Applying for PhD funding?

It is the time of year when prospective doctoral candidates are polishing research proposals as they go off in search of the rarity that is a fully funded PhD place. My department has just announced this year’s deadlines. It is a time I remember only too well and now I can reflect on it from the safe position of having secured full funding from the ESRC. I am also prompted to think about it by a friend who having returned to do her masters this year, is in a very similar position to the one I was in. She asked me what it was like applying and for some advice. I’ve been asked by two other people since. Here are my thoughts.

In some ways I was lucky. I had taken a taught module during my MRes for which the assignment was to produce a research proposal. This meant I had a draft of sorts already in the bag when faced with the blank space where this needed to go on the multitude of forms I filled in. I was also lucky to receive some good advice from supervisors, fellow students and friends. But I did not feel lucky. I felt positively overwhelmed. I felt my chances of securing funding were microscopic. I knew that I wanted to do a PhD. If I did not get funding I was not sure what I would do with myself. Go part-time? Look for work? The prospect did not fill me with hope.

I started by looking for potential supervisors, academics whose research interests were similar to my own. I narrowed down my selection and started getting in touch with people. Here is where my advice begins; contact as many people as possible, send your draft proposal out widely for feedback, talk to people and go to events relevant to your field. You never know who you might meet or when an offhand remark at a drinks reception might lead somewhere. Over one post-seminar glass of wine I met someone who had recently finished her PhD. She gave me the name of somebody to contact. To cut a long story short, that somebody is now one of my supervisors and was crucial to my funding success.

Start early. Start now! My departmental deadline is at the end of January. Many departments may be similar, though I have seen one which is December 6th. However, the more time you spend communicating with potential supervisors, honing your research proposal and planning your research, the better. It takes time to familiarise yourself with the relevant literature and distil your ideas into coherent, scholarship-winning form. Give yourself time to do this thinking. Write a scrappy draft of your research proposal soon. You can reflect on and return to it once you have something on paper.

At the stage where I had identified prospective places to do my PhD, worked on my research proposal, been to lots of networking events while doing a full-time masters degree as well), things did not really get much easier. This was not something I had anticipated. I knew what I wanted to do. I had a working draft of my research proposal and was working on the feedback I had received. I started on the paperwork and the one-to-one work with the potential supervisors from the departments I had decided to apply to.

Except it was not that simple. Institution A required the research proposal in 4000 characters, looking at several different aspects of the research. Institution B wanted one A4 side and used different criteria. Institution C wanted 10,000 characters maximum and a third set of criteria on what to include. As a piece of advice on what your proposal should concentrate on, I would say common criteria for all of my applications were; the ability of the proposed research to make a unique contribution to the field, fit with potential supervisor/departmental research, and feasibility of carrying out the research within three years. All funders want to fund well-supervised research which will make an impact and be done on time.

Part of this interminable form-filling and proposal re-jigging was down to three different selection processes, even where the application was to one of the same main funders for my discipline, the AHRC and the ESRC. Some had online forms, some email attachments, two interviewed, one did not. One required me to withdraw all other pending applications to make an application to them. I was unwilling to put all my eggs in one basket and so did not pursue that application. All had different deadlines close together. Each supervisor suggested revisions to my proposal based on their experience and what they felt more likely to receive funding at their institution/in their department. If am honest, in at least one case, I am not sure the supervisor themselves really knew what was being asked for. All in all, I spent the whole of January that year in a state of utter confusion and stress about the entire process. Many of my fellow students felt similarly. Be organised in the face of potential disarray. Keep a folder for each application and make sure you keep a copy of anything you have submitted in an online form.

Once the applications were in there was a period of helplessness as I waited to see if I made the cut. The first disappointment was simultaneously swift and brutal. Swift, because it was the first application I had submitted and without an interview stage the answer was final. Brutal because at the time this would have been my most obvious choice, the answer was no and there was very little feedback on what I could have done better. Even the supervisor who had helped me prepare this application acknowledged that the system was crushingly competitive and the decision had come down to the tiniest things.

Here began an exercise in picking myself up and dusting myself off quickly, something I have come to realise is a useful ability in an academic. I had an interview for somewhere else in a week. I had to find a way to cut myself off from this disappointment, and be ready to sell a re-branded version of myself to a panel of people who could pick only a few of the able applicants they interviewed. I responded fairly literally – I got a new haircut and interview outfit and headed off to the interview. I felt it went quite well, but had to put it out of mind. After all there was nothing else I could do about this application now and the next interview was quickly approaching.

A note on interview preparation: firstly, know your literature and your research proposal inside out. You cannot know it too well. Be confident about the place of your research in this literature and your ability to get it done. Secondly, do some research on your interview panel. Find out what their research is about and what else they do. It might help you anticipate standpoints or questions, or even just help you avoid putting your foot in it. It is also useful to have some questions ready. Questions on the rest of the process are fine. However, I would advise asking questions about things you are interested in about that department; projects or research clusters, support and training for students etc. Show the panel you are interested in what it will be like to be a PhD student there. Finally, dress smartly and be confident. You have nothing to lose from either, even if you do not feel particularly confident beforehand.

This definitely helped me in my final interview. I had to give a presentation and answer questions. I did so calmly and confidently. By the end of the interview I did feel confident. I even almost enjoyed the experience and I was sure that I could have done no more. I received my offer the next day. My confidence was something that was fed back to me positively. Apparently me believing I could do it, helped convince others. Who would have thought it?

After going through all of this though, I am sorry to say, there is still a strong chance of coming away empty-handed. Even if you repeat the exercise the following year. Award-winning students on my masters course found this out the hard way. However, do not lose hope. If the PhD is really the way forward for you, you will find a way. Many courses will let you study part-time while you work. One alternative comes from a former King’s College London student who has written the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding about how to use smaller bursaries and charity funds to finance your PhD in smaller amounts.

Getting funding for a PhD is tough and feels like a big game of chance sometimes. But there are things you can do to help swing those odds in your favour. Even if you come away empty handed, don’t give up. There are ways and means if you are determined enough and that resilience will stand you in good stead as you do your PhD.

Want to share any of your experiences of applying for or giving out PhD funding? Questions about something I have not covered?


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