Doctoral Training in Environmental Research in the UK

View of Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissan ce Orbiting Camera NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

View of Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiting Camera NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

It is now a year since the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced the results of its first competition for ‘Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP)’, and just a few weeks since each of the 15 funded DTPs welcomed their first cohorts of doctoral students. In this time, the training landscape for PhD (or DPhil) students across the environmental sciences has changed radically.

Since we are approaching the annual round of applications for doctoral study, this post offers a short summary and perspective on ‘how to apply for doctoral study‘ which should be relevant across the UK, and for most students looking for projects that will fall under NERC’s broad ‘environmental science’ remit.

Scholarships for Doctoral Training

Through the 15 funded DTPs, NERC now support a minimum of 240 full-time-equivalent scholarships each year for research students working towards a PhD/DPhil. These 240 scholarships have been allocated to the DTPs following the 2013 competition, and broadly they will provide full funding (stipend, plus fees, plus a contribution towards research costs) for the 3.5 – 4 years of the graduate training course. Details will differ from centre to centre, but the summary rules are the same:

– if you are a UK resident then you should be eligible for a full award;

– if you are not a UK resident, but are from the EU then you should be eligible for a fees-only award, and will to find some other sources of funding to pay for living costs. All universities will have scholarship packages for this purpose, so do ask!

– if you are an international student, from outside the EU, then the NERC rules are clear that you cannot be funded by a NERC training grant. However, the quality of the UK research base relies on attracting an exceptional pool of talented graduate students from around the world – and all universities will have competitive scholarship packages to support graduate study in the UK.

In addition to these 240 studentships, NERC also support a number of Centres for Doctoral Training, and some stand-alone industrial ‘CASE’ studentships.

What is Doctoral Training?

The fifteen Doctoral Training Partnerships all offer tailored training in research and related skills, but the details of the training offered (both in terms of what is offered, what is required, and the timing of the training courses) will be different from one DTP to the next. All DTPs share the ambition of providing a programme of activities that will help students as they initiate, develop and complete their research projects, and embark on their careers – whether in science, or beyond. All of the DTPs are also partnerships – with ambitions to engage in research and related activities with partner organisations from outside the Higher Education sector.

By the same token, the DTPs all have different mechanisms in place to match up potential students with research topics, and supervisors: some will advertise lists of approved topics from the outset, while others may have no formal project lists but simply encourage applicants to apply for broad research areas of interest; or to work with particular reserchers, or research groups. My advice – don’t be passive, but make contact with the DTPs and potential supervisors, and start up a conversation well before making an application. Some DTPs may well have open days in the lead up to the closing date for applications; others may be happy for applicants to make informal arrangements to visit.

What next?

Think about what you are interested in working on for a research degree -and not just the topic area, but perhaps also what sort of project. Laboratory based? Computational? Field based? Here you need to be able to take advice: choose a topic area that will sustain your interest, but try not to be too swayed by your (positive or negative) experience of research projects so far. Give some thought to ‘why?’ you want to do a PhD or DPhil – it will be a 3 –  4 year journey that you are embarking on, so why not think about your roadworthiness before setting off?.  Think about whether the topic area seems to be ‘important’ enough to devote a large fraction of your life so far.. and why you think the problem is important enough to work on. Open ended ‘voyages of discovery’ can look very attractive at the beginning, particularly if they are tied to exotic fieldwork in a remote location, but your perspective might be very different three years in, when you are trying to work out what was the scientific rationale behind the work you have done. From the perspective of an examiner, it is surprisingly common to find that a student has worked out the ‘really obvious thing to have done’ only during the final stages of writing up the thesis, by which time there is no time or resource left.

Take advice from current PhD students, and from other researchers  in your own institution, to help to inform your choices of where to apply. Most importantly, keep your mind open to new opportunities. You may already  be specialised in one part of a discipline, but the new DTP training structures may well offer you opportunities to move into quite new areas.  Be open to opportunities in unfamiliar places: you may well believe that you are already in the best place for X (and you may be right), but don’t imagine that there aren’t excellent projects with great research groups in unexpected places – there are!

Then, once you have decided to apply, give your academic referees advance notice of your plans – and make sure that you don’t pass on your own application deadlines to them!  Don’t expect the application and assessment processes to be the same from one institution to the next (though they are likely to be fairly similar), and give yourself enough time to do as good a job as you can of the application.

After that – good luck! It is a competitive field out there, but every DTP is on the lookout for research students with great potential. If you are fortunate enough to be made a formal offer, don’t feel obliged to accept it on the spot – particularly if you have other interviews on the horizon – and do ask for an extension if you feel that you are being asked to make a decision too quickly.



I am the academic lead of the Oxford Doctoral Training Partnership in Environmental Research.

David Pyle is a volcanologist, and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford. His first encounter with volcanoes was at the age of 7, when he visited Villarrica, Chile, shortly after an eruption. David studied geological sciences at the University of Cambridge, and later completed a PhD on the 'older' eruptions of Santorini, Greece. After a short post-doc at the California Institute of Technology, David returned to a lectureship in Cambridge. In 2006, he moved to his current post in Oxford. David tweets at @davidmpyle

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