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Research Council PhD Studentships – A Guide

The UK Research Councils (RCUK) offer some of the most generous funding for PhD study in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It’s their job to support academic research at UK universities. That involves funding the training of new researchers – like you!

This guide explains how Research Council studentships work and how you can go about applying for one. We’ve also put together a quick list of frequently asked questions about Research Council PhD funding.

Who are the Research Councils?

There are seven Research Councils in total, all part of Research Councils UK (RCUK). They have a collective budget of around £3 billion. £380 million of this is invested into PhD training every year – making them the UK’s biggest postgraduate funder by far.

Each Council supports research and training in particular areas:


Research Council PhD Funding
Research Council Example Subject Areas
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Art & Design, Classics, English Language & Literature, Modern Languages & Linguistics, History, Philosophy and Theology & Religious Studies.
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Biotechnology, Biological & Medical Sciences and appropriate branches of the Agricultural Sciences.
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Engineering, Chemical Sciences, Computer Science, Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Energy.
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science & International Relations and Psychology.
Medical Research Council (MRC) Medical & Clinical Science, Public Health, Health Sciences, Immunology, Virology and Food Science & Nutrition.
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Earth Sciences, Geophysics, Oceanography, Environmental Chemistry, Hydrology, Ecology & Conservation and Climatology & Climate Change.
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Astrophysics, Atomic Physics, Nuclear Engineering, Nuclear Physics, Particle Physics and some branches of Computer Science.

Sometimes Research Councils collaborate to fund interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research. Your university (or supervisor) should be able to help if you aren't sure which Council supports your research area.

Who is eligible for Research Council studentships?

Research Council grants are potentially available to all UK students who secure a place on a UK PhD and submit a successful funding application. Other students may also recieve support in certain circumstances.

The following are some of the common eligibility criteria for Research Council funding. These apply to the majority of awards.

Residency

The most important eligibility criteria for Research Council funding concerns residency.

The UK Government provides the Research Councils with their budgets using public finances. This means their funding must primarily be used to support research (and train researchers) at UK universities.

UK students

  • If you have been ordinarily resident in the UK for three years you will normally be entitled to apply for a full studentship. This will cover tuition fees and provide a maintenance stipend.

Provided you meet this criteria, It doesn’t matter which part of the UK you live in or where in the UK you wish to study.

Students resident in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (and the UK Islands) are all eligible for funding to study a PhD at any UK university with Research Council funding available.

EU students

  • If you have been ordinarily resident in another EU country for three years you will normally be able to apply for a fees-only award. This will cover the PhD fees charged by your university, but it won’t provide an additional maintenance stipend.

For the time being, this eligibility is unaffected by Brexit. The UK Government has guaranteed EU eligibility for Research Council funding for PhDs beginning before the end of the 2018-19 academic year.

These guarantees will cover the whole of your doctorate. Funding will continue even if Brexit occurs whilst you are studying in the UK.

Brexit and your PhD

The UK will remain an EU member until at least 2019. In the meantime, we'll be keeping an eye on any impact of Brexit for postgraduate students. You can stay updated using our FAQ.

International students

  • International students (those not ordinarily resident in the UK or EU) are normally ineligible for Research Council studentships or fees-only awards. However, exceptions may be made.

Research Councils sometimes allow universities to offer some studentships with open eligibility. This allows anyone to apply, regardless of residency.

Understanding ordinary residence

In order to be eligible for Research Council funding you will normally need to be ordinarily resident in the UK or the EU. 'Ordinary residence' in a country usually requires that you have lived there for three years (excluding holidays) and have not done so purely for the purposes of study.

Academic criteria

Research Council grants are very generous, with the potential to fully fund your doctorate. But they’re also highly competitive. The number of applicants always exceeds the funding available.

Studentships are therefore merit-based, being awarded to the very best candidates.

Selection is carried out by the individual universities to which studentships have been allocated. The Research Councils themselves do not play a direct role in student applications.

Universities will set their own selection criteria, but most will include the following:

  • Undergraduate degree results. You’ll normally need a 2:1 or higher to be considered for a studentship. In some cases this may be supplemented by professional experience.
  • Other qualifications. A Masters degree or other postgraduate qualification may not be explicitly required for a studentship. But it can strengthen your application. Previous postgraduate work demonstrates additional subject knowledge and research training.
  • Suitability for PhD research. You’ll need to prove that you are able to complete your PhD project to a high standard, within the available time. You can show this with your research proposal (and other application materials).

More detailed academic requirements may be provided by individual universities, for individual projects.

Some may simply require a good undergraduate degree and a strong PhD proposal. Others may set stricter criteria. These could include postgraduate qualifications in relevant subjects or specific practical experience.

