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In Pursuit of a PhD & Doctoral Funding (Part 1)

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Hello, and welcome to An Eddying Flight, Dear Readers. Today's post (and next week's) is aimed at those of you who are in the same position I was, in back in 2017, when I first began to take the idea of pursuing a PhD seriously... but had absolutely no idea what I would need to do, in concrete terms, to either find a place on a university PhD/doctoral programme or (equally vital) the funding that I would need to take up such a place.

(This might be a good point to quickly skim through my PhD Mallarkey post, if you haven't already).

Even if attending university is not a particularly rare achievement in your family, even if you yourself have a Higher Education degree of some kind, recent or years old, the leap from knowing vaguely that PhDs are a thing to attempting to undertake one is vast. If, like me, you're from a background where no one within your family group or extended community had ever attended university successfully, the absolute deluge of unfamiliar teminology, acronyms, assumed knowledge and unwritten rules involved in a quick scan of any university's pages may very swiftly make you feel so completely unprepared - even stupid - that you could be tempted to give up before you even begin.

Please, don't give up. I promise that you are not stupid - and I think almost everyone coming to a PhD feels unprepared at some point. Even after receiving advice from kind friends, scouring helpful blogs and reading books on the process, I still felt wildly out of my depth and honestly? Despite the fact that I'm now actually doing a fully funded PhD, there are days where I still feel so overwhelmed by all this academy stuff that I begin to get panicky.

Thankfully, once you're on the inside it becomes much easier to admit these feelings and to ask questions, and this usually leads to the other person laughing sheepishly as they realise that they've slipped into jargon, and then explaining things in much plainer and less mysterious terms. It's not that most of these concepts are even particularly difficult; everyone on the inside just always expects everyone else to already know everything (they definitely don't).

This post and the next one are my attempt to make it easier for you to get to the inside. I can't actually open the door and let you through - you have to get to that point yourself - but hopefully I'm putting back the shutters and opening a window. You can lean on the sill as long as you like, observing the goings on inside, until everything seems a bit more familiar, and less terrifyingly opaque.

I'm going to treat you as if you were me, back in 2017, and tackle all the issues that tripped me up and delayed me on my journey to a PhD. To that end, I will need to make certain assumptions about you, because I don't know everything. I only know how I went about proposing my own, independent research project and getting a place and funding in an Arts/Humanities context. Therefore, while some of this information may be useful to other kinds of potential PhD candidates, if you're in, for instance, the sciences, and you're seeking to join an existing project as a PhD researcher or get a position on a collaborative doctoral award, my advice me be of limited use to you. Apply your pinch of salt liberally.

Today's post is more of a general overview of the processes involved in getting started. Next week I'll get really specific (and if there are any particular questions you'd like answered, please don't hesitate to tweet me, comment below, or leave me an FB comment).

Firstly, then - how do you get a PhD place at a (reputable, British) university?

Well, you do need to be somewhat qualified in the topic you intend to get your doctorate in. This may seem blindingly obvious but in fact the definition of 'qualified' can be fairly wide. For some subjects - maths, sciences, engineering, most of those STEM disciplines - often you can progress straight from a bachelor's degree to a PhD, especially if you've done work in that field following getting the degree. In many of the arts and humanities disciplines - English, history or art history, archeology, the social sciences, Linguistics and languages - you will often need to have both a first degree and a master's degree in a field related to your PhD subject.

However, sometimes you may be qualified to do research on a particular subject (and remember, that's what a doctorate is, a research degree) by professional - non-academic - qualifications in certain fields, backed up by a certain number of years of professional experience. This is often the case for fields which would have been considered 'vocational' traditionally - accountancy, animal husbandry/behaviourism, physiotherapy, project management and business, agricultural studies, certain arts subjects, landscaping and design.

