- Studentships are scholarships awarded to PhD students, with funding provided by either a Research Council, university, private body or research charity.
- Most studentships are linked to a specific research project or a field of study.
- Can either be partially funded (covering fees only) or fully funded (covering fees and providing an allowance for living costs – the stipend).
- Universities commonly require candidates to have a 2:1 or 1st class honours degree; a relevant Masters degree may be useful for a successful applicant but not essential.
- Most studentships don’t allow other sources of funding e.g. bursaries or PhD loans.
What Are PhD Studentships?
A studentship is a non-repayable scholarship available to PhD students to support their doctoral studies. At a minimum, all studentships will cover a student’s tuition fee, however they may also cover the student’s living expenses (referred to as a stipend or maintenance grant) depending on the specific type of studentship awarded.
Who Are They Awarded By?
The most common source of PhD funding is through a Research Council, in which a studentship is awarded in the form of a Research Council Grant. In the UK, there are seven Research Councils as listed below:
- Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
- Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
- Medical Research Council (MRC)
- Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
- Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
Collectively, these councils form part of a government body known as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) which provide funding to PhD students to advance research. UKRI aims to provide the best environment for research and innovation to thrive by working in collaboration with universities, research organisations, companies, charities and governments.
The second most common source of studentships is directly from universities in the form of scholarships and bursaries. Although not always the case, studentships provided by universities are often linked to a specific project title or field of study and may also be linked at least in part to Research Council funding. This means that you must undertake a PhD project in a specific pre-determined subject area in order to meet the eligibility criteria for funding.
The other source of studentships is through professional bodies (e.g. Institution of Mechanical Engineers) and research charities (e.g. Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK). These studentships are known as Cooperative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE). In nearly all cases, CASE studentships are also linked to a specific project title or field of study.
How Much Funding Can I Receive?
A successful applicant may receive two types of studentships: partially funded and fully funded. Partially funded studentships typically cover the cost of a student’s tuition fees and possibly any associated project costs. This can include aspects such as training courses and travelling for meetings and conferences, though the exact scope of what’s included differs for each studentship.
Although tuition fees vary depending on university, the indicative fee is £4,500/year as stated by the UKRI for UK students.
A fully funded studentship covers the same aspects of a partially funded studentship, however, in addition to this, it also provides a tax-free maintenance grant to cover the student’s cost of living. This maintenance grant is more commonly referred to as an annual stipend and looks to provide enough additional funding that the student need not look for part-time work to pay for their living costs whilst undertaking their PhD. It should be noted stipends provided by Research Councils will need to meet a nationally agreed minimum level; for 2021/22, this minimum level has been set as £15,609. Living costs do of course vary between cities and it’s something you should factor in when planning your budget. Most universities do offer students the opportunity to earn a little extra money (e.g. by teaching undergraduates) to supplement your stipend.
Am I Eligible for a PhD Studentship?
The eligibility requirements differ between studentships, however, most will require the following in order to be eligible for financial support:
- A Bachelors degree with a 2:1 or above
- A relevant Masters degree
There may also be some restrictions which deem you non-eligible for a studentship. These are commonly:
- If you already hold a doctoral degree
- If you receive funding from another source e.g. a doctoral loan
As the requirements differ for each studentship, there may be some further requirements or restrictions in addition to the above. For example, some studentships restrict how many hours of paid employment you can undertake alongside your PhD and some are limited to students fitting certain criteria e.g. coming from a low-income household or being of a certain ethnicity.
Therefore, make sure you read the descriptions of any studentship carefully and in full before making any decisions.
Note: Being eligible for a PhD studentship does not guarantee you one. With exception to a few, all studentships are awarded based on ability, therefore, funding will be awarded to the best PhD applicants applying for the studentships.
UK PhD studentships are now typically only open to UK students, with fewer being available to EU and international students. One of the key reasons for this are the higher tuition fees that students outside the UK will need to pay. Some universities may offer EU/international students studentships if they are able to cover the additional fee costs themselves. However, even if you are an EU student, you still may be limited to only a partially funded studentship meaning only your fees will be covered, so it is important to be clear on what you’re eligible for and the deadline for applications. For further clarification, see the table below:
|Student’s Nationality||Availability||Predominant Studentship Type|
|UK||All UK Studentships||Full (tuition fees + maintenance stipend)|
|EU||Few UK Studentships||Partial (tuition fees only)|
|International (Non-EU)||Few UK Studentships||Partial (tuition fees only)|
How Do I Apply for a PhD Studentship?
The application process can be initiated in one of two ways. First, some universities will automatically consider you for a studentship when they receive your application to undertake a PhD. For example, Nottingham Trent University specifies the below as their arrangements:
The NTU Doctoral School will treat your online form as an application form for a place to study for an MPhil/PhD doctoral research degree at Nottingham Trent University, as well as a funding application for the 2020 Nottingham Trent University PhD Studentship Scheme.
Second, some universities will require you to submit a separate funding application form. If you are required to submit a separate application, these are usually made directly to university regardless of the source of the funding body i.e. a Research Council or professional body. This is because although the studentship funding may be provided from a non-academic body, as the academic institute hosting the PhD project, the university will be responsible for assessing candidates and selecting the most suitable one. Be mindful that these may come with a strict application deadline.
If you are required to submit a separate application, you will typically be asked for:
- Your PhD application form
- A research proposal
- A CV
- A cover letter
- Your references
Upon receiving your application, the PhD supervisor will likely have an informal discussion with you, either by email, over the phone or in person. In some cases, you may be invited in for a formal interview.
Regardless of which of the two situations occurs, the potential supervisor will use the discussion alongside your application to determine whether you should be awarded the PhD programme and studentship. Following their decision, they will get in touch with you to let you know the outcome.
It’s worth noting that in some cases, the potential supervisor may decide that you are suitable to undertake the PhD project but are not the strongest candidate who has applied across all PhDs within their department. If this is the case and the studentship is linked to a research topic as opposed to the specific project title you are applying for, you may be offered the PhD opportunity but not the studentship. If this occurs, you will need to consider your alternative PhD funding options, such as funding it yourself or obtaining a PhD loan, before making your decision.
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