Guide to NERC PhD Funding

Key Takeaways

  1. NERC’s Role and Impact: The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is a leading UK research council funding body, operating under UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which aims to advance knowledge in environmental sciences.
  2. Funding Specifics: NERC offers two primary funding schemes (responsive and directed) and supports around 350 studentships annually, covering tuition fees, a living stipend, and a Research Training Support Grant.
  3. Research Areas: NERC’s DTP PhD program focuses on seven key research themes, ranging from Biodiversity to Sustainable Use of the Environment, and encourages interdisciplinary research collaborations.
  4. Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs): Most of NERC’s PhD funding goes through DTPs, led by top UK universities, offering comprehensive training and collaboration opportunities with institutions like the British Antarctic Survey.
  5. CASE Studentships: These are crafted to address specific environmental challenges in partnership with external entities, allowing students to work closely with partner organizations and get real-world experience.
  6. Eligibility and Application Process: NERC’s PhD studentships are open to UK, Irish, and some international applicants, with applications made through affiliated universities. A competitive academic background, such as a first-class or 2.1 degree in a relevant subject, is required.
  7. Benefits and Post-PhD Opportunities: Beyond funding, NERC provides exceptional training and professional development, interdisciplinary research opportunities, mentorship, and a platform for global exposure, leading to diverse roles in academia, policy-making, NGOs, and beyond.

Introduction to NERC PhD Funding

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is a source of UK research council funding, dedicated to developing the next generation of environmental scientists. It is an integral part of UK Research and Innovation (URKI), and operates as one of the seven Research Councils, playing a foundational role in shaping the research landscape in the UK. By emphasising the advancement of knowledge in environmental sciences, their commitment has left an indelible mark on the realm of natural and environmental research.

To break down the specifics: NERC allocates funds for approximately 350 studentships annually. The financial breakdown includes tuition fees of around £4,596, a living stipend that’s set at approximately £18,662, and a Research Training Support Grant which can range from £5,000 to £11,000. It’s important to note that these amounts see periodic increases, aligned with inflation rates.

NERC’s Research Areas and Themes

The NERC DTP PhD program predominantly concentrates on seven pivotal research themes. These are:

  1. Biodiversity
  2. Ecology and Conservation
  3. Earth, Atmosphere, and Ocean Processes
  4. Environmental Pollution
  5. Environmental Risks and Hazards
  6. Natural Resources
  7. Sustainable Use of the Environment

For those seeking to establish a solid foundation in environmental sciences, such as Climatology, Ecology, Ecotoxicology, Environmental Chemistry, and even Geophysics, NERC provides funding avenues. The scope also extends to Earth Sciences subjects like Meteorology, Paleobiology, Agronomy, and Soil Science. What’s more, NERC actively seeks collaborations that cross disciplinary boundaries, offering interdisciplinary opportunities in conjunction with other research councils, such as to bridge the gap between environmental and geographical sciences.

Exploring NERC Funding Schemes: DTPs

An essential part of NERC’s commitment to research excellence is reflected through its Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP). The majority of NERC PhD funding is channelled through these DTPs, led by a number of universities across the UK. DTPs are designed to help students undergo comprehensive training and collaborate with multiple universities and industrial partners, including institutions like the British Antarctic Survey and British Geological Survey.

DTPs typically last 3.5 years. Beyond just research, they potentially offer stipend extensions and opportunities for placements with non-academic external partners. If you’re curious about the current DTPs you can delve into, the list boasts of IAPETUS2, SSCP, Envision, One Planet, and several others including ACCE and INSPIRE.

Exploring NERC Funding Schemes: CASEs

With a more tailored approach to funding, the CASE studentships have a singular aim: to address significant natural and environmental challenges in collaboration with external bodies. This synergistic approach aims to ensure that students aren’t just nurtured as traditional environmental scientists but also gain hands-on experience working closely with partner organisations.

For example, as a CENTA studentship recipient, you would undergo additional training and dedicate between three and eighteen months to collaborating directly with the partner organisation. It’s an immersive experience, tailored to ensure a deep-rooted understanding of Earth Sciences challenges in real-world contexts.

As an interesting note – about 25% of DTP projects are provided as CASE projects.

Exploring NERC Funding Schemes: CDTs

Some PhD funding awards are labelled as studentships rather than scholarships. Drawing a parallel, the Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT) of NERC operate much like these studentships. Whereas a scholarship generally offers funding for a student to undertake PhD-level study, the CDTs, much like studentships, are directed towards the completion of a specific research project. These are predominantly offered in consortiums with various research organizations, focusing on specialized research goals.

Current CDTs to take note of include:

  • Aura
  • SuMMeR

These studentships typically cover a range of fees, maintenance, and other research expenses for a period of 3.5 to 4 years. One of their main focuses lies in honing specialist skills in order to help ensure that PhD students are ready to take on complex research projects and are in alignment with NERC’s programme grants.

