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In Pursuit of a PhD & Doctoral Funding (Part 2)

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Hello, and welcome back to An Eddying Flight, Dear Readers. Today we're going to get into some specifics about funding, and I'll be sharing a template of an introductory email to a potential supervisor which is based on my own.

Disclaimers: I'm in the Arts & Humanities and I proposed my own independent research project to the university, as opposed to joining anyone else's existing research project. If you are based in a different research area or you're looking to join a lab, my advice may be of limited use to you; have your pinch of salt at the ready and apply it at will.

With that out of the way... let's talk about money. And hold onto your hats here, kiddos, because this is a deep dive. You need to know this information, but there's a lot of it.

One of the biggest sources of funding for research - and especially PhD research - here in the UK is the UK Research and Innovation body. But they don't fund students' doctoral research directly - there's no point trying to apply to them for that - rather, they pour a lot of money into these smaller, more discipline specific groups called the Research Councils. As you can see, and as I said in my last post, there's councils focused on (among others) medical research, natural and environmental research, engineering and physical sciences, business, and arts and humanities.

The bad news here is that, as you might already have noticed, out of nine research councils, there's one - count 'em, just one - for arts and humanities. If you're a STEM PhD candidate you can often take it for granted that you will be fully funded to do your doctorate, and many STEM candidates are advised that it's not worth doing a PhD at all if they can't get funding (it'll actually make them look bad on their future job applications). But there is sadly, and in my view unjustly, only one pretty small pot of money for those of us in arts or humanities based subjects, and the vast, vast majority of A&H students do self-fund. It's not considered a career disadvantage to do so, like for STEM students - but it's still a right pain.

How do you get money from the AHRC (Arts & Humanities Research Council) to help you do a PhD? Once again, you can't apply directly. The AHRC allots their money for doctoral research to a group of even smaller bodies called Doctoral Training Partnerships. These are regional funding bodies generally made up of several universities and other research bodies or partner institutions, who have joined together to bid to the AHRC for pots of money to recruit and support the best PhD candidates. To make life a little easier, here's a list of all the AHRC DTPs in the UK (there's also lists of DTPs for all the different research councils focused on science, medical, business etc. there on the UKRI/research council webpages if you want to look for them). If a uni isn't on this list, there's no DTP funding from the AHRC at their disposal.

My PhD research is funded by the Open-Oxford-Cambridge DTP - which is made up of, you guessed it, the Open University and Oxford and Cambridge Universities. You can see here on the OU's 'funding' page that they mention this and also other DTP's and funding bodies that they belong to, which fund different kinds of research. In addition to offering funding for students who want to do their own independent research project for their PhD, like me, many DTPs also offer something called Collaborative Doctoral Awards, where they team up with partner institutions to do research on a topic that the partner institution specialises in (fabric conservation at the V&A, maritime history at the Royal Maritime Museum). Students who are interested in (and have experience and/or qualifications related to) the research project can apply for studentships if they are willing to base their PhD research on these pre-existing research topics and questions.

The pros of AHRC funding are:

  • It's financially generous, especially in comparison to other funding for Arts & Humanities. A studentship for a UK student will cover your fees, a living stipend at a rate set by the UKRI (£15609 per annum for the current academic year, and set to increase each year) and many research expenses, such as travel and accommodation for fieldwork, archival research, and conference attendance.

  • The DTP will offer extra training, and opportunites to take up special placements, attend events, and network. They usually pay for these, too.

  • It's prestigious. Once you've graduated, having a full AHRC studentship on your CV broadcasts that you were among the best and brightest of your cohort of students. It may offer a leg up in getting jobs in the future.

The cons of AHRC funding are:

  • Applying is complex process with a lot of additional work involved. Often you will need to revise your thesis proposal - your beloved research questions! - to make your research fit the particular goals of the DTP that you apply to. For instance, TECHNE places a lot of emphasis on the development of new and innovative research methods/processes rather than outputs, so that has to be a part of your proposal. SWW2 wants you to do research which can utilise joint supervision/expertise from two of the partner unis and again, you have to make this an integral part of the work you propose.

  • If you do get the funding, there may be further hoops to jump through. One example is WroCAH, which places a lot of emphasis on mandatory inter-cohort activities for their funded students, requiring international travel. You need to research enough to know what you're committing to before you apply.

  • It's competitive. This is why it's prestigious. My supervisors at the OU were kind, encouraging and positive to me every step of the way. They also had to make it clear to me every step of the way that there was just no guarantee, no matter how strong my CV, application and proposal were, that I'd make it. And every time that I did make it through one more hoop and get to the next stage of the process, they were elated and overjoyed on my behalf. This is especially true in Pandemic times; at my induction I was told that applications for PhD places and funding had increased FOUR-FOLD since 2019 - and there were already something like twenty applications for each funding place BEFORE THAT. It's enough to make my head spin. Out of what were possibily thousands of applications, a mere seventy-four students were offered OOC DTP funding in 2021 - of those, only six were from the Open University. I was one. I know how lucky I am. You have to remember that each uni within the DTP can only refer so many students to the DTP for each funding period, and each department in the uni will get an share of that number - so each department may only be able to put forward one or two candidates. They will therefore want to chose the ones whom they believe have the absolute strongest overall application. Even if your potential supervisors love you and your work, it might not be you.

Let's be positive, though. If you are a good candidate and have made your need for funding clear then your supervisor/s will work with you to make sure your thesis proposal and application to the funding body are as targeted and strong as possible. It's usual to have an interview (either face to face, or these days, online) with the university for your PhD place, which will usually involve your potential supervisor/supervisors, the head of the department, and other interested parties. These guys will then look at all your paperwork and decide a) if you'll be offered a place and b) if you are one of the chosen few who will be passed onto the funding body as a candidate. You may possibly need to have a separate interview with them, too, or provide additional evidence, or fill in even more forms. And then... you wait.