And for some subjects, especially in the arts, in English, and in those 'vocational' areas, if you have years of experience in the professional practice of the subject at hand and can demonstrate really high levels of competence - you've had multiple successful shows of your paintings, you've published multiple critically-acclaimed books, you've been employed as an NHS physio for ten years, you've run the Big Cat enclosure at Longleat since you were twenty-one - you may not need any form of formal, academic qualifications at all.

This was the approach that I first took. I had no qualifications more advanced than GCSES, but did have a publication history that showed I was capable of writing and researching, and an idea of the research project I wanted to do. I wrote an introductory email briefly explaining who I was, the main points of my thesis proposal, made sure my CV was updated with all my publications and teaching work, and picked a sample of my creative writing to attach. This email was what I thought of as 'supervisor bait'.

And that's because, if you want to get a place to do independent research on a doctoral programme in the UK, the first step is generally to find a lecturer or professor in your discipline who is interested in you, likes the sound of your research, and is willing, provisionally at least, to supervise you through a PhD.

In order to achieve this, I:

  • Thoroughly read all the relevant pages on the websites of local universities that had Creative Writing PhD programmes (not many to chose from in my region, sadly). Some unis will have undergraduate and even MA programmes in certain subjects without the capacity to supervise a PhD. Make sure there's specific mention of a PhD programme before you contact a university to avoid wasting your time.

  • Did the same for other unis that were not within commuting distance for me, to see if any of them mentioned either offering a distance learning option for their PhD, or seemed open to flexible working. Many universities don't expect PhD students to work on campus much and don't mind if you live far away. However, some do expect their doctoral candidates to be on campus full-time. AND, vitally, some funding relies on geographical location. If you live far from a potential university and are unable or unwilling to move, then make sure you mention this in your introductory email.

  • Searched those same websites for mentions of funding, either external - which mainly comes from the UK Research & Innovation body, indirectly, and is allotted/awarded to universities through bodies called 'research councils' (there's one for Arts and Humanities, one for Engineering & Physical Sciences, one for Medical etc.) by smaller regional bodies called Doctoral Training Partnerships - or internal, which usually comes in the form of 'faculty studentships/scholarships' which are awarded/alloted internally by the individual university itself. More detail on this in Part 2, don't worry! The important point is to make sure, if you need funding for your PhD, that the university is either in a Doctoral Training Partnership, or has faculty studentships available the year you want to start (or both) and that your subject/discipline is eligible for this funding.

  • Tried to figure out the procedure for approaching each department. This does differ from place to place and it's not always easy to tell from the websites - sometimes you just have to guess. Some unis want you to pick out a single academic from their roster who shares a research interest with you (for instance - you intend to write a historical novel about a Highwaywoman, and the lecturer has research on depictions of 'femme fatale' in 18th century literature and has written a novel about a female serial killer) and send them a personalised, tailored email explaining why you want to work with them in particular. If they're not interested or are too busy, you pick another lecturer from the department, try to see if there's some way that their research coincides with yours, and approach them with another individualised email... and so on, until you find someone willing to work with you. Or not. Other universities have a central point of contact, either a lecturer or an administrator to whom you can send one email with everything attached, and that person will then share your query with everyone in the department and see if any of the lecturers are interested that way.

  • Sent my email out and crossed my fingers.

I was surprised and delighted by how many English and Creative Writing departments warmly welcomed me to apply to their doctoral programmes after seeing my CV. However, many pointed out that while my publication record was impressive, it didn't really show evidence of any skills at academic writing or research. Several universities suggested that I do a Master's Degree first, both to demonstrate my academic ability and to check that I actually enjoyed that kind of practice before committing myself to three-six years of it. And every single one of them, no matter how encouraging, told me that my chances of being put forward by the university as a candidate for either internal or external funding would be low to non-existent in my then-current situation. Without a BA or an MA, I would be seen as too much of a risk.

I should also note that there were a few places who were less kind to me. I was told by one uni that the quality of my writing did not meet the standard expected by the lecturers in their department (this is was in response to a writing sample which had come from a published, critically acclaimed, award-winning work). Another told me that, with such a lack of qualifications, I would clearly lack the critical thinking skills and academic rigour required even to pass their MA, let alone undertake a doctorate. They recomended me to enrol on a Bachelor's Degree instead and 'see if you manage that'. These were both large, well-respected universities.

