The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the main source of UK government funding for PhD students in natural and environmental research. NERC PhD studentships cover tuition fees and / or maintenance, as well as additional research and training costs.
In this guide, we’ve covered how NERC PhD funding works, who is eligible and how you can apply.
The NERC is one of seven Research Councils that make up UK Research and Innovation (URKI). Each of these councils manages a budget for supporting research in their subject areas, some of which goes to training PhD students.
The NERC funds PhDs in Environmental Science subjects, such as:
The NERC also funds some interdisciplinary opportunities in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
The NERC currently funds around 350 students a year. These students receive the national minimum stipend set by UKRI:
These values will increase annually with inflation and you will receive the new amount each year.
The NERC provides funding for a certain number of studentships to universities and other research institutes, who advertise PhD projects supported in this way. You don’t apply directly to the NERC for PhD funding.
These projects are usually advertised either through Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs), Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE) or Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs).
The funding opportunities described on this page are for Economic and Social PhDs. Other members of Research and Innovation allocate their own Research Council studentships for different PhD subjects.
The majority of NERC PhD funding is awarded through Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs). These provide students with excellent training and research opportunities through collaborations between multiple universities and industrial partners.
Current NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships include the following:
IAPETUS2 Doctoral Training Partnership
Partners include the British Antarctic Survey, the British Geological Survey and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) DTP
Based at Imperial College London.
Partners include the Natural History Museum, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew and the Zoological Society of London.
Partners include the British Geological Survey, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Rothamsted Research.
One Planet DTP
Lead by University College London, along with Birkbeck, University of London, Brunel University London, King’s College London, Queen Mary University of London and Royal Holloway, University of London.
Partners include the Natural History Museum.
Central England NERC Training Alliance (CENTA2) DTP
Partners include the National Centre for Earth Observation, the British Geological Survey and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science.
GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership
Partners include Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the British Geological Survey and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
Cambridge Climate, Life and Earth (C-CLEAR) Doctoral Training Partnership
Based at the University of Cambridge.
Partners include the British Antarctic Survey.
Advanced Research and Innovation in the Environmental Sciences (ARIES) DTP
Partners include the British Trust of Ornithology, the John Innes Centre and the Marine Biological Association.
Edinburgh Earth, Ecology and Environment (E4) Doctoral Training Partnership
Based at the University of Edinburgh.
Partners include the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Scotland's Rural College and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre.
Panorama Doctoral Training Partnership
Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment (ACCE) DTP
Partners include the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Natural History Museum.
Environmental Research DTP
Based at the University of Oxford.
Science of the Environment, Natural and Anthropogenic Processes, Impacts and Opportunities (SCENARIO) DTP
Partners include the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, the National Centre for Earth Observation and the Zoological Society of London.
Scottish Universities Partnership for Environmental Research (SUPER) DTP
Lead by the University of St Andrews, along with the University of Aberdeen, Edinburgh Napier University, Heriot-Watt University, the University of the Highlands & Islands, University of Stirling, University of Strathclyde and the University of the West of Scotland.
Interdisciplinary Southampton Partnership for Investigators Researching the Environment (INSPIRE)
Based at the University of Southampton.
Partners include the National Oceanography Centre, the British Antarctic Survey and the Marine Biological Association.
NERC DTPs offer more than just PhD funding. They also provide exceptional training to help you successfully complete your PhD and prepare for a career at the end of it.
This training is usually delivered as a series of workshops and masterclasses on specialist subjects that run alongside your PhD research.
You will be based within a single university (the one you apply to), however, you will have access to expertise, mentoring and facilities from across your DTP. You will also study alongside a wider cohort of PhD students. This will give you a supportive training experience and the opportunity to attend additional training and team building exercises as well as whole cohort conferences.
Typically, DTP studentships provide funding for 3.5 years of PhD research. Stipend extensions are sometimes available if required.
Many DTPs also provide opportunities for students to go on a placement with one of their non-academic industrial partners. These usually last two to three months and provide excellent preparation for non-academic careers.
Some NERC funding can be offered as CASE studentships (Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering). These are projects that are designed in partnership with external bodies (including business and industry as well as non-profits) to tackle specific natural and environmental problems with clear real-world applications. The NERC aim to ensure that 25% of DTP projects are CASE projects.
