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Posted on 23 Sep '21

7 Things You Should Know About Research Council PhD Studentships

Thinking of appling for a PhD, or already doing so? There's a good chance you've heard something about Research Council funding by now. If you haven't, you're going to want to.

In a nutshell, the seven UK Research Councils distribute public funding for research in the UK - including funding to train new researchers. Like you.

The problem is that Research Council funding doesn't actually come in tins. Or nutshells. It doesn't grow on trees, either, but you've probably had enough of the mixed metaphors by now.

So, what do you need to know about Research Council PhD studentships? And what do you need to do to be in with a chance of receiving one?

In this post I'm going to walk you through the key points.

#1 This is normally full funding, for UK students (but eligibility is changing)

Lets start with the most important bit: if you're a UK citizen, a Research Council studentship will normally provide full funding for your PhD.

Your fees will be covered and you'll receive a 'doctoral stipend' paid to you, tax free. This is currently set at £15,285 and it goes up with inflation each year.

EU students are also eligible for Research Council funding in 2020-21 but you'll usually only receive a fee waiver.

Until recently, Research Council studentships were only avilable to UK and EU students, but this has changed with the introduction of UKRI funding for international students in 2021. Now a certain amount of full studentships are available to international students, though fees will only be convered at the domestic (UK rate).

#2 You don't apply for Research Council funding directly

It sounds counter-intuitive, but you shouldn't actually apply for a studentship from the Research Councils themselves. Instead, the funding is allocated to universities in advance (it's actually allocated across networks of universities, but we'll keep things simple for now).

So, you actually apply for Research Council funding from the university you want to do your PhD at. How you do this depends on the kind of PhD you're applying for.

  • Advertised projects (common in STEM) will already have studentships attached. The best applicant gets the PhD place and the funding – like a job with a salary.
  • If you're proposing your own PhD topic (common in the Arts, Humanities & some Social Sciences) you should apply for a place at your university and then apply for one of its studentships.

#3 We can help you find it

Each of the Research Councils organises and awards their funding a little differently and things can get confusing if you're trying to make sense of the different opportunities for the first time. Pretty soon you find yourself reading about a DTP from the AHRC for a PhD. . . and it all starts to look like alphabet soup.

That's why we've put together detailed guides to each of the Councils.

These pages explain where each Council's funding is currently allocated, what it offers and how best to apply!

#4 You can't have Research Council funding at the same time as a doctoral loan

The UK also offers student loans for PhDs. Eligibility for these is actually the same as Research Council studentships (UK and EU students) but you can't have both at the same time.

More specifically, you can't ever have a doctoral loan once you've received any Research Council funding. But you can switch from a loan to a studentship (provided you cancel the loan as soon as this happens).

This means you can use the doctoral loan as a kind of 'back up' option in case you don't win a Research Council studentship before your PhD starts or don't have time to apply for one. That way you've still got the chance to swap over if you manage to (re)apply successfully.

#5 You'll be able to apply soon

Applications for separate Research Council studentships (for self-proposed projects) usually open around October or November. This is when you'll be able to make the case for why your PhD topic should be one of those that gets funded. Remember that you'll normally need to have your PhD application accepted by the university before you can apply for funding.

Pre-funded projects can technically be advertised at any time, but you might see more appearing in the autumn as universities allocate your funding for the next year. Sign up for our free PhD newsletter and we'll send you regular updates as new projects are added in your chosen subject(s) – it couldn't be more simple.

#6 You should start preparing soon too

Deadlines for Research Council studentships vary, but it's common for completed applications to be required by the end of January or February at the latest.

This doesn't give you as long as you might think. Research Council funding is competitive, so you'll need to make sure your application is too. That probably means putting together a compelling personal statement, sourcing appropriate references and getting your academic CV in shape.

And remember: if you're proposing your own PhD, you'll also need to have that project idea accepted by your university before you apply for a studentship to complete it.

#7 There are a few things that could help you succeed

I mentioned above that Research Council funding is competitive. And it is. Around 8,000 studentships are awarded each year, but the number of applicants is far, far higher than that.

To be successful, you'll need to do the following:

  • Start early - Late or incomplete applications are 100% guaranteed to fail.
  • Read the details - Make sure you understand exactly what's required for your application and the kind of applicant this studentship is looking for. Show you're a good fit. And that you can follow directions on an application form.
  • Think beyond the qualification - The Research Councils want to train promising researchers and, ideally, fund research with a positive impact. If you don't know what 'impact' means for PhD research, start here.
  • Get your supervisor's advice - If possible, discuss your application with your prospective PhD supervisor. This is especially valuable if you're proposing your own project (and making a case for it).
  • Apply on time - We mentioned this, right?

If you want to learn a bit more about Research Council funding, you can check our detailed guide and FAQ, or visit the UKRI website.

Good luck!

You may also like...

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How Research Council funding actually works

Chris explains what it's like to actually study with a Research Council studentship, as part of a BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership.

Getting started with your PhD application

Looking for some more general advice on PhD applications? This blog breaks the process down into seven steps.

Last Updated: 23 September 2021