Research Council (UKRI) PhD Studentships – An Introduction
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Research Council (UKRI) PhD Studentships – An Introduction

Written by Mark Bennett

The seven UK Research Councils offer some of the most generous funding for PhD study at universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

They provide full studentships for PhD students, which include a living cost stipend and coverage of tuition fees.

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 eligibility details for international students.

Who are the Research Councils?

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.

Research Council studentship, or UKRI studentship?

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.

Who is eligible for Research Council studentships?

Eligibility for Research Council funding is based on nationality, but these criteria are about to change:

  • UK students who have been ordinarily resident in the UK for at least three years can apply for full awards covering PhD fees, living costs and other expenses. This isn't changing.
  • International students (including EU students) are able to apply for full awards covering PhD fees at domestic rates, living costs and other expenses from 2021-22 onwards. However, the number of studentships available to international students will be capped at 30% of a university's total (that's 30% of the total number of awards available not 30% of the value of an award).

Academic requirements

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.

Other criteria

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 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.

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How much funding do Research Council studentships provide?

There are three possible components of a UKRI PhD studentship. Here are their values for 2023-24

  • At least £4,712 for PhD fees at the domestic rate. Universities are free to set their own actual fees, but they can't charge any additional amounts to UK students with a UKRI studentship.
  • At least £18,622 per year as a PhD stipend to help cover living costs. This is tax free and increases with inflation each year. Students living in London get slightly more.
  • Around £5,000 per year as a Research Training Support Grant to cover additional expenses for fieldwork, materials or similar. The amount and availability of this varies (it's most common for STEM projects).

How much of this funding you can get depends on your circumstances:

  • UK students usually receive a full studentship including the fee payment, PhD stipend and research training support grant (if available).
  • International students are eligible for a certain number of full studentships, but their fees will only be covered at the domestic (UK) rate.

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.

How are Research Council studentships awarded?

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:

  • 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 the studentships they have available can be used for a broad range of projects.
  • Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) have more specific goals. They are set up to conduct research and train researchers in priority areas.

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:

Studying with a Research Council studentship

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.

PhD study at a Centre for Doctoral Training

Read a more detailed explanation of what it's like to do a PhD within a UKRI CDT.

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

Some Research Councils also provide other types of UKRI studentships:

  • iCASE studentships (industrial Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering) are offered by Research Councils focussing on STEM subjects (such as the BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC and NERC). They are split between universities and industry partners who are much more closely involved in designing and delivering iCASE studentships.
  • Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships are offered in non-Science subjects by Councils such as the AHRC. They include non-university bodies such as museums, educational trusts or archives who use their own expertise and resources to contribute to a student’s PhD training.

Other forms of UKRI funding may also be available from time to time. Check our annually updated guides to individual Research Councils, or simply search our site for current UKRI-funded PhDs.

How do you apply for Research Council PhD funding?

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:

  • If you're applying for an advertised PhD research project you should simply carry on as normal and follow the instructions for the listing. If you are successful you will receive the UKRI studentship for your project at the appropriate rate.
  • If you're proposing your own PhD you will need to first find a university with UKRI funding available (see below) and then have your research proposal accepted. You can then be considered for one of the studentships available at your university. Sometimes this involves second funding application, usually supported by your prospective supervisor.

Finding Research Council studentships for self-proposed projects

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:

  1. Come up with a promising PhD topic – it doesn't need to be completely defined yet, but it does need to have the potential to attract funding
  2. Find a university with access to UKRI funding – the simplest way to do this is by looking at the list of current DTPs and CDTs in our guides to AHRC or ESRC funding
  3. Apply to the university – you'll need to follow the normal guidelines for a PhD application; now is also a good time to fine tune your research proposal
  4. Apply / be considered for a UKRI studentship – some universities will put forward all eligible students for UKRI funding; others will ask you to complete a second application stage explaining why your project should be considered

Eligibility criteria

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:

  • A relevant undergraduate degree with at least a 2.1 (or equivalent)
  • Evidence of your suitability for PhD research and / or the suitability of your topic, based on a compelling research proposal or personal statement.

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.

Application deadlines

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.

Research Council PhD funding – FAQs

Here are the answers to some common questions you may have about UKRI PhD studentships:

Do UKRI PhD 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’.

Are international students eligible for UKRI PhD studentships?

UKRI announced in August 2020 that up to 30% of studentships at individual DTPs and CDTs can be made available to international students from 2021-22 onwards.

Is UKRI PhD funding affected by Brexit?

Non-UK-domiciled EU students were able to apply for a fees-only PhD studentship as normal in the 2020-21 academic year. From 2021 EU students are eligible for up to 30% of full studentships, along with other international applicants.

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

Are UKRI PhD studentships means-tested?

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

What is the length of a UKRI PhD studentship?

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.

Can I get UKRI funding for a part-time PhD?

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 UKRI studentship with other PhD funding?

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.

UKRI studentships are compatible with other PhD scholarships, including awards offered by universities or by independent charities and trusts.

Can my university charge additional fees on top of my 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.

How many UKRI PhD studentships are available each year?

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

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