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 provide funding for different subjects of academic research. The seven councils 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).

Since April 2018, these organisations have been grouped together with Innovate UK and Research England under the umbrella organisation UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). You can learn more about all the Research Councils on the UKRI website.

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 are 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) if you're eligible.

The funding does not have to be paid pack, 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 typically 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 reduced funding.
  • Your residency - If you're a UK citizen, or a European Union (EU) national who has been resident in the UK for three years, you’ll normally be able to receive a full studentship for both living costs and fees. EU nationals who don't meet the residency criteria may still be able to get a fees-only award. In most cases, non-EU international students will not be able to get any Research Council awards.

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 offer you advice for submitting a high-standard application.

If you can't get Research Council funding, you may be eligible for a PhD loan worth up to £26,445 (2020/21). However, 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 specific 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.
  • 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.

Bear in mind that application deadlines vary as opportunities for funding are open throughout the year.

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. There are always more applications than there are grants available.

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 - as while the Medical Research Council supports around 1,900 PhD students at any one time, AHRC made a total of just 635 awards in 2018.

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, and expect assurances that you'll complete your work to a high standard and in keeping with set deadlines.

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