Studying a CASE studentship will provide you with access to addition training and expertise that is not available in an academic setting.
To get this training, you will spend between three and eighteen months in total with your CASE partner organisation.
CASE studentships are offered as part of an existing DTP and you will study alongside other PhD students in the same cohort.
You will receive the same funding opportunities as those in your DTP, however, your external partner may cover additional expenses during the time you spend with them.
CASE studentships are usually awarded by DTP partners and you can apply for CASE projects through individual universities.
The best way to find a CASE studentship is to check the details for the DTPs above, or you can use FindAPhD to search for current NERC CASE opportunities.
Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT) are set up to focus on specific priority research areas identified within the NERC remit. Initially funded by the NERC, they are also supported by investments from external sources such as industrial bodies.
NERC CDTs typically operate as a consortium of research organisations, similar to DTPs. However, CDTs have much more specific overarching research goals which heavily shape the projects they offer.
There are currently 7 CDTs:
CDT in Freshwater Bioscience and Sustainability
Partners include the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the British Geological Survey.
CDT in Modelling and Quantitative Skills in Ecology and Evolution
Partners include Cefas, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Zoological Society of London.
CDT in the use of Smart and Autonomous Observation for the Environmental Sciences (joint-funded with the EPSRC)
Partners include the British Antarctic Survey, the National Oceanography Centre and the Scottish Association for Marine Science.
CDT in Risk and Mitigation using Big Data
Partners include Public Health England, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Severn Trent Water.
CDT in Soil Science (joint-funded with the BBSRC)
Partners include the British Geological Survey, Rothamsted Research and the James Hutton Institute.
CDT in Oil and Gas
Partners include BP, Cairn Energy and Shell.
CDT in Renewable Energy (joint-funded with the EPSRC)
Partners include EDF energy, Sustainable Marine Energy and Wind Turbines Ltd.
CDT studentships cover fees, maintenance and research expenses (subject to eligibility). Your studentship will usually last 3.5-4 years depending on the CDT you are part of and you will be funded for the duration of your PhD. This will provide you with training opportunities to develop particular specialist skills.
As with DTPs, you will be studying as part of a cohort and attend conferences, seminars and other events.
Some NERC CDTs are set up in partnership with another UKRI research council (for example, the CDT in soil science is jointly operated with the BBSRC).
As with other UKRI Research Councils, there are specific eligibility criteria for NERC PhD funding.
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.
NERC studentships are awarded on a competitive basis to the best applicants. Normally, the PhD programmes expect you to hold a first class or upper second (2.1) degree in a relevant subject. If you don’t meet this requirement, a Masters degree may help improve your application.
You cannot work full-time while receiving NERC funding (or any other UKRI funding). You are allowed to work part-time but you should get your supervisors’ advice before you commit to the extra workload.
You don’t apply directly to the NERC for a studentship. Instead, funding is provided to universities and research institutes who advertise funded PhDs through their DTPs and CDTs.
The majority of NERC-funded projects at DTPs and CDTs are set up with pre-defined questions, aims and objectives. However, you may have the opportunity to branch out in new directions in response to your findings as well as develop methodologies to fit into your research needs.
Some CDTs offer an alternative application track for students who would like to develop their own research project. You will spend time with a supervisory team in a pre-project period to design and submit a research project proposal. You will then have to defend your project in a proposal defence before starting your project.
The first step in applying for NERC funding is normally to find an advertised project. Once you have found something you like the look of, you should read the description carefully and gather the required application materials.
These normally include: a suitable CV, a cover letter (which explains your interest in the project and why you are suitable), a personal statement (which details your academic background and why you want to do a PhD) and maybe even your degree transcripts.
You may then be invited for a PhD interview where you will be able to discuss your application in more detail.
NERC DTPs usually advertise projects from October / November to start the following October.
Here are the application deadlines for PhD studentships at NERC DTPs for projects beginning in the 2020-21 academic year:
These are the deadlines for PhD projects starting in autumn 2021. You can use them to get a general idea of application timelines for 2022, but exact dates will probably change for 2021.
If you would like to stay up to date on NERC project advertisements and deadlines then why not sign up for our free PhD newsletter?
NERC scholarships are funded on a competitive basis. Here are some tips to help give you the best chance:
Last updated - 14/01/2021