The seven UK Research Councils offer some of the most generous funding for PhD study at universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This guide explains how Research Council PhD studentships work and how to apply for one. We’ve also put together a quick list of frequently asked questions about Research Council funding, including new eligibility details for international students.
There are seven Research Councils, all part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Together, they invest around £380 million into studentships every year – making them the UK’s biggest PhD funder by far.
Each Council focuses on specific subject areas:
If you aren't sure which Council is right for your PhD, take a look at the individual guides linked to above.
Bear in mind that Councils sometimes work together to fund interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary PhDs. For example, the AHRC and MRC might collaborate to fund a Humanities project looking at cultural understanding and response to illness. Or the NERC and ESRC might collaborate to explore the interface between built and natural environments.
The seven Research Councils used to be part of Research Councils UK (RCUK) but this was reorganised into UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in 2018. Nowadays the terms 'Research Council studentship' and 'UKRI studentship' mean exactly the same thing.
Eligibility for Research Council funding is based on nationality, but these criteria are about to change:
These upcoming changes are due to the end of Brexit guarantees for EU students and the opening up of UKRI funding to international students from 2021-22 onwards. Our free PhD study newsletter will keep you up to date with what's happening in future.
Research Council funding is competitively awarded to the best PhD students in each year. As a minimum, you'll normally need a relevant Bachelors degree with a 2.1 or above. A Masters degree may help, particularly in Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects.
You'll also need to make sure your application is as strong as possible – whether that means submitting a really strong research proposal, or demonstrating that you're the best candidate for an advertised PhD project.
There are a couple of other things you'll need to bear in mind if you're applying for Research Council funding.
The first is that you can't combine a UKRI studentship with postgraduate student finance. You can start your PhD with a doctoral student loan, but you'll need to cancel it if you move on to a funded studentship.
The second is that you can't work full time with a full Research Council studentship. Your stipend should be enough for you to live on whilst you focus on your PhD. Part-time work is usually OK, but it's a good idea to check with your supervisor.
There are three possible components of a UKRI PhD studentship. Here are their values for 2020-21
How much of this funding you can get depends on your circumstances:
The Research Councils also manage Disabled Students' Allowance for the PhDs they fund. If you're entitled to DSA for your PhD it will be paid by your Research Council.
The Research Councils don’t actually fund PhD students directly. Instead they provide a set amount of money to universities who then decide which PhD projects and PhD students to award funding to.
Universities don't normally receive Research Council funding individually. Instead they form networks to pool expertise and facilities for PhD research. These networks involve one or more universities in a region, plus other organisations such as museums, archives, industrial laboratories or businesses.
There are two main types of network:
None of this is as complicated as it might seem. As a student, you still apply for a PhD at a university, but that PhD might be funded by a UKRI studentship awarded by whichever network the university is part of.
You can find lists of current DTPs, CDTs and other networks in our guides to individual Research Councils:
Once you begin your PhD you'll be primarily based at your host university, but you'll also benefit from resources offered by partner organisations. These might be access to unique archives or specialist lab equipment, or they might involve the chance to work with expert academics from more than one institution.
You'll also benefit from more structured training as well as opportunities for collaboration and shared development activities with other students in your cohort.
Some Research Councils also provide other types of UKRI studentships:
Research Councils don't fund students directly. Instead they allocate budgets to universities who use this money to provide a certain number of PhD studentships each year.
You always apply for Research Council funding through your university but how you do so depends on the type of PhD you want to do:
UKRI studentships for Arts, Humanities and Social Science projects aren't normally advertised as pre-designed projects. Instead, you will need to put forward your own idea for a PhD topic and have it accepted by a university with UKRI funding to offer (remember that the university itself will usually be part of a funded network such as a DTP or CDT).
It's a good idea to follow these steps:
All UKRI PhD funding is competitive. Universities select the most promising applicants or project proposals to support with the limited number of studentships they have available.
As a minimum you should have:
It isn't normally necessary to have a Masters degree or a first-class undergraduate degree, but any additional evidence of your qualifcations, experience and potential will help. Your application will certainly be one of several the university receives, so make sure it's as strong as it can be. Our tips on applying for PhD funding may help.
UKRI PhD studentships tend to be advertised in the autumn before they begin, with deadlines early in the following year. This means that application windows tend to run from October-November to January-February but things vary a lot between different Research Councils. Make sure you check the details for the specific DTP or CDT you plan to apply to.
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.
Here are the answers to some common questions you may have about UKRI PhD studentships:
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’.
Non-UK-domiciled EU students will be able to apply for a fees-only PhD studentship as normal in the 2020-21 academic year. From 2021 EU students will be eligible for up to 30% of full studentships, along with other international applicants.
No. Research Council studentships are merit-based rather than need-based. Your financial background won't be considered during your application.
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.
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).
Research Council studentships cannot normally be combined with other forms of public funding such as PhD student loans (or NHS bursaries). However, you can begin studying with a PhD loan and then switch to a studentship.
All UKRI studentships should cover PhD fees at the UK (domestic student) rate. International fees are usually higher, but universities may choose to waive the difference or cover it with their own funding.
You may still need to pay some fees to attend conferences, conduct fieldwork or carry out other activities during your PhD. Some studentships also provide a Research Training Support Grant to help with these.
UKRI made funding extensions available to some PhD students who were affected by disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Similar steps may be taken, if necessary, in 2021 onwards. Your university should be able to provide more advice on how it will support you (if necessary).
There are roughly 8,000 Research Council studentships awarded each year. Specific allocations vary across universities, partnerships and subject areas.
Last updated – 14/09/20