Other requirements

Research Council studentships are also subject to the following eligibility restrictions:

  • Some other forms of public funding are incompatible with Research Council studentships. This ensures that the Government is not funding the same student twice. In particular, the UK’s forthcoming PhD loans will not be available to students with any form of Research Council funding.
  • You cannot work full time whilst receiving a Research Council studentship. However, you can normally work and study part time, with Research Council funding.

Note that you can combine a studentship with Disabled Students’ Allowance.

How much funding do Research Council studentships provide?

Research Council funding makes a substantial contribution towards the cost of a PhD. In many cases a studentship will ‘fully fund’ a doctorate. Some awards offer slightly less, but the majority will cover your university fees as a minimum.

PhD studentship values in 2017

There are two main components to a Research Council PhD studentship: a payment for your PhD fees and a stipend for your living costs.

The minimum value of these is set by RCUK. Full Research Council studentships for 2017-18 will provide:

  • £4,195 for PhD fees – This is the amount your university will receive for each year of your full-time PhD study. If your fees are higher, you won’t normally be charged for extra (see our FAQ for more details).
  • £14,553 for your doctoral stipend – This is the minimum amount you will receive in each year of your PhD. It may be increased in line with typical living costs, or for students living in London. The money will be paid to you.

These values normally rise with inflation each year. That means that the value of your stipend in second or subsequent years of a PhD may increase. Up to date information on studentship values is published on the RCUK website.

How much funding could I receive?

Most Research Council studentships pay for both ‘parts’ of your PhD (providing a fee payment and a stipend). These are sometimes referred to as ‘fully-funded’ or ‘fees + maintenance’ studentships. UK students are normally eligible for this support.

Some studentships only pay your PhD fees. This may be due to the design of an award, or because you are applying as an EU student and are not eligible for a fully-funded studentship. This kind of funding is sometimes referred to as ‘partial funding’ or ‘fees only’ support.

Additional support

Research Council funding will make a big difference to the affordability of your doctorate (particularly if you receive a ‘full’ studentship).

This can sometimes extend beyond payments for PhD fees and / or maintenance, to cover other expenses associated with doctoral research.

Depending on the nature of your PhD and the terms of your studentship, you could receive further funding for:

  • Travel required by your research (such as trips to archives or facilities beyond your university).
  • Training in additional specialist techniques required for your work.
  • Placements at other institutions or research centres where valuable development opportunities or resources are available.
  • Outreach and public engagement to increase the impact of your research and make wider audiences aware of the work RCUK funds.

This additional funding is not guaranteed and will vary between specific awards. It may be advertised in advance as part of your studentship, or it might be made available during your PhD as circumstances require.

Disabled Students’ Allowance from Research Councils

You may be entitled to extra support if a disability, learning difficulty or chronic illness makes studying your PhD more expensive. This is provided through Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA).

Unlike Research Council funding, entitlement to DSA is need-based, not merit-based. It is normally paid by student finance bodies in appropriate parts of the UK.

However, students with RCUK funding will normally have their DSA paid by their Research Council in addition to their studentship.

DSA for PhD students

PhD researchers are entitled to Disabled Students' Allowance, just the same as undergraduate and Masters students. Our guide explain how this support works for students with and without Research Council funding.

How does Research Council PhD funding work?

The Research Councils don’t actually fund PhD students directly. Instead they provide universities with budgets for studentship allocations.

This means that students don’t apply to the Research Councils themselves (instead you should apply for funding at your chosen university). It also shapes the way studentships are offered.

Doctoral Training Partnerships and Centres for Doctoral Training

Universities must ‘bid’ for Research Council funding by setting out the aims and objectives for the research areas they wish to pursue (and train PhD students in!).

They often do this by pooling resources with nearby universities (or other organisations).

This creates Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTCs) or Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs). The exact labels will vary, depending on the Research Council involved and the specific focus of the group.

As a general guideline:

  • Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) train PhD studentships across all areas of a Research Council’s subject remit. They may have specific areas of expertise, based on available supervisors and facilities. But they studentships they have available can, in principle, be used for a broad range of projects.
  • Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) or Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs) have more specific goals. They recruit PhD students to build up research expertise in target areas.

Details of individual DTCs and CDTs vary. Some involve several universities. Others are run by a single institution.

You can check current PhD funding activities in your area using the individual Research Councils’ websites:

Remember that you can also find details of specific Research Council funded projects and programmes in our PhD search.

Studying a PhD within a DTC or CDT

Whatever their specific label, these centres and partnerships all have one thing in common: they exist to train PhD students.

This may seem obvious (it’s in their names, after all) but it’s actually quite important.

Universities don’t just train PhD students. They also teach undergraduates and pursue broader research.

