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NERC PhD Funding

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.

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What is the NERC?

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.

Which PhD subjects does the NERC fund?

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).

What PhD funding does the NERC provide?

The NERC currently funds around 350 students a year. These students receive the national minimum stipend set by UKRI:

  • Tuition fees of £4,407
  • Stipend of £15,285 per year (you will receive slightly more if you are based in London)
  • Research Training Support Grant (RTSG) to over the costs of travel and consumables – £5,000–£11,000 amount depending on the studentship

These values will increase annually with inflation and you will receive the new amount each year.

How is NERC funding allocated?

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).

UKRI funding for other subjects

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.

NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

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.

NERC DTPs for 2020

Current NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships include the following:

Studying your PhD at a NERC DTP

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.

NERC CASE studentships

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 NERC CASE PhD

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.

NERC CASE opportunities for 2020

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.

NERC Centres for Doctoral Training

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.

NERC CDTs for 2020

There are currently 7 CDTs:

Studying your PhD at a NERC CDT

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).

Eligibility

As with other UKRI Research Councils, there are specific eligibility criteria for NERC PhD funding.

Residency (and funding amounts)

  • Full studentships include fees and a maintenance stipend. These are available for UK and EU students who have been resident in the UK for a least three years.
  • Partial (fee-only) studentships do not include the doctoral stipend. This is usually the only funding available to EU students who are ordinarily resident outside the UK.

NERC funding for international (non-EU) students

Like the other Research Councils, the NERC doesn’t normally provide funding for international students. You may be accepted to research within a NERC-funded DTP or CDT, but will normally need to find alternative funding for your project.

Academic requirements

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.

Working during a NERC studentship

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.

Other funding

You can’t combine a NERC studentship with a UK PhD loan, but you may be able to access some other funding from your university or other sources (to top up a fees-only studentship, for example).

Applications

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.

Advertised projects

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.

Application process

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.

Application deadlines

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:

  • IAPETUS2 – 10 January
  • SSCP – 8 January
  • Envision – 17 January
  • One Planet – 31 January
  • London – 7 January
  • QUADRAT – 29 January
  • CENTA – 10 Januar
  • GW4+ – 6 January
  • C-CLEAR – 7 January
  • ARIES – 15 January
  • E4 – 9 January
  • Panorama – 6 January
  • ACCE – 8 January
  • Environmental Research – 24 January
  • SCENARIO – 31 January
  • SUPER – 13 December
  • INSPIRE – 3 January

These are the deadlines for PhD projects starting in autumn 2020. You can use them to get a general idea of application timelines for 2021, 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 funding application tips

NERC scholarships are funded on a competitive basis. Here are some tips to help give you the best chance:

  1. Contact potential supervisors – Not only do you get to show your interest in the project beforehand but it may also help strengthen your application. This can also be an opportunity to scope out possible directions for a project together with the potential to incorporate your own ideas.
  2. Be aware that applications take time – It can be a big task to prepare all of the materials you will need for a UKRI funding application. Don’t leave it to the last minute and risk missing out on that ‘perfect’ project. You will also need time to read up on the project and tailor your application appropriately.
  3. Don’t forget about the interview – The interview is a crucial part of the application process. It is an opportunity to show that you are capable of completing a PhD but also to show that a specific department is the best place for you to do so.
  4. Treat your PhD application like a job application – Like employers, universities want to find the best candidates for the PhD positions they are advertising. Show them why that’s you!

Search for NERC PhD funding

NERC projects are often listed here on FindAPhD. You can also subscribe to our newsletter, and we’ll send you the latest opportunities in your subject area, each week.

Further information

Check the NERC and UKRI websites for additional funding details.

Last updated - 27/05/2020

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