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.

Women presenting history in the media

History is all around us. I don’t just mean in the sense of being able to read events from the past in the landscape and urban environment, although that’s also true. It’s also all around us in a digital sense too, especially in this last week. Dan Snow set up History Hit, a regular series of podcasts on history, and last week extended that with History Hit Live, where a number of celebrity historians presented talks on a whole range of subjects. People like Suzannah Lipscombe, Neil Oliver, Bettany Hughes, Tom Holland, Frank McDonough, and others. The event was tweeted and transmitted live, and was a sell-out event. Fantastic! I always like to see history being spread, accurate information being transmitted in a variety of mediums (although the less said about ‘The Tudors’ the better….).

And then I saw a tweet that stopped me dead. I’m not going to say who it was by as I don’t see the point in starting a witchhunt, and I’d rather discuss the underlying issues than attack one guy. But the basic tweet was a photograph of Bettany, along with the text: “Bettany speaking at History Hit. Fascinating, who knew historians could be so good looking?”

Bettany is a wonderful historian. Passionate about her subject, she is particularly good at putting across complex ideas and I thoroughly enjoyed her last series which explored the lives and philosophies of three groundbreaking philosophers, Aristotle, Confucious and Buddha, learning a great deal about all three in the process. Intelligent, knowledgeable, a best-selling author of two critically acclaimed books and presenter of innumerous television programmes. There are few historians – male or female – out there with a track record to match, but instead of focusing on all that, on all her intellectual, knowledgeable and historian-like qualities… it focused on her looks.

Both Bettany and Suzannah are good looking. This is undeniable, and they are telegenic too; to a certain extent, their broadcasting careers will depend on this as much as their intellectual capabilities. Their fellow male historians on the panel are also good looking and telegenic – many women seem to find Neil rather attractive (he has a tumblr blog devoted to him), for example, but I wasn’t seeing the same bias being applied to Neil, that day, as I was to Bettany and Suzannah. For the male historians, the focus was on what they were saying. For Bettany and Suzannah, it was on their appearance. I doubt that Bettany and Suzannah are alone in this, or even female historians – I’d go so far as to say that women academics altogether probably struggle with this. One of my tutors regularly dresses down in casual jeans, shirt, and what looks to be a well loved, much patched, rather bedraggled, in places, jumper. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of approbrium attached to that. It is simply how he is – he’s a wonderful teacher, a fantastic lecturer (If I can ever deliver a talk as half as well as he can, then I’ll be happy) and his dress sense is simply a part of who he is. But I cannot ever imagine a woman dressing the same way, not and be taken seriously in academia. This double standard is pervasive in society and in academia, and seeing things like that tweet really make me think about it. I find it distasteful – and only one person picked up on the tweet, pointing out that there were far better things to focus on than Bettany’s looks.

So… if we agree that this kind of message is unpalatable, that the underlying culture of regarding men and women differently needs to change, how do we go about changing it? There, I get a bit stumped. To paraphrase a grumpy Doctor McCoy from Star Trek; I’m a historian, not a sociologist! But I do think that women deserve to be regarded in the same terms as their male compatriots, to be regarded first and foremost as intellectual, high-achieving, insightful, knowledgeable … all these things, before any mention of looks. Men do too, to be quite honest, but, the Neil Olivers of this world apart, it seems to be less of a problem for men. My partner, playing devil’s advocate, suggested that perhaps the original poster was comparing Bettany’s image to that of the traditional historian, that of an old, grey man, in a grey cardigan, smoking a pipe by a fire, complaining bitterly about the modern world. Perhaps that was the tweeter’s original intention. But as I said to my partner, if that was the case, why not use a photograph of the entire panel, both men and women? Why not specifically say something like, “modern historians, putting the old image of fuddy duddy historians to bed”. That would have been quite doable in 140 characters. Why focus on Bettany’s looks, rather than the message of the lecture she was delivering? The same person posted pictures of some of the other presenters of that evening. Neil was described as a “TV presenter and author” and a “lovely guy”. Dan Snow was described factually, as a “historian”. Peter Snow, in the audience, as a “Historian and TV Presenter”. With Suzannah he said she was “captivating the crowds”, and that she “apparently was talking about witches” (suggesting that he was watching her without taking in a single word of what she was saying. righttt….). However, I find it interesting that the pictures of Suzannah and Bettany, and the original tweets have disappeared from this chap’s twitter stream. Perhaps the penny dropped as to exactly what he was suggesting with all this.

Either way, although the original tweets seem to have gone away, the attitudes have not. That the original tweets have gone suggests a certain level of shame, which is at least suggesting that parts of society are starting to realise that these attitudes are unacceptable – the first step in changing attitudes is to make people realise that the original attitude is wrong in some way, to hold those attitudes up to the light, to hold an open debate about it

I read a really interesting article this morning on the BBC news site by Roger Scruton, about freedom of speech and the importance of it in making arguments, in discussion, in determining the correct course of action in any debate. In debate, the right to utter offensive words needs to be sacrosanct, to go against, where necessary, the conventional tide, to present an alternative viewpoint, to suggest something that can help people to see matters differently, and to improve the society around us. That doesn’t mean that I think the original tweeter should shut up. It means that I want them to speak out about what they think, because in so doing, others can point to the statement (not the person) and say “see that, that is indicative of this general underlying trend that we think is wrong and needs to change”. Shutting people up, driving attitudes underground is never the answer. And in a way, I feel saddened that the original poster removed their tweets, because in so doing, they almost removed the impetus for a debate, to discuss how intellectually capable women are regarded in society, how they are described differently to men.

