How will Brexit affect PhD students in the UK and Europe?

Britain has voted to leave the European union. How will this affect PhD students in the UK, in Europe and beyond?

The exact form of Britain’s exit (or “Brexit”) is as yet unclear. The result of the referendum is not legally binding so in principle parliament could ignore it, though this seems unlikely. The first major step will be the formal notification to the EU of the intention to leave, which will then trigger a negotiation period of up to two years to decide the terms of the exit. This has not happened yet, and at the time of writing it isn’t clear when it will.

So it will take some time before anything is decided, and in the short-term it probably won’t affect your studies much, and in the long-term things will reach some kind of equilibrium. In the medium-term, though, the next 2 to 5 years or so, there’s a lot of uncertainty and a few potentially worrying possibilities.

leap of faith

Funding and collaborations

The EU funds a significant amount of academic research in the UK, as well as pan-european collaborations involving UK researchers. If you are already on an EU-backed PhD project, it seems unlikely that you’ll lose funding that’s already been assigned to you (though pretty much everything is uncertain at this point).

But even if it doesn’t affect you directly it may affect people around you in negative ways, which may then have negative consequences for you if, for example, your supervisor relies on European funding or collaboration for their research (or their job).

Now it could be that Britain reaches some kind of deal whereby funding and collaboration carries on in much the same way as it does now. If not, it seems unlikely that all collaboration will cease, but until things are sorted out the big problem is the uncertainty; in academia as in business most people are hesitant to make big commitments in uncertain circumstances. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that some European collaborations are already being affected, with some academics being reluctant to join long-term projects with UK researchers.

Jobs and freedom of movement

One of the most prominent and persistently stated aims of the pro-Brexit campaign was to limit immigration. Currently, it is very easy for EU citizens to move between member states for work or study, but this might change – at least between the UK and Europe – in the next few years.

Again, we don’t know what will happen, if anything. If you’re already on a PhD programme it probably won’t affect your studies too much. The big potential problem lies in getting work after you graduate.

Following my PhD, I had to move to France to find a postdoc job that matched my specific skills. My second postdoc was in Spain. In the worst post-brexit case, it could be much harder for British PhD students to get jobs in Europe. It won’t be impossible, but the administrative burden of employing a non-EU citizen could make it harder to compete in an already very competitive job-market.

Of course, not everyone wants to work abroad; but your prospects of academic work in the UK could be affected too. Postdoc jobs need to be paid for by someone; without EU money there could be fewer available.

What to do if you’re already on a PhD programme

In the short-term, stay calm and keep working, but talk to people and stay informed about the circumstances that might affect you.

In the long-term, your best defence is to develop really, really solid research skills and get really, really good at what you do. Whatever happens, you’ll always have more options if you have a well-developed set of marketable skills.

What to do if you’re applying for a PhD in the UK

Ask prospective supervisors if they are funded by the EU and if they might be affected by Brexit. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with EU funded supervisors, but you have to know what you’re getting into.

If you’re a PhD student outside the EU

The pro-Brexit campaign argued that leaving the EU would allow the UK to take the best people from everywhere, rather than favouring those from Europe. In principle, this could mean more opportunities to come to the UK to work.

Like everything else though, it’s unclear whether this will actually happen. Whether it does or not, your best strategy is still to get as good as you can at what you do.

Anything to add?

If you’ve been affected by or are worried about the effects of Brexit, or if you have something useful to contribute, please comment below. If you’ve been following events on news websites or Facebook you’ll know that these discussions can get very ugly very quickly, so I won’t allow any off-topic or inflammatory posts. Stay calm, re-read before posting, and don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to a colleague’s face.

11 thoughts on “How will Brexit affect PhD students in the UK and Europe?”

  1. As a self funded part-time PhD student I’m really hoping that my university doesn’t hike up the fees if they loose EU funding and fees from students outwith the UK. To me, the obvious thing to do is increase fees but this may make it unmanageable for those self funding. Hopefully there would be some agreement in place for those who are already enrolled.

