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Masters Funding from UK Research Councils

by Mark Bennett

Public funding for research projects at universities in the UK is distributed by seven Research Councils, each of which focusses in a particular set of academic disciplines.

Part of their responsibility involves supporting postgraduate training for potential new researchers (like you!).The Research Councils are therefore one of the most important providers of funding for Masters and PhD programmes.

Research Council funding is very competitive and your chances of receiving a scholarship are a bit more limited than they might be for other forms of postgraduate support.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though.

Most Research Council bursaries are very generous, covering fees and living costs. Plus, being funded by the UK government shows just how important your research is (not to mention that it looks great on a CV!).

How does UK Research Council funding work?

Research Council funding has gone through a series of changes in recent years.

Prior to 2009, the councils provided funding directly to Masters and PhD students, but this system has gradually been replaced by ‘blocks’ of institutional funding granted to consortia of universities and distributed amongst their members.

These consortia may be referred to as Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) or Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs – sometimes alternatively referred to as Centres for Doctoral Training, or CDTs).

In practice DTPs tend to have the freedom to allocate funding to individual students and research projects of their choosing, whilst DTCs (or CDTs) are granted resources to fund work in specific areas identified by the Research Councils.

As their names suggest, both types of consortia are mainly concerned with ‘doctoral training’ – supporting researchers at PhD level.

This means that relatively little Research Council support is now provided specifically for Masters degrees. Instead, most students on taught postgraduate courses find funding from other sources.

In future, the majority of funding for taught postgraduate study will be provided through a new system of Masters degree loans arriving in 2016.

Some Research Council funding for taught postgraduate study is available however – particularly for programmes designed to prepare for (or lead directly into) PhD level research.

This guide will give you an overview of the kinds of support for taught programmes that may still be offered by Research Councils, along with a brief introduction to the subject areas each covers and the general availability of their funding to Masters students.

What kind of Research Council funding is available for Masters degrees?

Individual universities within Research Council funded consortia usually have the freedom to allocate some of their resources to support Masters programmes.

They will tend to target students who plan to continue on to a research degree, or provide funding for a Masters in tandem with a PhD.

The two most common types of Research Council funding for Masters degrees are:

  • Research Preparation Masters These are targeted at students who can demonstrate an intention to use their Masters as a stepping stone towards academic research at PhD level and beyond. Professional Preparation Masters are also offered to some students in appropriate subject areas. Both types of award are becoming less common, but some are still offered by individual universities operating within Doctoral Training consortia.
  • Integrated PhD Programmes These may also be referred to as ‘combined programmes’ or ‘1+3’ degrees. They commence with a year of taught Masters study, followed immediately by three years of PhD research. As such they can be an excellent option for prospective postgraduates who know in advance that they wish to study a PhD after their Masters degree. You can search for integrated PhD programmes at FindAPhD.com, where they will usually be listed as ‘4 Year Programmes’, ‘1+3 Programmes’, or ‘New Route PhD Programmes’.

Though both types of funding are comparatively scarce, they are worth investigating – particularly if you already intend to continue on to PhD level work.

Having already won funding for a Research Preparation Masters will certainly impress potential supervisors (and PhD funders).

Alternatively, securing an Integrated (or ‘1+3’) Masters and PhD programme will not only provide you with an excellent route into doctoral research, it will also take care of all of your postgraduate funding needs in one go!

What does Research Council funding cover?

Masters funding from Research Councils will normally provide sufficient funds to meet the cost of tuition fees, plus a maintenance grant to cover accommodation, living costs and other expenses incurred during the duration of a programme.

The size of this maintenance grant can vary between awards, but is usually set by the Research Council. Slightly more maintenance funding will normally be granted to students in London, in order to reflect the higher cost of living in the capital.

Who is eligible for Research Council funding?

Under normal circumstances, all UK and EU students are eligible for Research Council funding.

However, EU students will usually only be entitled to a ‘fees only’ award: Funding that covers the cost of tuition on a Masters programme, but does not include a maintenance grant to cover living costs.

Research Council funding for part-time Masters programmes

You can receive Research Council funding for a part-time Masters, provided you are studying at at least 50% of the full-time rate.

You may also be permitted to change your registration status during your programme, subject to approval by your institution. However, Research Council funded programmes cannot normally be suspended and resumed, with the exception of up to 26 weeks maternity leave, or up to 13 weeks of illness in a calendar year (with appropriate medical certification).

Note that Research Council funding will not be available to you if you are in full-time employment – in such cases you will be deemed to have sufficient resources to support yourself.

More information

For more information on eligibility and restrictions for Research Council funding, see the official guidelines published by Research Councils UK.

Masters funding from the AHRC

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) supports research into the history, ideas and materials associated with different human cultures and enables continued reflection on the human experience through contemporary creative endeavours.

AHRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as Archaeology, English Literature and Creative Writing, Dance, Drama and Film Studies, History, and Philosophy.

What kind of AHRC Masters funding is available?

Since 2014, the AHRC has awarded most of its funding to 11 consortia of institutions collaborating as Doctoral Training Partnerships. Some individual universities within these DTPs use their funding allocation to support Research Preparation and Professional Preparation Masters Schemes.

You can view a list of AHRC Doctoral Training Partnerships, with contact details at the AHRC website.

The AHRC also funds a number of Centres for Doctoral Training, but these mainly focus on funding PhD projects addressing specific topics.

Masters funding from the BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) supports academic research in bioscience subject areas and funds the development of new biotechnologies and tools for biological research. Note that research into disease and abnormal biological function is usually the domain of the Medical Research Council.

BBSRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as Agricultural Sciences, Biosciences, some Food Sciences and some Health Sciences.

What kind of BBSRC Masters funding is available?

The BBSRC originally funded Masters Training Grants (MTGs) in order to prepare researchers for PhD level work.

However, this funding has now been phased out in favour of PhD programmes supported through Doctoral Training Partnerships. Some of these may fund four year PhD projects including training, or provide support for Integrated (1+3) Masters and PhD programmes.

In addition, some BBSRC funding for taught postgraduate courses is available through two schemes, referred to as Modular Training Partnerships and Advanced Training Partnerships.

These support courses of postgraduate training at Masters level, but do so through partnerships between industry employers and research organisations. Such funding is provided for existing employees to meet specific continuing professional development needs.

Masters funding from the EPSRC

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) supports research in physical sciences, engineering, information and computer technology and mathematics. It also helps apply or evaluate the new technologies and social or economic implications that arise from these investigations.

EPSRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as Chemistry, Computing and Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, General Engineering, Materials Technology, Mathematics and some aspects of Physics and Astronomy.

What kind of EPSRC Masters funding is available?

EPSRC funding for postgraduate study is directed at PhD level research, supported at universities through Doctoral Training Partnerships. Some of these may allocate funding to Integrated Programmes, combining a Masters degree with PhD research.

Alternatively, if you already plan to continue on to PhD level research after your Masters, you may wish to consider applying to one of the EPSRC’s Doctoral Training Centres instead.

These offer four year PhD programmes addressing particular research topics, in which the first year provides skills training similar to that acquired through a taught Masters degree. You can view information on EPSRC Doctoral Training Centres at FindAPhD.com.

Masters funding from the ESRC

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)supports research in various branches of economics, business and social sciences together with work assessing or shaping politics, social policy and international relations.

ESRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as Applied Social Work, Business and Management Studies, Criminology, Development Studies, Economics, Education, some aspects of Human Geography and Economic History, Law, Politics and International Relations, Sociology, and Town and Country Planning.

What kind of ESRC Masters funding is available?

The ESRC periodically allocates funding to Masters programmes in response to specific training aims. These will usually be offered through institutions operating as part of Doctoral Training Centres.

EPSRC DTCs may also offer funding for Integrated or ‘1+3’ programmes, combining Masters and PhD degrees. You can view more information at the ESRC website.

Masters funding from the MRC

The Medical Research Council (MRC) supports research into diseases and pathology, along with improvements in medicine and medical practice.

MRC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as Dentistry, appropriate Health Sciences, Medicine, Optometry and Ophthalmology, Pharmacology and Pharmacy and clinical branches of Psychology and Psychiatry.

What kind of MRC Masters funding is available?

The MRC provides most of its postgraduate funding to Doctoral Training Partnerships. It encourages individual universities within these to provide Masters training on a 1+3 model (integrating Masters and PhD study) if they wish.

In addition, a small amount of MRC funding is available specifically for Masters study as part of the Advanced Course Masters funding scheme.

Programmes funded in this way must be research-based (an MRes degree, for example) and must target specific subject areas identified by the MRC. You can read more about Advanced Course Masters at the MRC website.

Masters funding from the NERC

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) supports research into environmental sciences, including the use of scientific methods to investigate the ecology, geology, archaeology and other aspects of the Earth and its natural processes.

NERC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in subject areas such as Earth, Environmental and Ocean Studies, Forestry, Geography and Geology.

What kind of NERC Masters funding is available?

At present, the NERC does not fund Masters degrees directly, but support for Integrated Masters and PhD programmes may be offered through its Doctoral Training Partnerships (providing block studentship funding for university consortia) and Centres for Doctoral Training (funding research focussed on specified topics).

Masters funding from the STFC

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) supports research into physical science, engineering and technology subjects that depend on substantial facilities and infrastructure investment.

STFC funding for Masters degrees is potentially available in appropriate branches of Computing and Computer Science (particularly ‘big data’ computing), Physics and Astronomy (particularly nuclear, particle and quantum physics), Materials Technology and Mechanical Engineering.

What kind of STFC Masters funding is available?

The STFC does not fund Masters degrees directly, but Integrated Programmes may be supported at institutions within its Doctoral Training Partnerships.

Other funding for UK Masters degrees

Don’t worry if you aren’t successful in finding or winning Research Council funding for your Masters degree.

The reality is that the Research Councils no longer provide extensive support for taught postgraduate study. The awards that are available will also receive far more applicants than they can fund, with many exceptionally good students being declined.

The good news is that the Research Councils are far from the only organisation offering support for Masters degrees.

Elsewhere in our funding guide you can read about the huge range of funding available from charitable trusts and funding for international exchanges supported by the Erasmus Programme.

You can also use our sister site, PostgraduateFunding.com to search for these and other grants for postgraduate study at all levels.

Government loans for UK and EU students

If you are one of the UK or EU students who would normally be eligible for Research Council funding, you may be eligible for the new postgraduate loans system being introduced for Masters courses in 2016.

Heard about the new Postgraduate Loans?

From 2016, student loans of up to £10,000 will be available for Masters degrees in the UK. That includes taught and research programmes in all subjects. Check out our detailed guide to learn more.

FindAMasters and FindAPhD postgraduate scholarships

Don’t forget either that we also offer our own scholarships here at FindAMasters, with up to £5,000 available for one winner, plus another four £500 awards to help students top up their funding.

Why not sign up to learn more?

Or, if you’re interested in funding for PhD study, take a look at the PhD scholarships over at our sister site, FindAPhD.

Good luck!

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