These attitudes must be questioned. Statements that reflect them must be held up, not so as to shut up the person making them, but to help to educate the world, to help change the attitudes in the first place. This, rather than legislation, I think, is the way forward to change in a whole range of issues, is how we reach the tipping point in overcoming any kind of cultural hegemony, and the best way to improve a society for the better. And this is why I love history. It reflects people, it reflects society, and helps us, the individual and the society, when we’re willing, to improve for the better.

one step in front of another

I’m finally at a point in Coward where I feel like things are falling into place much better. The big questions of the period – Was the Civil War inevitable? What were the causes? – are becoming apparent, and the principle theories are slowly revealing themselves. What is also slowly revealing itself are the reasons why I have struggled with this period previously. Before now, if anything was mentioned post 1603, my mind just shut down, and I stopped thinking, learning, engaging. Anything to do with James or Charles or Cromwell or the Civil War.. nup. not interested. Bye bye….

And now all I can think of is how incredibly short-sighted I was. I think part of the problem may have been Children of the New Forest, the 1847 classic by Captain Frederick Maryyat. This was a much loved book as a child, and I always condemed the nasty roundheads for taking away the Beverley children’s home and parents, and killing that heroic King Charles! It firmly prevented me from even wanting to understand the parliamentarians, much less the Godly (aka Puritans), and I never really looked past the stereotype of kill-joy, aescetic boring bible-thumpers.

However, I’m now pushing that to one side. I understand the Godly better, why predestination was so key to them (which always seemed slightly ridiculous to me, the whole idea of the Elect and the Damned, it just didn’t seem to give people any kind of incentive to behave well, you know? and now I get it – if you behaved badly then you were the Damned anyway, because the Elect would never behave in that way to begin with). More importantly I understand where it came from, from Ephesians II:8, in a letter by St. Paul: ”For it is by His grace that you are saved, through trusting him: it is not your own doing. It is God’s gift, not a reward for work done’. I understand why the Elizabethan and Jacobean Church was so Calvinist and how this got changed to become the Church of England that we know today. Reading of the battles that they had over the moving and railing off of communion tables, from a central location to the east, where they are now, understanding how that happened, its led a lot of things to fall into place and I feel somewhat happier as a result.

More importantly, I’m starting to fall in love with this period. There’s always a certain element of a hump for me to overcome when I first start researching something. When everything is new and it’s hard work and then all of a sudden you’ve got the basics down, and further reading is about slotting things into that framework and it becomes much easier. I find the fascination, it becomes less of a chore and more of a joy. Today marks the point of the joy (although the chore may well return) and I fell in love with the Stuarts. I’m at that point where I don’t want to put my book down. I’m engaged with the people, the events, and I want to keep reading to find out what happens next. That curiosity.. that is what always drives me as a historian. I want to know – what happened to that little guy who got swept up in the big events? What happened to his wife and children? Why did this happen? What did he think about it, was he supportive, completely behind it or was he forced into action? What did his wife think? The other people around him? Did they agree? History is made up of the decisions of individuals, the beliefs, actions and relationships of people and it is that that fascinates me. That actually brings me on to what I think the other reason why I may have failed to engage with this period before now is to do with how it got sold to me as a child: previously, it had been a very high politics approach – Kings, court, politics. Nothing wrong with that – its that that grabs me about the Tudor period – but … I don’t know. The Tudor period is full of women in one way or another, from around 1509, and it was those that I engaged with – the Stuart period, by contrast, is much more devoid of women. James and Charles just didn’t have the same glamour, the same bling, I suppose, to a restless, hyperactive intelligent child, as Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. It was their relationships that I adored – Anne’s with Henry, Elizabeth’s with Robert Dudley. Yes, I’m a romantic at heart, I suppose!

I had a lovely email too today from a fellow historian, who is working in the medieval period. He’d actually been chatting to a friend of my mother’s who got totally the wrong end of the stick about what I’m doing and what my primary research interests are, and I got a very garbled message to contact this chap on this address about a conference. Although I had to put him straight on what I actually was doing a lovely conversation has developed out of that and he’s now reading some of my work, which makes me happy.

I’m also one month into the two month or so wait for news on whether the journal will accept my article This has developed out of work done for my undergrad dissertation, but substantially improved since then, and I am very hopeful it will succeed (and if it does, it will be published in October). It is also the same subject I am delivering a paper on at the conference in November so .. fingers crossed!

Right. time to have an ice-lolly and write my shopping list – a trip to the supermarket beckons as the fridge is getting a bit empty!