DTPs and CDTs, on the other hand, are specifically concerned with PhD training. It’s the core of what they do.

This means that a typical Research Council studentship involves more than just funding. Completing your PhD within a DTP or CDT can also offer:

  • Pooled expertise and facilities - Your CDT or DTP will be able to draw on a wide range of resources – often from more than one university. This could mean having access to training and input from other academic experts (alongside your supervisor). Or being able to use a wider range of equipment and facilities.
  • Additional development opportunities – Studentships are often more ‘structured’ than a typical PhD, with opportunities to gain expertise in practical research methodologies and techniques.
  • Transferable skills and employability training – Centres and partnerships exist to train researchers for a purpose. You’ll develop skills that will complement your academic knowledge and allow you to use your doctorate for a range of careers.
  • PhD study within a cohort – DTPs and CDTs encourage their students to participate in shared training and development activities. Your PhD will still be your own, but you’ll benefit from a wider network of fellow research students.
  • Links with business, industry and external bodies - It isn’t just universities that participate in CDTs or DTPs. Specialist research centres, businesses and other organisations may also be involved. These will contribute to the training offered at your university. They could also host placements away from your institution.

Note that these examples are only intended to indicate some of the possible benefits of studying a PhD at a Doctoral Training Centre or Centre for Doctoral Training.

Individual centres and partnerships may offer more specific opportunities and advantages.

Other forms of Research Council funding: CASE Studentships and Collaborative Doctoral Awards

Some Research Councils also support training opportunities with a broader focus. These usually involve greater input from external bodies:

  • CASE studentships (Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering) may be offered by Research Councils focussing on Science, Technology and Engineering subjects (such as the BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC and NERC). They are split between universities and industrial partners with an interest in these research areas. Unlike DTPs and CDTs, external partners are much more closely involved in delivering CASE studentships.
  • Collaborative Doctoral Awards (or Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships) are similar to CASE studentships, but are also offered in non-Science subjects by Councils such as the AHRC. They include non-university bodies such as museums, educational trusts or archives. These bodies use their own expertise and resources to contribute to a student’s PhD training.

Individual Research Councils may also offer other funding mechanisms in addition to CASE studentships and Collaborative Doctoral Awards.

Applying for a Research Council studentship

Unlike other PhD funders, the UK Research Councils do not handle student applications. Instead they provide funding to universities (usually within DTPs, CDTs or other groupings discussed above).

You should therefore apply for funding from your university, not the Research Council.

In most cases the application for funding will be separate to your application for a PhD place. First you’ll need to be accepted for a PhD at a university with funding. You can then apply for one of that university’s Research Council studentships.

If your application is successful you will receive funding for your PhD. If not, you will still be accepted for study at the university, but will need to find an alternative source of doctoral funding.

The application process

There is no standard application process for Research Council PhD funding. Instead, individual DTPs or CDTs are free to set their own guidelines.

The following is a rough ‘step by step’ guide to the typical application process. Needless to say, you should also ensure you check the details for your specific studentship:

Step 1: Find the right PhD

You won’t get very far with a funding application if you don’t know what kind of research you want to fund. Nor will you be likely to win funding for just any PhD. You’ll need to demonstrate a passion for your project and explain why you should be funded to carry it out.

So, start by thinking carefully about your choice of PhD and make sure you understand what PhD study involves. You might also consider contacting some prospective supervisors to discuss your ideas.

If you’re looking to apply for a pre-set PhD project, take a look at the opportunities in our database.

If you’re coming up with your own project idea, investigate suitable PhD programmes and think carefully about your research proposal.

Step 2: Check studentship availability

Most UK universities will have some form of Research Council funding available. But the number of studentships they can allocate will vary (and so will their distribution across subject areas).

So, don’t just assume a university will have a suitable award for you. Check. There are three ways you can do this:

  • Use our PhD search to find advertised opportunities (such as EPSRC studentships).
  • Check current opportunities at the appropriate Research Council (or Councils) for your doctorate.
  • Check with your university. If all else fails, they should be able to tell you what studentships are available.

Step 3: Apply for your PhD

Once you’ve established that funding is available, you’ll need to be accepted to study your PhD.

If you’re seeking a studentship offered by a DTP or CDT with multiple members, you should normally apply to your preferred university within that group (unless guidelines instruct otherwise).

If you’re applying to study a specific advertised project you should apply to the university offering that PhD.

Step 4: Apply for a studentship

Universities will award Research Council studentships to their best applicants (subject to terms set by DTP or CDT they may be part of).

To be selected, you will normally need to submit a separate funding application once you’ve been accepted to study a PhD.

Sometimes, the university may have already allocated some of its funding to an advertised PhD project. If you’re accepted on to one of these, you won’t normally need to make an additional funding application.

