PhD funding: the emotions involved in applying

One thing that occurred to me earlier today is that I’ve not written anything much on the PhD funding application process that I’m going through now. With just a month left (more or less) before the final result comes through, I want to get some thoughts down before the results are known.

I’m not going to specify exactly which funding I applied for – it is from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and similar funding is available for arts and humanities students throughout most of the UK, with similar application procedures, so exactly which it is is not really relevant. This kind of funding is generally very sought after. There were over 500 applicants last year for 78 places for the one I applied for, making odds of slightly worse than 1 in 6. There is a complex, but not lengthy application form, and some universities/departments will also interview you. For mine, the application process opened in October, the application forms had to be handed in in early January, and the university interviewed a week later. The results come through on March 23rd, so the whole thing takes around six months or so.

It is not an easy process. Sure, some of the form is straightforward, with basic details like name, qualifications, etc. But the rest concerned searching questions about what I wanted to study and why… And not a great deal of space to answer it in (indeed, condensing the information that they need into the character space allowed is a skill worth learning: it will come up again and again). I got some help from the uni, from my potential supervisors (actually, constant advice and support from them, which I am so incredibly grateful for) and from various other people. I got to a point where I felt I was happy with my application, then sent it out to everyone that I knew who was working at PhD level or above. And I do mean everyone. From the head of school down to people who had succeeded in obtaining the same funding a year or two earlier, from general history people through to people working solidly in my proposed research area. I asked for feedback on what I had written, and suggestions for what they thought might be missing, what else needed to be included. Some advice I rejected, but certainly where the same advice was given by more than one person, I listened, and where necessary, amended the application. I think – no, I’m sure – that that process made for a stronger, better application.

The other thing I did, right from the beginning, was to talk to people, particularly people who knew something about the funding. What the assessors were looking for, how they wanted projects to appear, what they wanted them to include, the best way to approach certain elements of the project. I went to the workshop where the organisers told us in very specific terms what the assessors wanted. And then I sat down and thought about how to give that to them within the confines of what I was already proposing to study. That’s actually good practice anyway, especially if you want to go into academia, as the process of applying for post doc funding involves much the same idea: of making sure your proposal fits in with what they want – only post doc demands can be far more stringent than they are at this stage.

Once I’d worked through the feedback, I continued to tighten the proposal up. Your prospective supervisors are (or at least, should be) essential at this stage, in helping you to firm up your research questions, to think about how the proposed project fits into the existing literature, how it answers the ‘so what’? question. I found out afterwards that one of my interviewers was infamous for asking ‘why should I care about this’ to people (And certainly someone else I know got a bit of a grilling): I didn’t get that question, which leads me to think that my proposal had sufficiently answered that to begin with.

The interview itself lasted about half an hour. I tried to prepare for it by anticipating some of the questions that they might ask. I had all kinds of stuff written down. Don’t depend on it though – it didn’t take them long to realise I was leaning on my notes and would quickly ask me a follow up question when I looked down to make sure I’d covered everything I wanted to, to force me away from the notes, and to see how much I actually really knew, how much I was prepared to think on my feet, how much I was prepared to answer quickly, and to have the courage of my convictions. Having the confidence to discuss your ideas and say what you think seemed to be very important to them. Sitting there in silence and absorbing like a sponge is fine at undergrad level (If frustrating for your teachers); it won’t cut it at doctoral level. In fact, one person told me after the interview that she had heard that there were a few people who were unable to articulate their ideas in person – they were able to write it down, but not to have the confidence to verbally speak up, and those people, the assessors quickly weeded out.

I also took advantage of the ‘do you have any questions for us?’. That isn’t just a politeness. Use it to show that you’ve really thought about the next three years. One question was to do with the process, which I hadn’t been able to find the answer anywhere (that’s important: do your research. If you ask a question where the answer is on their website’s front page, then it makes you look lazy or idiotic, and that’s never good). The other two questions I asked were… well. Lets just say that they were designed to be thought provoking but also to actually pick their brains in a way that I can take that knowledge forward and act on it should I get a ‘yes’ on March 23rd.

And now? Well, I was told that I was put through to the final stage, which is an assessment of all the applications (including references and notes from the interviewers) from the entire region, so covering six universities. This is the final stage, the final yes/no. I am told that they meet to decide on the 78 who are going through, and on those who make it onto a waiting list, to be offered a place if one of the 78 should drop out. And then the emails go out on a specific date at the end of March with the final decision: yes, waiting list or the dreaded ‘sorry, but…’ email.

I have started to look into alternatives, in case of a ‘no’. It is also important – and something I will be doing over the next few weeks – to shore up my mental health in case of a no. It’s important for me to recognise that a ‘no’ doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of my application or my work or ME – with so many good applications from a range of really smart people, who work hard and are potentially excellent doctoral students, the assessors have to choose on the basis of what projects are most likely to succeed, to produce something that will really advance the field, and people that they feel are most likely to finish the PhD and to continue on to work in academia. Shoring up the mental health, bracing the barriers, means not allowing a ‘no’ to affect my self-confidence. And then, too, I have to lay down other plans. What do I want to do if I get a ‘no’? Give up? That’d be daft. So I’m looking for other funding, other projects, considering alternatives. Being smart, in other words.

There is nothing I can do at this point to affect the outcome and for that reason, I’m trying to put it out of my mind, and not worry too much about it. I do feel very ambivalent – when I do think about it, I go through stages of ‘oh god, I’m never going to get in’, through to ‘don’t be daft, woman, you stand as good a chance as anyone else’ to ‘mmm. might make the waiting list’. There’s a lot of ‘if I get the funding…’ being said at the moment, in terms of the next year; it’s making me feel unsettled. I don’t know where I will be in the next six months, the next year, what I will be doing. I’m unable to make plans. Even something as simple as ‘I want to save to get the spare room painted’ becomes ‘if…’ when you’re going through this process. And that has substantial knock-on effects in to every other area of your life.