You will need to brace yourself for rejections and for some people to be quite bewilderingly unhelpful and even rude. A certain portion of the overall population are jerks in general, and therefore so are a certain portion of the people working in the hallowed halls of academia. You also need to be prepared to realise, especially if you need funding, that you may NOT have the qualifications required.

After nearly two years of trying unsuccessfully to find a university who wanted to work with me AND were willing to put me forward for funding, I realised that it wasn't going to happen. I had rewritten my thesis proposal approximately fifty times, had enjoyed some lovely chats and been given lots of good advice - and if I'd had the money, I could have applied for a self-funded place at several different unis. But that was not a possibility, and to get so close without being able to make that final leap to actually doing the thing I wanted to do was agonisingly frustrating. Clearly, the structures and policies of British universities and research funding bodies were not going to undergo a sudden and miraculous change, so I had to make a change to myself if I wanted to get any further; I needed to go and get that Master's Degree.

I'm not going to lie and say it wasn't scary to have to back up and change lanes that way. I was lucky; by that point, here was a government loan available to cover the fees, but financially, it was still dicey. I wanted to do the course full-time and complete it in a year, which meant I'd have to drastically reduce the amount of other work I could take on and live on not much money for a year (little did I know that the pandemic would shortly reduce that work to a big fat zero anyway). I also knew that if I completed my MA and still couldn't get anyone to take me seriously as a fundable candidate, that would be the end of the line. There would be nowhere else to go and I'd have to admit defeat, a year older and a lot poorer in the savings account.

If you, too, get to this stage, you will have to be really honest with yourself about what you need to do to radically change your value and credibility as a potential doctoral candidate, and whether that is realistic given your circumstances, the resources (time, energy, finances) that you have, and your ultimate goals. Maybe you could do a new qualification part time to fit in around work, or maybe you could accept a self-funded place, take out the doctoral loan, use that to support you as you start your research, and then re-apply for funding the next year (some people are successful with this strategy, but it's risky - I couldn't have done it).

Ultimately, I'm incredibly glad that I did the MA. I loved it, and because the course was very dense and academic, it gave me just the grounding in theory that I needed, which boosted my confidence immensely. But most important of all, it worked.

By throwing myself at the degree with everything I had, passing with distinction, (and even winning that year's MA Creative Writing prize), I transformed myself from a risky candidate with an interesting CV but no academic background into one who had not only a strong record in artistic practice, but also the academic chops to successfully tackle a PhD. As soon as I was able to add my MA to my CV and mention it in my introductory email, the responses that I received from potential supervisors changed dramatically.

Now, instead of expressing interest in me and my research but telling me that funding was highly competitive and gently breaking the news that I wasn't the ideal candidate, people wanted to work with me to get my thesis proposal refined and ready for a funding application. The first time that I got a response like this, without the familiar Good News/Bad News format, I actually cried.

But a funding application is no joke. The hard work was just beginning!

Next week I'm going to share an example of an introductory email to a potential supervisor (based on the one that I wrote and re-wrote for three years) and will also go into (probably quite scary amounts of) detail about what exactly doctoral funding is - including the difference between 'faculty' funding, Doctoral Training Partnership funding, and fee waivers - and what you'll probably need to do to try to get your hands on each kind. I hope to see you then!

(P.S. apologies once again for any weird formatting issues or gibberish half-sentences that may litter this post. I don't think I've screamed so many invectives at the air in years as I have trying to just get this post to look normal and have all the paragraphs that I wrote IN IT instead of half-deleted or displaced to entirely different parts of the post. Why? I have no idea. Apparently copy/paste is Just Too Much for the Wix platform... *Sigh*)

Image of a desk crowded with a notebook full of hand written notes, a laptop, pencils, rulers and a mathematical protractor

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