    • It’s certainly worrying, and I can fully appreciate the stress caused by the uncertainty. One way to deal with it though is to decide now what you will do if the fees increase (and what’s the upper limit you can afford). This may mean walking away from the PhD if it becomes completely unaffordable.

      While that’s not the best outcome, it’s not the worst thing that can happen either. I’d certainly avoid going into severe debt to to pay for it.

  2. Thank you for writing this! I’m supposed to be starting an AHRC funded PhD this September and am waiting for confirmation as to whether this will still be going ahead. Admittedly, the funding for my project will come from the UK but thus far the AHRC have only stated that EU students will still receive their fees if they’ve been awarded a scholarship. They’re yet to comment on UK students. I’m not sure whether this is also the case for non-arts and humanities disciplines too?

  3. This. This entire post is what I’ve been trying to express to people ever since I found out about Brexit. And now I have a super well put together resource to send around (backing up that I’m not just paranoid).

    I’ve just finished my second year of PhD in New Zealand. My entire plan for the last 5 years has been to finish my PhD, and then (fingers crossed) get a post doc position in the UK. I’m dual citizen with UK. So physically getting back there again wont be my issue (unlike for some of my peers who aren’t so lucky). But if funding dries up, and there are less post doc positions available, then the likelihood of my dream becoming a reality is slim. Its even more uncertain for me now, given that I have 18-21 months of funding left. So if the pin is pulled, and the formal notification to leave the EU is delivered tomorrow, I’ll be finishing right at that super tricky grey area.

    At the moment I’m just going to keep my head down and work hard. But this has made me really focus on opportunities to make myself more employable once I’ve finished. I’m going to an amazing conference in Munich in October. So I’ve applied to training courses while I’m over, for brand new lab techniques that we don’t have access to in NZ. I’m taking any chance to present my work I can get. I’m also networking harder than before – even though that is something way out of my comfort zone. I’m getting friends who already have post doc positions to put in good words for me, and introduce me to people at workshops and conferences (something I started pre-Brexit, but is even more important now).

    There are a lot of things I can’t control about my future. But there are things I can work on to hopefully improve my chances of success once I do finish. And I’m going to cling to those as my happy thoughts.

    Thanks James for the calm article in a sea of dirt-flinging. 🙂

    • It was quite hard to take a calm position at first- I wrote the post two days after the vote and had to hold off on publishing then come back and rewrite it. I think you’re taking exactly the right approach, and networking will probably be just as important as research skills in the job hunt- both my postdocs came about through personal connections (I didn’t know the people who employed me, but was one step removed).

  4. This is something that I have been thinking about and was wondering how the effect of Brexit would affect students apiring to study for their PhDs in Britain. I still believe I will be able to secure funding and study for my Computer Science PhD in UK God willing.

    • It should still be possible. The majority of UK research is not EU funded, but of course it varies between fields. Talk to the universities you want to apply to and ask their advice.

  5. I’m technically an EU student studying in UK, however I have been here since I was five. I regard the UK as my home. I’m towards the end of my PhD and been looking at post-docs abroad. My worry is that if I do decide to leave for two or three or however many years, will I be able to come back home after?

    • Can you get a UK passport? Even if you don’t do it right now, it’s worth looking at options.

      It may be that the UK keeps allowing free movement in order to keep access to the single market, but it’s an unkown at the moment.

    • Does your home country allow you to have dual citizenship? While the UK is in the EU, having two EU passports is discouraged so you might not be able to start too soon, but you can’t leave it too late either. Having been here 10 years means that you can apply to naturalize as long as you haven’t been out of the country for more than ~500 days in a certain period. Check the details on (I am not an immigration lawyer)

      The fee is currently about £1200 and you’ll need to pass the Life in the UK test, which is actually kind of interesting. I’m in the other boat, having paid the money which I thought would give me access to job markets in 28 countries and now feeling that I’ve been swindled.

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