Money is there for the asking

Research councils offer PhD students up to £12,000 in living expenses and pay fees
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So, you're pretty sure you're on for a 2:1, your degree course has whetted your appetite to delve more deeply into your chosen subject and all your lecturers have said you're just the sort of person who should be doing research work. What's the problem? Money, that's the problem. Like most undergraduates approaching the end of three years as a full-time student, your overdraft is bigger than you dreamed possible, and the thought of financing more years of academic life poses serious questions.

So, you're pretty sure you're on for a 2:1, your degree course has whetted your appetite to delve more deeply into your chosen subject and all your lecturers have said you're just the sort of person who should be doing research work. What's the problem? Money, that's the problem. Like most undergraduates approaching the end of three years as a full-time student, your overdraft is bigger than you dreamed possible, and the thought of financing more years of academic life poses serious questions.

But there is money out there, chiefly in the form of graduate studentships, specifically earmarked to help the best graduates undertake study and research in the areas of academic and economic importance. All cover course fees and include up to £12,000-a-year living expenses. But it's competitive.

The central source of such grants is the network of six research councils, covering medicine, biology, engineering, physics, the natural environment, and economics and social research. In addition, the broad swathe of arts subjects is covered by the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

For example, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) covers the life sciences outside the medical field. They spend £30m a year supporting postgraduate research in the biosciences. The method of distribution of that money is undergoing a change. Until recently, much of it went to universities proposing particular projects and stipulating the number of PhD students needed. Under the new system, the BBSRC will allocate a pot of money to a university, equivalent to a set number of studentships, and leave it up to the universities to distribute the money among individuals. This will happen every three years, not two, as now.

"The project-based competition was perceived to be something of a lottery by the academic community," says Dr Ian Lyne, BBSRC's head of postgraduate training and fellowships. "We needed to find a way of directing studentship funding into key research priority areas, while giving universities and institutes a greater degree of stability and control."

The change underlines the fact that, for postgraduate students trying to receive such research council funds, the application process starts with the university offering the research place. For example, Manchester University is advertising, among many others, a BBSRC-funded studentship starting this September to work on a project entitled: "How does the brain control body weight?"

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) awards between 600 and 700 studentships a year across a wide field of subject areas, including geography, linguistics, psychology, business and education. All follow what's known as the one plus three model, whereby the first year's funding is for a Masters course, including research training, followed by three years on a PhD. The ESRC no longer gives studentships for free-standing Masters courses. "We're in the business of creating the researchers of tomorrow," says Iain Stewart of the ESRC, whose annual outlay on studentships is £25.6m.

The ESRC ensures it gets value for money by monitoring rigorously the proportion of recipients of studentships who go the distance in their PhDs, measured specifically by recording how many submit their final thesis. In the 1980s and 1990s, this rose from 29 per cent to 84 per cent -- a sign that their vigilance paid off.

Among the departments recognised by the ESRC for funding in every type of research degree -- full-time, part-time, employer-related and distance-learning -- is Exeter University's School of Education and Lifelong Learning. Of the 30 or more PhD students starting every year, only one or two attract a studentship, but the ESRC recognition is seen by Exeter as an important endorsement of its research work. This year, a likely topic attracting a studentship will be "Exclusion: children with profound and multiple learning difficulties".

Even though research council studentships are rare, most universities have their own studentships, and direct students towards similar grants from numerous independent charities or trusts. For example, Manchester University channels about 700 research council studentships and a further 1,000 from other sources. But the place to start your search is the department likely to accept you, on academic grounds, to do a postgraduate course. They will know of the potential sources of funding, and channel your application.

Comments