Check the application process for specific studentships

The application advice here is deliberately general. There are a wide variety of Research Council studentships available, for different universities (and different CDTs or DTPs) make sure you know the guidelines for the funding you're applying for.

Application requirements

Your university will be looking to identify the PhD students with the most potential.

To do this they’ll ask for supporting materials along with your application. These will vary, but you should normally be able to submit the following:

A research proposal

This will be essential if you’re proposing your own project (as is common in Arts and Humanities subjects). It could also be required if you’re applying for an advertised place.

Funders will want to learn about your plans for this PhD as well as its potential outcomes and impact. They’ll also want to be sure that you understand what your project involves and have put some thought into methodology.

Our guide to writing a good research proposal can help get you started.

A personal statement

This will provide more information about your background, your experience and why you think you’ll be a good fit for this studentship (and the DTP or CDT that hosts it).

Your statement will be separate from your research proposal (being about you rather than your project). It might be a standalone document with a set word limit, or a series of questions on your application form.

References

Your research proposal and personal statement will reveal what you have to say about yourself and your PhD plans. But the people making funding decisions will also want to know what other people have to say about you and your work.

References can provide this information. Choosing them shouldn’t actually be that hard.

Include at least one person with experience of your academic work. An undergraduate or postgraduate tutor would be ideal (even better if they’ve got experience of your previous dissertation or independent project work).

Additional referees could include employers or other people who can provide more detail about your experience and achievements.

As always, make sure you ask potential referees permission before selecting them. This will help ensure they can meet your application deadlines. It’s also polite.

Check specific application requirements

Remember that Research Councils don&apost set specific application requirements. Make sure you find out what the specific process is for your university (and whether it includes additional steps, such as an interview).

Application deadlines

The competitive nature of studentship applications means they take time to process. Your university (or DTP / CDT) won’t just be checking you fit their eligibility criteria. They’ll also be assessing the strength of your funding application (as well as many others).

Because of this, strict deadlines are set for Research Council applications. These will vary, but you should normally expect to have applied early in the year you wish to begin your PhD.

A typical application window for a PhD studentship beginning in the autumn would open in the preceding October or November and close in February or March. Students who don’t meet the deadline will normally miss out.

If you’re serious about winning a Research Council studentship, begin thinking about your application as soon as you’ve decided to study a PhD. This may mean starting during the final year of your undergraduate degree, or Masters.

Research Council PhD funding – FAQs

Hopefully this guide has helped introduce and explain how Research Council studentships work. The following list of ‘frequently asked questions’ may also be useful if you have additional questions:

Do studentships need to be repaid?

No. Research Council funding is offered as a grant, not a loan. You will not normally need to repay any money after you graduate.

An exception might apply if you exit your PhD early and have already received the next instalment of your studentship. If so, you may need refund any ‘overpayments’.

Is this funding means-tested?

No. Research Council studentships are merit-based rather than need-based. Your financial background won't be considered during your application.

How long do studentships last?

A Research Council grant will normally cover the full duration of a full-time UK PhD. This is typically three years, but can sometimes run to four years.

Can I receive a part-time studentship?

Yes. Research Council funding can be used for a part-time PhD, subject to certain conditions.

You must meet the requirements for part-time registration on your degree (this may exclude international students).

You must also study at 50% of the full-time rate. You must also study at 50% of the full-time rate. (Your PhD shouldn’t take more than twice as long as an equivalent full-time doctorate).

Can I combine a studentship with other funding?

Research Council studentships cannot normally be combined with other forms of public funding such as PhD student loans or NHS bursaries. The UK Government considers that this would involve paying the same student twice.

Additional funding from your university, a charity, or a separate scholarship is compatible with Research Council grants.

What happens if my PhD fees are higher than the amount set by the Research Council?

The value of Research Council studentships is based on an ‘indicative fee level’. This is the amount that will be paid to universities to cover a student’s PhD fees (currently £4,195 for studentships beginning in 2017-18).

Your university can charge more than this if it wishes, but it should not ask you to meet the additional cost.

How many studentships are available?

There are roughly 8,000 Research Council studentships awarded each year. Specific allocations vary across universities, partnerships and subject areas.

Will Research Council funding be affected by Brexit?

Not yet. EU students will continue to be eligible for fees-only awards for studentships beginning in the 2017-18 or 2018-19 academic years. This has been guaranteed by the UK Government.

You can find out more about Brexit and PhD study in our FAQ and stay updated by signing up to our newsletter.

Where can I find out more?

You can read more information on the RCUK website.

Did you know we currently list 4,462 PhD opportunities worldwide?


Why not take a look?

Last updated - 08/05/2017

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