The next few weeks are going to drag; but at the same time, I don’t want them to end. All the while the answer has not come back, there is hope. My dream is still alive. Once it is known, I have to deal with it as it is. Surprising as it may seem, even a ‘yes’ is not necessarily longed for: yes, the opportunity is longed for, but if I get a yes, while I will be celebrating, absolutely celebrating, there will also be a large part of me that is going ‘Oh shit. Now I have to deliver’.

Ambivalence indeed.

In the excitement of a ‘yes’, the despondency of a ‘no’, or the frustration of a ‘maybe’, these ambivalent emotions are often forgotten, at least until the next time one applies for funding, and then they are remembered. I think it’s important to note them, to understand that they’re normal, that the scariness of a yes, the confidence-blow of a no … all these are normal emotions. It’s important to know how to deal with them, how to celebrate or comisserate, sure, but once the celebration/commisseration is over, to re-orientate yourself and continue on down the path that you’ve laid out. Investing everything into one option, and then panicking when it doesn’t materialise serves no-one well, and the smart prospective academic would do well to remember that, and to plan accordingly.

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planning research: the early thought processes and decisions

In any research project larger than, say, 8-10,000 words, from an academic article, or an undergrad dissertation, right through to a PhD thesis or monograph, have a number of required elements which need to be considered at the beginning of the research project.

I’m actually starting the research for my 20,000 word MA dissertation now. I’m in a funny position because I’ve known for some months (since early last summer) what the subject would be, and I’ve been collecting source material for it for a while – it’s researching something that has already been covered by another historian, but I’m going to be tackling the same material, with totally different questions, so it makes for an easy beginning to the project, because all I need to do is to follow the other person’s references to the source material (to begin with, at least). But only now am I actually considering the planning of it, which is quite the wrong way to do things. I was struck by this yesterday, as I drove to pick up my partner at the end of the day from the station (good thinking time that, driving), and it occurred to me that knowing the subject, and having that list of references and source material making it easy, meant that I’d not really stopped to think about really key elements that do have to be considered in any research project, and at a fairly early stage.

First up – its not enough to say, for example, that you plan to research XYZ. Anyone can say that, can say, oh, for example, that they plan to research the impact of the Queen on British Society in the twentieth century. However, attempting to research a project with only a topic like that will struggle to succeed – at least, at academic levels – partly because it’s a huge topic that would be difficult to do well in a smaller project (e.g. dissertation) and partly because it’s unlikely to undertake the critical analysis that is required at these levels. A good way to do that is to have Research Questions (caps intentional!). These serve to both limit the project so that more indepth analysis of the subject is possible, and to prod critical thought. One way to think of research questions is to think about the wider themes that the material or subject includes. So, to take the Queen again, these could be women, fashion, monarchy, society, economics, politics, political structures (there are more), then slowly narrow the themes down till at a point where its sufficiently narrow that a question can be constructed. So, going with our previous example, Research questions for this might be: Did the Queen have an ongoing impact on what society thought was socially acceptable during the period (politics, political hierarchy)? How much influence did her style of clothing have on British fashion (fashion, economics)? It is possible to see the expression of her own opinion in her Christmas broadcasts (politics)? These kinds of questions lend themselves well to further restriction and definition, such as – what’s ‘socially acceptable’? what period of British fashion are we discussing? Should we include, for analysis, the audio-visual material that is presented as part of the Christmas broadcast as well?

In addition, further elements need to be decided on. A line of argument is absolutely critical – whether a simple one, which you might have in a smaller essay – through to a much more complex piece of work, a line of argument is what keeps you focused on maintaining a tight thread all the way through. In the former example it might be that the Queen had a massive impact on British Society – but it could also be that the Queen only had a massive impact after a certain date, or before a certain date, or that she had no impact at all. Whatever your line of argument, every point, every paragraph has to contribute to that argument, even if you temporarily take another perspective to show why an alternative argument just won’t wash.

In larger projects, an extension of the line of argument is how you’re going to break it down – what chapters are you going to have, how many, how big will they be, what are their individual lines of argument, how do those individual lines contribute to the larger whole? Some academics correlate a key research question to each chapter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. In the Queen example, the book could take a chronological approach, discussing her contribution to social mores, fashion and the christmas broadcasts in first the 1950s, then the 1960s, then… you get the idea. It could also do a chapter on each – the social mores, then fashion, then the christmas broadcasts.

Needless to say, I’m not researching the Queen’s impact on British society in the twentieth Century! I’m actually examining the case of a vicar who, in the post-Restoration period, had an affair with a parishioner. His other parishioners found out, and took him to court to try to get him removed from the parish as their clergyman. There are a number of different ways in which this material can be approached, exploring different themes. In writing and thinking about this blog post, I’ve had the themes playing in my mind, and I’ve been slowly writing ideas down in a seperate file. I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have a better idea of how I’m going to take this material forward. Suddenly, my 20,000 word MA dissertation doesn’t seem quite so daunting after all!

[I think it’s important to say – I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to doing research. I’m still learning myself! I just enjoy the process of learning by writing: by explaining here, to some imaginary, nebulous blog reader, I’m also explaining to myself. If, however, you are interested in reading something by someone who does know what they’re doing when it comes to research, then these two books may be a good starting point:

I hope they’re of use!]