As the name suggests, the Medical Research Council (MRC) is the main source of Government funding to advance medical research in the UK. MRC PhD studentships ordinarily cover fees and maintenance as well as providing an additional support grant for research training.
This guide will explain how MRC funding works for PhD students, focusing on the different types of studentships, who is eligible and how to apply.
The MRC is one of seven Research Councils that make up UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Each council manages its own UK Government budget for training and research, some of which is allocated to PhD studentships.
The MRC support research across all of the medical sciences. Like other research councils, this research is carried out in universities. In some cases universities direct MRC-funded research within Doctoral Training Partnerships. However, the Council also maintains its own research units, institutes and centres within universities where it takes a more immediate role in directing ground-breaking research, including at PhD level.
The MRC funds PhDs in all medical subjects, such as:
There are also some interdisciplinary funding opportunities offered by the MRC in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) or the Biotechnology and biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
The MRC funds around 1,900 PhD studentships each year out of budgets allocated to universities as well as MRC units, institutes and centres. A typical MRC PhD studentship has four main components:
To receive funding, students apply to projects advertised by research organisations, such as universities or MRC units, institutes and centres. You don’t apply directly to the MRC for PhD funding.
Projects advertised by universities are offered within university Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) or as industrial Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering (iCASE) studentships. Other studentships schemes, such as the MRC integrative Toxicology Training Partnership (iTTP) in the Toxicology unit, are also available.
The funding opportunities described on this page are for Medical PhDs. Other members of Research and Innovation allocate their own Research Council studentships for different PhD subjects.
The MRC Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) are set up by individual research organisations or regional networks.
DTPs receive funding for certain number of PhD studentships from the MRC and use this to provide additional training and professional development opportunities.
Currently, the MRC funds the following DTPs:
Cambridge MRC Doctoral Training Partnership
Lead by the University of Cambridge, along with the Babraham Institute.
Discovery Medicine North (DiMeN)
Dundee MRC Doctoral Training Partnership
Based at the University of Dundee.
Great West 4 (GW4)
Imperial College London MRC Doctoral Training Partnership
Based at Imperial College London.
Integrated Midlands Partnership for Biomedical Training (IMPACT)
King’s College London MRC Doctoral Training Partnership
Based at King’s College London.
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) and Lancaster MRC DTP
London intercollegiate DTP
Lead by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, along with St George’s University of London.
Manchester MRC Doctoral Training Partnership
Based at the University of Manchester.
Oxford MRC Doctoral Training Partnership
Based at the University of Oxford.
Precision Medicine Doctoral Training Programme
Translational Immunology, Inflammation and Cancer MRC DTP
UCL-Birkbeck MRC DTP
Warwick MRC Doctoral Training Partnership
Based at the University of Warwick.
Each DTP has its own research themes that its studentships support, so it’s worth checking that these cover your area of interest.
The benefit of studying within a DTP is the focus on broader training and in most cases a partnership with other research organisations.
Although you will be studying primarily at the university you applied to, you will also have the option to spend time at other universities or institutions within the partnership. This will give you access to other facilities and widen your research opportunities.
Most studentships last 3.5-4 years full time, depending on the route you take. DTPs can either offer a 1+3 model with an incorporated MRes or a straight 3.5-4 year PhD.
Specifics on each programme can be found on the DTP websites, as they all offer slightly different structures.
Overall, you will be studying within a cohort of other PhD students, attending additional training, team building exercises and conferences together. Most DTPs have a student-led symposium programme where PhD researchers present their work in progress to the whole DTP.
It is possible for some MRC PhD projects to be advertised as industrial Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering (iCASE) studentships. This is where a non-academic industry or business partners with a university to offer additional training and resources that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
Typically, the research project is developed between a university in an existing MRC DTP and an industrial partner. Such projects tend to focus more on potential commercial outcomes.
You will need to spend at least 3 cumulative months working within the facilities of the collaborator. Because of this, MRC iCASE students won’t normally complete lab rotations at the start of their PhD.
You will receive the same MRC funding for your PhD, but your industrial collaborator may cover additional costs for your research / equipment.
Although you may not follow the same programme structure, you are still part of the DTP cohort and will be able to access its training, workshops and symposiums.
iCASE studentships are usually awarded by universities in a DTP. You apply for an iCASE project through individual universities.
