Nine out of 10 postgraduates are worried about how to fund their study, according to Graduate Prospects. It's not surprising – further degrees cost an average of £15,000 a year with living costs, and financial support is fragmented and bureaucratic. But professional advisers say that students who stick with applications will be rewarded.

"There's a lot more funding out there than students think," says Jane Penrose who runs Postgraduate, a website that brings together all the sources of postgraduate funding in one place.

"It requires quite a lot of patience because the criteria vary enormously – you have to be prepared to plough through the information – but it is there for those who persevere."

Penrose says the first step is to decide what course you want to do and where. Research councils such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) give grants to universities teaching their subjects across the UK, which help fund postgraduate places that are open to all. Many offering such grants – including Stirling, Southampton, Oxford and Manchester – have application deadlines in the spring.

"Graduates need to make the time to draft strong applications," says Jake Gilmore, communications manager at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which funds more than 1,300 related PhDs and Masters across the UK every year. "There's a lot of competition – students have a one in five chance of winning our grants, on average – but it's worth doing."

Gilmore says postgraduate funding has increased over the past five years, with the AHRC allocating £44.3m worth of funds to universities this year compared to £33.5m in 2005-2006. "We're offering more funding opportunities than ever, but applicants keep increasing. Students are realising we're living in a generation where research skills are paramount, not just in academia, but for vocational and practical jobs too."

If your chosen course doesn't come with a funding application attached, there are three other options. Livery companies offer funding pots, often to help the next generation of employees into their field. They give support to postgraduates studying everything from mainstream subjects to the obscure. The Worshipful Company of Musicians and the Worshipful Company of Weavers are worth checking out. Similarly, private companies – particularly law firms – will offer funding, usually with a commitment to work for them in future.

Thomas Neumark Jones, 27, had his MSc in housing and regeneration at LSE funded by Octavia, the housing association he was working for at the time. Over the two years, his employer covered the university's £9,000 fees. In return, he was required to carry on working for them during his part-time course, and for a further year after graduation.

"There's no way I could have afforded to do the course on my own," he says. "I didn't mind the forms, but it was very competitive. I had two interviews – one with the housing association and one at LSE. Most of the people I know who have wanted to do a Masters have managed to find the funding somehow."

Alternatively, you can look to charities. They can be tied to gender, such as the grants offered by the British Federation of Women Graduates; to religion, such as the Anglo-Jewish Association; or to medical research, such as the Arthritis Research Campaign. For those interested in international study, there's the African Wildlife Foundation, or the Anglo-Danish Society which funds postgraduate study in Denmark.

"You might well find yourself having to top up grants with other sources," says Penrose. "But it's worth looking to see if one applies to your chosen area of study."

You may, however, need to fall back on private funding. Career development loans are available from most banks; or, if you're lucky, some combination of mummy, daddy and work will get you through. If not, you can always come back next year.