Eligibility for NERC PhD Funding

There are specific criteria to meet in regard to the eligibility requirements for NERC PhD funding. As such, PhD applicants should be well-versed with the eligibility criteria which are split based on residency and academic accomplishments.

In terms of residency:

  • UK and Irish students are eligible. For UK students, a prerequisite is at least three years of UK residency.
  • International students can apply. However, note that awards for international applicants are limited, capped at 30% of the total. Additionally, international candidates will typically not be eligible for a full studentship, instead, they will only receive a stipend for living costs and will need to cover the tuition fees themselves.
  • Some EU students may also find themselves eligible if they meet the UK residency requirements.

From an academic requirements standpoint, applicants will be expected to have a first-class or an upper second (2.1) degree in a relevant subject.

Potential candidates should also note being in full-time employment isn’t allowed whilst being in the studentship. However, part-time work is possible as long as you have approval from your supervisor. Additionally, combining a NERC studentship with a UK PhD loan (also known as a PhD Doctoral Loan) isn’t allowed either.

Aligning Your Research with NERC’s Priorities

As touched on earlier, NERC’s research funding is divided into two categories: responsive and focused. The responsive funding, as the term suggests, places little restrictions on the PhD project’s research area as long as it fits within NERC’s science remit. On the other hand, focused funding focuses in on significant technical and academic challenges pinpointed by NERC.

A considerable chunk, over 75% of NERC studentships, draw from the responsive funding pool. They’re primarily routed through the Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs). The key takeaway here for any aspiring NERC funded PhD researcher is the importance of aligning your research interests with NERC’s priorities and the available funding schemes.

Finding NERC PhD Opportunities

Navigating your way through the labyrinth of PhD opportunities can be daunting. However, the NERC makes this process relatively simple. They extend funding to universities and research institutes, who then advertise these funded PhDs through a number of platforms, such as their own website, DiscoverPhDs and elsewhere.

Although these research opportunities will always be well advertised, if you want to take on a bit more of a proactive approach, then consider attending workshops and webinars hosted by these universities or NERC itself. These could help shed some early light on upcoming research opportunities. Institutions like University College London and Cardiff University are just a few of the many that regularly spotlight these funded PhD positions, so it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on them, although there will always be sufficient time to apply in order to give everyone a fair opportunity.

The NERC Funding Application Process

The application process for NERC funding has its unique aspects. Instead of applying directly to NERC, students should submit their applications through the respective affiliated universities and institutes.

Remember that while the backbone of these projects will already be predetermined, students will still have the opportunity to develop their own methodologies and perhaps even take the research into novel directions based on how the findings evolve. Additionally, some students will also be able to design their own research projects from scratch, which will require producing a research proposal as part of the application process.

The following materials will be required for making an application:

  • CV
  • Cover letter
  • Personal statement
  • Degree transcripts

The culmination of the application process might be a PhD interview . This allows both the applicant and the institution to dive deeper into the project details and checking to see whether both are a good fit for one another.

Tips for a Successful NERC Funding Application

Given the amount of competition you can expect to face, putting your best foot forward will be crucial. Consider the application similar to a job application – begin with early preparations.

A few best practices to increase your chances are:

  • Engaging with a potential supervisor early in the process.
  • Practicing for a possible PhD interview.
  • Demonstrating genuine interest by staying updated with the latest publications and projects from the potential supervisor or the department.
  • Preparing to highlight the broader implications of your research in environmental science and its alignment with NERC’s objectives.
  • Being well-versed with the specific objectives of the NERC funding scheme, and showcasing how your project reflect these.

Developing a Research Proposal for NERC

As mentioned above, while many NERC funded PhD projects come with pre-defined objectives, some present an opportunity for students to come up with their own research project. It’s a chance to bring an original idea to life. However, this autonomy comes with the responsibility of developing a strong research proposal.

Understanding NERC Funding Deadlines

Time waits for none, and in the world of academics, deadlines are sacrosanct. Prospective NERC PhD candidates should mark their calendars, as application deadlines typically loom around October/November. This schedule ensures that once selected, students can embark on their academic pursuits in the following October, aligning with the standard academic year. Institutions running the Doctoral Training Programme will have these dates prominently displayed, underscoring the importance of timeliness for PhD applications. The early bird, after all, catches the worm.

Post-PhD Opportunities with NERC Funding

Graduating with NERC funding isn’t the end; it’s merely the beginning. The networking opportunities NERC provides can open doors to myriad collaborations, coveted postdoc positions, and jobs across both academia and the corporate world.

Certain NERC-funded projects, given their relevance to urgent environmental concerns, serve as springboards into realms like policy-making, NGOs, or even governmental roles. Moreover, the international flavour that NERC brings ensures that your research doesn’t have territorial boundaries. It provides an avenue for a wide range of global exposure, paving the way for international appointments.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Being part of the NERC alumni community offers access to conferences, workshops, and seminars. Such platforms not only amplify the reach of one’s research but also help in establishing a formidable reputation in the scientific community. It’s a world where research, professional development, and networking meld seamlessly.


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