If you're planning on studying for a PhD, your first move should be to find out whether you're eligible for a non-repayable Research Council studentship

RESEARCH COUNCIL GRANTS AT A GLANCE

  • Research Councils fund PhD students in different subject areas.
  • Grants can cover tuition fees and living costs.
  • Apply to the university, not the Research Council.
  • You don't have to repay the money.
  • Alternatively, take out a PhD loan.

Who awards Research Council funding for postgraduate study?

Research Councils in the UK provide funding for different subjects of academic research. The seven councils are:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

These organisations are grouped together with Innovate UK and Research England under the umbrella organisation UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This non-departmental public body supports around a fifth of all UK-based postgraduate researchers. You can learn more about the individual Research Councils at UKRI - Councils.

One of UKRI's priorities is funding the training of new researchers, which means that if you're studying for a PhD or research Masters you may be able to access a non-repayable Research Council grant.

Research Council funding is distributed directly to universities based on their research aims. To obtain funding, individual or groups of universities set up Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) or Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) within which they train PhD students.

It's then up to the universities (not the Research Councils) to decide who to award studentships to - usually based on academic merit following a competitive application process.

Contact the university you want to study at to find out what's available, whether you're eligible, what the selection criteria is and how to apply. Your proposed PhD supervisor will be able to help.

How much Research Council funding can I receive?

There are two main parts to a Research Council studentship. In 2020/21 they're worth:

  • £15,285 as a minimum Doctoral stipend to cover living expenses
  • £4,407 for PhD tuition fees.

The figures are slightly higher if you're studying in London due to the high cost of living, and will also typically rise with inflation each year. Additional allowances may be available for specific costs related to your studies.

Research Councils also pay Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs) to those who are eligible.

The funding does not have to be paid back, and grants usually cover the full three or four years of your PhD study.

Am I eligible?

To be eligible for Research Council funding, you'll need to meet a range of criteria:

  • Your undergraduate results - holding a 2:1 or higher undergraduate degree.
  • Extra qualifications and experience - obtaining a Masters degree (or equivalent postgraduate qualification), as well as carrying out professional research or work experience. These aren't necessary requirements but will enhance your application.
  • Your financial situation - Research Council funding is awarded on a merit basis. However, you can't be receiving any other form of government funding or working full time if you're hoping to submit an application. Part-time workers may still be eligible for reduced funding.
  • Your residency - If you're a UK student who's been resident in the UK for three years, you'll normally be able to receive a full studentship for both living costs and fees. European Union (EU) nationals can apply for partial awards covering their PhD fees in 2020/21. After this academic year, you'll be classed as an international student and will be eligible for a full award covering your fees, living costs and other expenses. However, from 2021/22, universities will be limiting the number of studentships available to international students, with this capped at 30% of the institution's total. These changes are to be introduced following Brexit negotiations related to UKRI funding.

Is my course eligible for Research Council funding?

Research Council studentships are open to both research Masters and PhD students, although it's PhD applicants who receive the majority of the funding. Every year, Doctorate research is granted roughly £380million from Research Councils.

Your university department will be able to tell you whether your programme is eligible for funding, as well as offering advice on how to submit a high-standard application.

For those receiving a PhD studentship grant, further help is available in the form of UKRI training and development to support you in getting the most out of your Doctorate.

If you can't get Research Council funding, you may be eligible for a PhD loan worth up to £26,445 (2020/21) - but you aren't allowed to combine the two types of funding.

How do I apply?

You'll normally be able to apply for the funding only after you've been accepted onto a PhD programme.

While application processes may differ, each will follow the same outline. You'll need to be prepared - if you start your research as soon as you've decided you'd like to study for a PhD you'll have a greater idea of what's on offer, what you'd like to do and the steps you need to take to get there.

Your funding application will usually need to contain:

  • A research proposal - the most passionate students, who can show how their research is going to positively impact their career and the field they're working in, are generally more successful. Get tips on how to write a successful research proposal.
  • A justification of resources - this is a breakdown of what you'll be spending and where throughout your studies, and why this spending is important.
  • A personal statement - as well as impressing with your proposal, you might be asked to provide a written statement explaining why you deserve funding. Highlight your financial circumstances but also your skillset and enthusiasm.
  • References - ideally provided by your undergraduate or postgraduate tutor, your references should be from those who can comment on your academic achievements or work ethic.

Generally speaking, applications can be made early in the academic year and will close in January/February, but you should bear in mind that opportunities for funding are open throughout the year so deadlines may vary.

How can I increase my chances of success?

The UKRI awarded 4,269 research and innovation grants and fellowships in 2019/20. Therefore, with competition so fierce, you'll need a polished application to stand a chance of being considered. There are always more applications than there are grants available.

Your prospects of receiving funding are typically higher if your research is in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field. This is because there are more funding places on offer to STEM applicants, particularly in the field of engineering. For instance, while the EPSRC offered 714 PhD grants and studentships in 2019/20, the number of AHRC and ESRC grants awarded totalled just 339 and 370 respectively.

It's also important to ensure that your application is compelling. Universities want proof that they're funding worthwhile research in a meaningful and interesting area. They expect assurances that you'll complete your work to a high standard and in keeping with set deadlines.

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