The seven publicly funded Research Councils are the UK's biggest source of PhD funding, awarding around 8,000 studentships every year across all academic areas
These grant-awarding bodies invest £3billion in research every year, making them the country's chief investors in postgraduate education. However, competition for funding is intense - according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), just 15% of PhD students receive financial backing.
The seven grant-awarding Research Councils are:
- Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
- Medical Research Council (MRC)
- Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
- Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
How much can I receive?
Research Council UK studentships fully cover your tuition fees, while you also receive a cost of living grant. Commonly known as a 'stipend', this was worth at least £14,057 in 2015/16 and can be higher for candidates in high-priority study or geographic areas.
Additional funds may be available to disabled students to cover related costs through the Disabled Students' Allowances (DSA) fund. Research Councils UK expect universities to have suitable student recruitment procedures in place, and to follow best practice on recruitment, selection and equal opportunities in order to identify and recruit students of outstanding achievement and potential from all backgrounds.
However, the grants aren't just about the money. For example, AHRC awards provide access to an International Placement Scheme and, if the PhD project is a Collaborative Doctoral Award, work opportunities may be available with partner organisations.
Research Council grants allow PhD students to gain a wide variety of high-level skills, knowledge and experience through the research and development that they undertake during their study, enabling them to pursue a diverse range of opportunities.
Am I eligible for a Research Council grant?
To receive a Research Council grant, there are two aspects of eligibility: academic and residential.
First and foremost, you must be studying a research Masters or PhD. New Route PhD programmes, which are a one-year taught Masters followed by a three-year Doctorate, are also eligible.
You must also typically hold a relevant first-class or 2:1 Bachelors degree in a relevant subject. However, funding may be granted if you have demonstrable experience in your chosen field, gained equivalent qualifications outside of the UK, or have already undertaken postgraduate study. Awards are open to both full- and part-time students.
Applicants must also fulfil residential criteria to become eligible for the full award. You must have:
- a relevant connection to the UK;
- settled status in the UK, meaning that you have no restrictions on how long you can stay;
- been an 'ordinarily resident' in the UK for at least three years prior to the application, meaning that you must have been living in the UK apart from temporary absences;
- not have been living in the UK wholly or mainly for the purpose of full-time education if you're a non-European Union (EU) national.
How do I apply for a Research Council grant?
Every spring, Research Councils UK allocates funding for the forthcoming year to chosen academic institutions. Therefore, applications should be submitted to your selected university several months before the course begins - usually April or May. Sometimes, the faculty will contact eligible students directly - but don't count on this.
Lists of available studentships, alongside further information relevant to PhD students, can be found on individual Research Council websites. Once you've ascertained that your chosen institution has grants available, contact them for advice on further eligibility requirements and how to apply.
Regardless of your subject or university, be prepared to make an extremely strong case for financial support in your application. Gaining funding for a PhD can be highly competitive, so it's important that you articulate a clear sense of the issues that you want to explore, and your motivation for pursuing them. You should also identify who might be best placed to supervise your work.
Don't be deterred by the large number of postgraduates applying for the relatively small amount of available funding. If you're studying a specialist or high-priority subject, you're competing against fewer people and so have a greater chance of success. For example, it's easier to get funding in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects than those in arts, humanities and the social sciences. Location is also a factor.