expenses. Also, what’s your advice on successfully finishing the PhD in 3 years? How do I plan my time and create some sort of timetable to help me out? Thanks

    • dyedavid says:

      Would be £14k/yr probably, that sounds like the research council ex-London rate, see http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/skills/training/. You can cycle in Colchester, so no tube costs. Food, utilities etc are similar. A 4-bed house (sharing) looks like its £1000-£1500 per month on rightmove.co.uk, so about £75/wk – about half the cost of London (about £75 per person per week). So you would be quite a bit better off (£2000/yr?) than in London (where the stipends are a bit higher), as long as you didn’t run a car.

  15. f says:

    Hi David. This blog is very interesting as my partner is soon beginning a PhD at Imperial and we have both been quite concerned about costs. He will be based at the Sillwood Park campus and I will be working at the South Kensington campus. Do you have any recommendations for good areas to live that would work well for us both?
    Also, if we lived in say, Earlsfield, do you think this would be a horrific drive out to the Sillwood campus? Trying to work out if driving would be cheaper than train! thanks 🙂

    • dyedavid says:

      Earlsfield is a reasonable area for South Ken – I know people who live there, its nice. Remember the Vauxhall or Wimbledon options as well as the mainline stations. For Sillwood, I just don’t know; I’ve never been there. Usually driving in the outer suburbs and M25 region of London in rush hour is horrible, but millions willingly do it every day – its just not my cup of tea. So I would try to find a public transport option even if you intend to usually drive.

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