The best way to find an iCASE studentship is to check the details for the DTPs listed above, or search for advertised opportunities.
Set up in partnership between academia, industry and government, iTTP studentships seek to build expertise in Toxicology and related subjects.
The two main aims are to: develop drugs, chemicals and consumer products and to improve risk assessment of risk to health resulting from environmental exposure. The iTTP is funded as part of an MRC investment in the Toxicology Unit (based at the University of Cambridge).
The Toxicology Unit is one of the MRC’s Institutes, Units and Centres which are led by an assigned expert scientific director to promote novel high-risk approaches to develop innovative methodology and technology.
You will study your PhD within the Toxicology unit and includes training opportunities to encourage development of academic research skills. As with other studentships, you will gain experience in written and oral presentation of your work, as well as toxicology-specific training.
In addition to the Toxicology Unit, the MRC funds several other named institutes, units and centres. These often exist within universities, or in close partnership with them, but carry out more specific research to a remit set directly by the MRC.
Some institutes, units and centres are set up through partnerships between the MRC and other medical research organisations. One of the flagship examples of this format is the Francis Crick Institute, set up by the MRC alongside the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and three colleges of the University of London.
There are currently 49 different MRC institutes, units and centres. Many offer their own PhD training and funding opportunities.
Student eligibility for MRC PhD funding follows the same criteria as the other UKRI research councils.
In August 2020, the UK Government announced that in the 2021-22 academic year international PhD students would be eligible to apply for Research Council studentships, including the annual stipend and a contribution towards tuition fees.
MRC-funded studentships are competitively awarded to the best applicants for each project.
The MRC expects applicants to hold a qualification at the level of a ‘good honours’ degree, usually a first or upper second (2.1) in a relevant BSc subject.
Having a Masters degree is not always necessary, as you will receive equivalent training during your first year, but an MSc or MRes may help offset a lower honours grade (2.2).
It is always a good idea to tailor your application for MRC funding, so check the background for each project and pay close attention to its specifications.
Students in full-time work are not eligible for full MRC funding. If you are receiving a full studentship, the stipend should be enough for you to live off of.
You are allowed to work part-time. However, students in part-time work may only be eligible for a part-time award. After all, your PhD project is a substantial time commitment and has a large workload, particularly in medical subjects.
You cannot combine MRC funding with a PhD loan (or any other form of government funding).
Applications are not made directly to the MRC but to the research organisations that will host your PhD. These can be found on specific DTP websites, on the university websites or here on FindAPhD.
Most MRC projects have a pre-defined project aim (such as an iCASE project). Applying for these PhD opportunities is a lot like applying for a job: you must demonstrate that you meet the requirements outlined in the project advertisement and will be a good fit for the position.
However, some MRC DTPs offer more flexible scholarships where you will spend the first year doing lab rotations after which you will submit a research proposal. There are a set number of scholarships and students are accepted on a competitive basis.
It is unlikely that a university (or other institution) will provide MRC funding to a student who has designed and proposed their project completely independently.
To apply for an MRC scholarship, you first need to find an advertised opportunity at a DTP or other institute with funding. Once you have found one you would like to apply for, you should read the description and prepare the necessary application materials.
You will usually need to include a personal statement (providing information on your academic background, experience and research interests), covering letter (demonstrating your suitability and your interest in the project) and CV with appropriate referees.
If your application is successful, you will then be invited for a PhD interview and given the opportunity to discuss the PhD with you in more detail.
DTPs usually start advertising MRC studentships around September / October for the following autumn semester.
Here are the application deadlines for PhD studentships at MRC DTPs for projects beginning in the 2020-21 academic year:
The iTTP is currently advertising PhDs and has an application deadline of 10 February.
These are the deadlines for PhDs starting in October 2021 You can use them to get an idea of the deadlines for 2022 but they may change. You can sign up for our free PhD newsletter to stay up to date on new project advertisements and we’ll email you each week with updates.
Applications for MRC funding are competitive. Here are some tips:
Most DTPs will provide an expected timeline on when you should hear back about your application, when interviews are expected to take place and when successful candidates will be notified.
Last updated – 14/01/2021