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 by Mark Bennett
, posted on 13 Dec '19

Spotlight On: PhD Funding at EPSRC & UKRI Centres for Doctoral Training

Innovation is at the heart of PhD research. After all, a PhD is about making an original contribution to knowledge. But what about innovation in PhD research? Well, that happens too.

Many UK universities now collaborate to offer unique cutting-edge PhD research opportunities – with generous studentships.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) helps fund these, investing around £800 million a year in subjects like Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Computing. Best of all, its Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) have new funding available for the coming academic year.

There's also some extra good news for anyone considering a PhD on Artificial Intelligence as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has invested in additional CDTs exploring this priority subject area.

This blog takes a closer look at these opportunities: how they work, what they offer, who should apply – and how.

What are Centres for Doctoral Training?

Put simply, CDTs exist to train PhD students in specific research areas. These can be very broad, or quite narrow, depending on the size and scope of the CDT in question.

All CDTs are set up by universities with appropriate research interests, expertise and facilities. Some are run by an individual university, but it’s common for a single CDT to be established as a partnership between two or three institutions.

Each CDT receives enough funding for a set number of PhD studentships each year.

How many CDTs are there?

75 new CDTs receieved funding from the EPSRC in 2018. there are also a further 16 UKRI CDTs in Artificial Intelligence commencing funding in 2019. All have their own specialist research objectives and training aims. These are often multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary, combining techniques and expertise from multiple subject areas. Example topics include everything from fluid dynamics and cyber security to medical imagining and nanomaterials. As a student you can choose a CDT that matches your very specific interests.

How do CDTs recruit students?

CDTs offer four-year PhD programmes including a range of additional training and development (we’ll get to this in more detail, below).

This means that CDTs tend to recruit ‘cohorts’ of PhD students each year – a bit like undergraduate programmes. The exact number of places (and studentships) at a CDT will depend on its size.

Why study your PhD at a CDT?

So, what does a CDT offer? First and foremost, your PhD will be generously funded through an EPSRC studentship. This will cover your fees and, if you’re a UK student, you’ll also receive an additional stipend. This is currently set at a minimum of £15,009, for the 2019-20 academic year. Some CDTs may also offer further support for conference travel, fieldwork and other expenses.

There’s more to studying at a CDT than funding, however. Other benefits include:

PhD focus

Whereas a university awards degrees and other qualifications at different levels (including undergraduate and Masters courses), the central aim of a CDT is your training and development as a PhD researcher.

Access to a wide range of expertise

CDTs are designed to offer more than a single university department can. (There wouldn’t be much point creating them, otherwise).

They do this through collaboration – between universities and with external partners such as business and industry.

The academic benefits of this can be simple enough. Why limit yourself to the expertise available at one university when you can also learn from researchers from other institutions involved your CDT, or beyond? Similarly, you'll have access to a wider range of facilities, all hand-picked and prepared for the very specific work your CDT is doing.

Professional benefits are also available. Who better to teach the right transferable skills for your PhD than representatives of organisations that actually employ PhD graduates?

Additional training

It’s in the name, after all. Your CDT will ensure you finish your PhD with more than just a degree.

Your four-year programme will include specific training units focussing on key academic and transferable skills.

These won’t just be an add-on: they’ll be a core part of your PhD experience, enhancing your ability to complete your doctorate – and improving your academic (and non-academic) career opportunities.

Studying within a cohort

It’s traditional to think of a PhD as a ‘solo’ endeavour: you pursue your project, with your research, leading to your thesis. All of that still happens within a CDT, but you’ll be working alongside a cohort of other PhD students.

This provides a more collegiate atmosphere with an informal support structure and opportunities for collaboration.

A cohort-based approach also enhances your networking opportunities. Like you, your fellow students are looking to become part of the next generation of leading scientists and researchers. It’s worth getting to know them.

Industry links

Not all Science and Engineering PhDs lead to a career in academia. CDTs have been set up to recognise this fact. And to make the most of it.

As well as supporting you to earn a PhD, your CDT will make sure that PhD is worth earning (and worth funding) whatever you go on to do with it.

Much of this is done through the additional training and skills development described above.

But CDTs can also take a more direct approach with opportunities to take up placements beyond the university. These will be designed to contribute to your research and give you the opportunity to see how that research is applied in the ‘real world’.

The best way to find out more about the specific benefits offered by CDTs is to take a closer look at them.

The next step – applying to study at a CDT

Specific application and eligibility criteria vary, but the following guidelines are worth bearing in mind:

  • Your PhD will usually last four years full-time. Part-time equivalents may be available.
  • UK and EU students will be eligible for funding, but EU students may sometimes be restricted to a ‘fees-only’ award (Brexit doesn't affect this in 2020-21).
  • The scholarships awarded for study at EPSRC and UKRI CDTs are Research Council funding. You can't combine them with a doctoral loan.
  • CDTs run by multiple institutions will base students at whichever university is most appropriate. This may involve moving between institutions as required for your research and training needs.

Individual CDTs will set their own application criteria and entry requirements. Thankfully, you can view a wide range of EPSRC and UKRI opportunities here on FindAPhD.

Good luck!

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Applying for a PhD studentship

Funded PhD places are very competitive but, as Melanie found, it's definitely worth applying! She shares her tips for success.

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