Every year the seven government-funded UK Research Councils invest approximately £3billion in research - and if you can prove the value of your work, your PhD could be fully funded
Who awards Research Council funding for postgraduate study?
Research Councils provide funding for different schools of academic research. The seven Research Councils, which since April 2018 have been grouped under the umbrella organisation UK Research and Innovation, are:
- Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
- Biotechnology and Biological Science 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 Technologies Facilities Council (STFC)
Each year Research Councils provide roughly 8,000 grants, otherwise known as studentships. This funding is channelled through higher education institutions rather than directly to students - universities have to bid for funding from Research Councils in their areas of research.
How much can I receive?
There are two tiers of Research Council studentship. With figures accurate for 2017/18 entry, these tiers are:
- Fees-only studentship - these cover your tuition fees, plus any associated project and training costs. This is a minimum yearly payment to your university of £4,195.
- Full studentship - on top of your tuition fees, full studentships include a non-repayable annual stipend currently worth a minimum of £14,553 to help with your living costs.
These figures will vary depending on your location, with studentships for London-based institutions generally offering a larger sum. They will also rise with inflation, so your funding has the potential to increase as you progress beyond the first year.
If you're suffering from illness or living with a disability, you may also be eligible to receive Disabled Students' Allowances (DSA).
Am I eligible?
To be eligible for Research Council funding, you'll need to meet a range of criteria:
- Your undergraduate results - holding an undergraduate degree of 2:1 standard or higher.
- 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 enrich 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 a reduced sum of funding.
- Your residency - you must have held ordinary UK residence for at least three years to apply for full studentship.
If you're a student who has lived in an EU country with settled status for the past three years or more, you won't be eligible for the full stipend but should still be able to apply for fees-only funding.
You won't be able to combine Research Council funding with the new PhD loans that are being introduced in 2018/19.
Is my course eligible for Research Council funding?
Research Council studentships are open to both 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 course is eligible for funding, as well as offer you advice for submitting a high-standard application.
How do I apply?
To apply for Research Council funding, before anything else you'll need to have secured a place on a course. You'll then apply for funding through your institution.
While specific application processes will vary, 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 contain:
- A research proposal - the most passionate, driven 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.
- 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 from your undergraduate or postgraduate tutor, your references should be from whoever can comment on your academic achievements or work ethic.
Application deadlines vary as opportunities for funding are open throughout the year. Decisions on who to award grants to are made by the university, not the Research Council, so apply through your chosen institution.
How can I increase my chances of success?
Competition for these studentships is fierce, so you'll need a polished application to stand a chance of being considered. For instance, for 2016/17 entry EPSRC provided funding to 784 of its 2,425 applicants, while NERC funded 480 of its 1,531 applicants - an average of 32% and 31% respectively.
You'll stand a greater chance of receiving funding if your research is in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field. There's more funding on offer for STEM applicants - while the Medical Research Council supported 1,398 studentships in 2016/17, AHRC made a total of 164 awards (just 80 of these being research grants) in the same year.
Your location may also impact your chances of success. Research Councils UK (RCUK) distributed the greatest share of postgraduate funding to the south east in 2015/16 (approximately £724,919), followed closely by London (£662,589), while the north east received a fraction of these amounts (£67,691).
These stats may be influenced by the number of institutions within each region, but are still worth taking into consideration when making your application.
Finally, make sure your application is compelling. Research Councils and institutions want proof that they're funding worthwhile research in a meaningful and interesting area, and assurances that you'll complete your work to a high standard within set deadlines.