Media buying agreements for University student marketing are generally awarded for targeting UG and PG students – not PGR.

However, this is not unusual, as most client tenders for media buying don’t include this. But that’s not to say it is an area that couldn’t be capitalised on. Advertising PhD studentships can be a productive way for agencies to increase their influence and help build brand awareness for the client.

This blog will share some insights as to how a media agency can include PhD Studentships as part of the mix.

What part does research play in a university?

This might seem an obvious question but it’s worth remembering how universities are structured.

Universities and HE institutions function on three basic levels: – they educate to meet the demand for skills, they generate world class research, and they drive innovation for economic growth. As student recruitment marketers, most of our time is focused on the first objective, but without all three working in concert then universities would not function.

A sizeable share of university postgraduate activity is focused on research studentships. Most of these are individual PhD placements attracting funding from the Research Councils, or they are supported by the individual university as part of its portfolio of faculty research, often in collaboration with industry.

The advertising of funded PhD studentships is a side of university marketing that is not always managed by the student recruitment teams. Though PhD studentships count towards a university’s student numbers, they are included within the costs associated with research priorities and other areas of governance.

The source of funding for PhD studentships is primarily awarded through the Government in the form of the Research Councils, and Universities bid for the award of these funds as they are released. Universities can also be recipients of substantial individual donations or charitable bequests tied to areas of research.

Research projects can span a number of years, so HE institutions have to manage their resources appropriately.

A university will have its share of ‘world ranked’ academic researchers, and the larger establishments will invest in luring them from one institute to another in order to build up their strengths in certain research areas, which will elevate their REF profile. This ultimately leads to more success in winning research bids, so the whole process feeds itself.

Who are the decision makers?

Research-led universities devolve responsibility for advertising studentships to the admin teams supporting individual faculties, a Doctoral College and occasionally individual professors. Some universities award a block of studentships yearly, then they invite students to apply, and they manage their recruitment at set times of the year.

This can also sometimes include the Human Resources teams because funded studentships that include a stipend are in effect employment contracts. Media purchasing decision makers can be outside the day-to-day operations of the student marketing department.

However when it comes to brand decisions and profile, then the comms team are closely involved in championing individual researchers once the project has been peer reviewed, and this can be a number of years after the initial project commenced.


The timing of the funding award is generally flexible, and the decision can happen at a number of points throughout the year. A university can be awarded funding for a project which can last up to three years, so a department will only draw upon the funds when they are in a position to conduct the recruitment process.

This can also depend on external factors such as the involvement of an industry sponsor or perhaps collaboration with another university. The volume of awards offered by Government funding is dependent upon other factors related to the wider political focus.

For the prospective candidates the timings follow a more traditional lead time, and many users of our sites start their search for a PhD in the early spring with the intention of enrolling in the late autumn. It can take a lot longer to achieve that goal.

What can I recommend for my clients?

Understanding and influencing this complex arrangement of funding sources, research priorities and doctoral study entities is tricky, and many media agencies keep this side of their client relationships at arm’s length. While it is possible to recommend search and social campaigns to clients as a means of brand building this is a difficult niche to influence.

Websites such as Postgraduate Studentships are set up to service the demand that is there to be met. We work with the university research centres and Doctoral Colleges to advertise their research scholarships and promote them to a captive audience of candidates who are actively looking for PhD opportunities. Media agencies can be part of this arrangement because they have a close affiliation with their clients needs.

By working in concert with us we can showcase the additional traction drawn towards a Research Centre by profiling the contribution they make. The more information about academic expertise and research impact that a university can share with a wider audience the greater the interest in their research portfolio.

How can Postgraduate Studentships help?

We present these campaigns in two ways: –

  • The core messages and key information of the individual studentships is presented as a full page advert, and this is highly detailed specification, however we link out to associated research and study information related to the university.
  • In addition, we encourage universities to blend their messaging into a corporate style study finding page advert, which allows the client to focus on the key messages regarding funding and research support. In this way we are able to raise the profile for the brand and then maximise the exposure to the requirements of the role as well as the institution or research specialty.

We have a number of case studies where this technique las led to great results for the client as well as being a smart way to wrap up additional campaign coverage into the media plan.

Using research and PhD studentships to reinforce brand values

While many masters degree students will go into work when their MA/MSc has been completed, a large proportion will want to stay on in order to extend their knowledge in a particular area and contribute to new discoveries.

The MRes qualification is designed specifically for this, as it enables a masters student to complete an accredited research award. If available they can  stay on to work towards a PhD, as an extension of the study progress they have already made. The MRes and MPhil types of qualification are great ways to build student success stories that reinforce brand awareness.

On our sites we present the research profile of a university alongside its research studentships, and we populate the content with news articles, research case studies and video content. While individual studentships are advertised only during certain times of the year the overall mix of content and collaborations reinforces the profile of the institution. This encourages users to make repeat visits for the latest updates.

This is backed up by regular email communication we offer so that users are kept aware of the latest projects as well as the relevancy of a specific institution in regard to its latest published research and investment in research facilities, industry collaborations and news.

Greater awareness = growing interest

We don’t need reminding of the part played by world class UK university research since the global pandemic turned our lives upside down. Public awareness of the vaccine research at the University of Oxford, manufacturing companies such as Astra Zeneca and Pfizer and all the associated studies of origins and transmission rates have now entered our daily vocabulary.

Being able to share this type of research content has elevated the awareness of many university departments and will certainly continue to do so for a number of years.

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