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Research Councils

Research councils support the majority of studentships (funded postgraduate research places) by allocating funding to institutions. Studentships are a PhD student’s lifeblood. Many people wouldn’t be able to fund their postgraduate studies without the annual grant they receive from a research council, which is usually around £13,590 a year. Research councils also offer various other research grants and awards.

The key thing to remember is that the research councils award funding directly to universities and other organisations, not to students. Students apply to the institution where they wish to take their research degree, not the research council. However, it is useful to know about the different research councils, what subjects they cover and how much funding is available in each research area. There are seven research councils in the UK.

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

These guys are responsible for promoting research in the arts and humanities. They have around £100m to allocate. This money is used to fund postgraduate research directly, but is also used to fund other arts and humanities research projects, and raise the profile of research in this area.

The AHRC covers the whole gamut of arts and humanities subjects, from art history, dance, drama and visual arts, to history, philosophy, law, museum studies and English literature. Unfortunately though, as the AHRC has the smallest budget, it also funds the least studentships.

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

The BBSRC promote cutting-edge bioscience research and training. They are allocated a huge £445m to support around 1,600 scientists and 2,000 research students. About £43m of this money goes towards funding PhD students each year.

They fund Doctoral Training Partnerships, QUOTA studentships, CASE studentships and targeted priority studentships for postgraduate students, as well as offering Industrial CASE awards and Strategic Skills awards.

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

The ESRC pumps £174 million into research on economic and social issues. It currently supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students.

The main areas of research that the ESCR invests in include: environment and energy, understanding behaviour, technology and innovation, health and wellbeing, global economy, security and conflict, and social diversity. It puts £45m into supporting almost 3,000 studentships for postgraduate students each year.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The EPSRC invests more than £816m a year into research in the following areas: engineering, materials science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and information and communications technology. They support around 7,300 researchers and 2,724 new postgraduate research students each year.

Medical Research Council (MRC)

Understandably, the MRC funds medical research. In 2009/10, it devoted £758m to the cause, funding over 1,500 studentships and spending £78m on training awards for postgraduate students and fellows.

Its two research priorities over the next five years are resilience, repair and replacement (e.g. natural protection, tissue disease and degeneration, mental health and wellbeing, and repair and replacement) and living a long and healthy life (e.g. genetics and disease, life course perspective, lifestyles affecting health, and environment and health).

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

The David Attenborough of research councils, NERC funds research that enhances our understanding of the natural world, from research into climate change and hydrology to biodiversity and natural hazards.

The council has around £388m to allocate, which it divides between its research centres, such as the British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and the National Oceanography Centre. It also funds other research projects and training for the next generation of environmental scientists. It currently supports 1,100 PhD students each year.

Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

What? Not another science one! Yes, it’s another science one, but this time it’s dedicated to supporting research and graduate training in astronomy, particle physics, space science, nuclear physics and other related sub-areas, such as laser science, microelectronics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar technology. It currently funds over 600 postgraduate students.