What PhD subjects attract UKRI funding?

This guide is aimed to give you a sense of what PhD subjects attract UKRI funding, and therefore your chances of finding a PhD studentship relevant to you.

One of the most exciting aspects about doing a PhD is that you are creating new knowledge - something that was unknown to the world before. Research and innovation play a crucial role improving lives and prosperity through the knowledge created. As such, the Government invests heavily in it; to the tune of 1.7% GDP or £558 per head in 2018.

Investing in talented future researchers is therefore critical to ensure that the UK continues its strength as a world leader in research and innovation. As a result, UKRI supports around 20% of all UK-based postgraduate researchers through funding and support in the form of PhD studentships.

So what is a PhD studentship exactly?

In short, a funding package covering money towards your tuition fees and a ‘stipend’; like a grant or small salary to cover your living costs for each year of your PhD. The rate increases slightly each year in line with inflation. In 2023/4 it is £4,712 towards tuition fees (the rate universities will normally set as the annual fee for ‘home’ students) and £18,622 towards living costs.

UKRI-funded doctoral students may also be able to access additional funding, for example to cover the cost of training and development or a disabled students allowance.

How does the funding reach universities?

Several research councils make up UKRI, each specialising in different subject areas. These research councils then advertise funding to universities and other research organisations for specific research purposes. Often universities pool their expertise in specific disciplines to create economies of scale in expertise and facilities.

This enables them to put forward stronger funding bids. These groupings - called Doctoral Training Partnerships or Centres for Doctoral Training - will then seek first-class PhD students through their funded research pot to join them with their research aims. 

Do I apply to the research council, university or training centre?

You’ll always apply to the university or training centre - the research councils don’t offer PhD studentships directly.

What are my chances of getting a funded PhD studentship via a research council?

Let’s start with the good news: UKRI invests over £400 million annually in PhD studentships. They are however, competitive: unless you can demonstrate a strong academic aptitude and suitability for the role, your chances will be slim. The other factor to consider is research area: it’s safe to say that some councils fund more than others. Although the table below is not specific to PhD studentship funding, it does give a sense of which research councils fund the most.

Total awards made (£m) by research council from 2015/16 to 2019/20

Which universities receive the most funding?

PhD's are advertised on Postgraduate Studentships as they are shared with us. However, it may also be helpful to know which universities receive the greatest number of research funding awards by research council. That way you can pinpoint which universities are more likely to offer studentships in your research area of interest:

Greatest number of university awards from 2015/16 to 2019/20 - Top four universities by research council

Are all students eligible for UKRI-funded PhD studentships?

For many years the answer was no, but the good news is that from 2021/22 international students are also eligible. If you are an international student, there are a couple of factors to make you aware of. Firstly, only 30% of PhD studentships can be awarded to international students. This 30% includes EU students. Secondly, you’ll also need to consider how you’ll fund the additional tuition fees, as often these are higher than the rate paid by UK students – and the value paid by your studentship annually.

Next steps

If you’d like to find out more about what PhD subjects attract UKRI funding and stipends and to which universities, their website provides all the data. We’d recommend keeping your eye closely on Postgraduate Studentships and your relevant university websites from Winter through to Spring, as this is when the majority of PhD studentships are advertised for start the following academic year. And remember to join our mailing list for the latest advice and opportunities.