Let's say that your uni is not part of a DTP or your potential supervisor doesn't think your research could be made into a good fit for the DTP they are part of. This isn't necessarily the end of the world. There's also 'faculty funding' - a catch-all term I'm using here for all the different bits of money a uni department may have at their deposal in order to fund PhDs. Some of this will be endowments left by wealthy alumni of the university, come from charities, may be from other governmental or business-sources, and some will be money allotted by the university itself from its budget. Some of it may come as part of existing research projects run by members of staff at the university and, as with a Collaborative Doctoral Award, a student or students will be offered PhD studentships in order to do doctoral research that will contribute to this larger research.

This is the faculty funding page for the Open University. You'll notice that, once again, much of it is not available to arts/humanities students! But there is usually some arts and humanities funding available in places that have funding at all. If universities have this kind of money available they will often have their own funding page, or a funding wizard you can use to find it. Some universities, especially older ones with a very strong research profile, have a lot of this kind of funding. Others have practically none. Some advertise these studentships and publicise them (and one way to catch them is by signing up to and setting a job alert for studentships) and other places are weirdly hush-hush and don't like to even be asked what's in place. I had a friend who interviewed for a PhD place expecting to self-fund and who was asked by the interviewers, quite casually, if she would like her fees waived. Not being born the day before, she said yes - and that was that.

The thing about faculty funding is that it can be almost anything. Some studentships are as generous, if not more generous, than AHRC studentships. Some cover fees only and have no stipend attached (these are often referred to as fee waivers) and some are for living costs but not tuition fees. Some cover the full period of the PhD and some are for one year only, or have to be re-applied for at the end of each year. The only way to know is to either find the information yourself on a user-friendly university website, or ask a potential supervisor. But if you do need funding, sending emails to places that don't mention funding at all on their websites may seem like a waste of time, and you might choose to stick to departments which are a bit clearer and more upfront. We can't all be as fortuituous as my friend!

Some faculty scholarships come with their own strings attached, such as needing to be willing to do internships at particular institutions, conduct research in a particular archive, or base your research on certain topics. Because faculty funding is usually administered and awarded by the uni itself you may only be interviewed once for both the PhD place and the funding together - or you might get two interviews. And you may be interviewed for both at once, and then offered a place... but without the funding. This happened to me twice while I was working on my MA. It was agonising; I had to turn them down, without any guarantee I'd ever get another chance.

A brief note here on Graduate Teaching Assistants. I don't have any personal experience of being one, but I did have a long email conversation with a lecturer about applying once (sadly, I ended up not being qualified because, once again, my MA was in progress). This is a kind of scheme run by some universities where you, the student, work as a teaching assistant to the lecturers within your discipline at the university - running seminars, doing marking, even delivering lectures - for a certain amount of hours each week while also doing your PhD there for free. You get paid for the work you do and this is often at about the same rate as a UKRI stipend (sometimes more, sometimes less). Attitudes to this vary, with some feeling that getting teaching experience is actually a massive plus, while others would say it's volunteering to be a dogsbody for the university for far too little money. How you feel is up to you.

Presuming that you're not so bamboozled by all this that you're put off altogether (hopefully that feeling will pass with a little time if you breathe slowly and deeply) next I'm going to share a basic template for your initial email of introduction to your pick/s for a potential supervisor. This based on my own email, and obviously needs to be tweaked and tailored not only for you but also for each individual lecturer you may approach.

Dear Dr. [Name],
How are you? I hope this email finds you well. I am writing to discover if you would have the time and interest to supervise my PhD project. I am hoping to apply for a place on the [Creative Writing PhD programme name] at [University name] for [date], and a [Name of funding] studentship.
I'm [brief summary of current or previous work experience relevant to research or the discipline you want to do a PhD in, including any honours, awards or notable achievements]. I have [list of qualifications, especially those relevant to potential PhD, and another academic prizes or honours].
I've chosen to approach you as a potential supervisor because [mention of their research, especially any papers or books of theirs you may have read, emphasizing areas that coincide with your proposed research]. My doctoral research would be [brief run-down – no more than three lines! - of the main points of the research you want to do, again emphasizing areas of common interest].
My research proposal and CV and [a sample of or link to creative work, if you’re seeking to do an arts based degree] are attached below. I would be delighted to discuss these with you, and would appreciate any advice that you might have to offer on how to proceed from this point. If there’s any further information you’d like, do let me know.
Thank you for your time.
Best Wishes,
[Your Name]

Once again, this is ostensibly based on your wishing to propose your own research - but you can easily rearrange the template to be useful even if you're seeking to join an existing project, lab, or want a Collaborative Doctoral Award. Just make sure that all the information about you is there.

If you're emailing an administrator or central contact for the department, you'll want to state that you're approaching them because you like the department itself, and mention why. If you're emailing an individual to ask them directly about supervision, note that it's considered really bad manners to approach more than one lecturer or professor in the same faculty at once, even if your emails to each are tailored to them. You have to pick one staff member, approach, and wait for their reply. If it's a no, then you can pick another in that university to approach. Yes, this does take time. However, there's nothing stopping you from emailing several different universities at once.

I really hope this has been useful, Dear Readers, and that you can now avoid at least some of the disheartening confusion I experienced at the start of my journey. If anyone has any further questions about any of this information, don't hesitate to comment, email, or send me a Tweet.

image of a woman jumping for joy in a sunlit woodland clearing

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