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.

… daily PhD?

… maybe not. Not so sure that particular style is working for me – as evidenced by the lack of daily posts. There is only so much one can say about reading articles after all (I may as well post my notes), and I suspect at this point that won’t change until the second year of PhD studies.

Quite how this is going to shift, I don’t know. But it is a young blog, and blogs often take a while to find their feet, to settle down into their style. I’m not too concerned about that. Maybe a weekly post would work better. Let’s try it, for now:

Monday morning was primarily spent away from my studies, catching up with a few necessities like food shopping and so on. I still have to eat! I spent the afternoon working through a few ideas for increasing the social media use and engagement of a project that I’m going to be working on, in preparation for a meeting on friday. I started to read through an article, but had to leave to collect my partner from the station before I could finish it, unfortunately. In that respect, its a forced ending to my day – 6.15pm or so, is when I more or less have to down tools. I can’t decide whether that’s a blessing or not – I suspect it both is, and isn’t.

Tuesday… Tuesday was amazingly productive actually. Every single thing on my to-do list was crossed off, plus some additionals, making for a very positive end of the day. I finished reading, and making notes on, the article from Monday. I use the Cornell notes method at the moment, which helps a lot in terms of not only getting it straight in my head what the article is about (active, rather than passive reading), but also helps me to relate the material to my own research topic. Then I made some rough notes, starting to draw together the plan for the lit review, starting to think about how to frame and position various historians and theories with relation to my research topic.

I got quite a few emails done as well, in a veritable blizzard of productivity. Some of these I had been putting off for too long, but they got back to me fairly quickly, and they turned out to be relatively painless. I did a little housework (such as the ever-eternal washing up!) and prepared for a trip to the Record Office in Wigston, on Wednesday.

Wednesday… the planned trip to the record office. I’m doing a little voluntary work as part of the Charnwood Roots Project, where I’m researching the history of stage coaches and small carriers in parishes in the Charnwood Forest area (to the North West of Leicester). I’m well overdue in doing work on this, but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, so … time to knuckle down. I managed to make serious inroads on the trade directories, which I think will be the main source for this project, starting from 1794 and I managed to get to 1849. It seems that although the stage coaches died fairly quickly after the introduction of the railways, the small carriers, going between the parishes and the towns, survived much longer – serving the equivalent of the rural bus network today. It will be interesting to trace the services for each parish, see how much continuity there was. I’ve already seen that with coach builders, there was a continuing trade from one particular street in Leicester, for example, although the actual business changed hands at least once. I suspect, that for parishes where the same person/family did this role for decades, they would have been seen as of key importance to the parish, like the parish clergyman or school teacher – if they weren’t disreputable in other ways. I have found evidence in local newspapers, later on (latter part of the 19th Century) that the carriers sometimes had a relationship with alcohol that was, well, lets describe it as less than healthy! Anyway, I’ve scanned/photographed the relevant pages with my phone and camscanner (more about that in another post), so what needs to be done now is a) extracting the relevant information out of the trade directories into parish format, and b) organising the photographs so that they’re ready for turning over to the wider Charnwood Roots project, ready for someone else to incorporate as part of the parish histories. So that will be a day or two’s worth work – probably starting next week.

One thing that I should really note is how good it felt to get into the record office and back into primary sources. I reflected on this in a comment on this post, by someone else who is doing a DailyPhD style blog, although in the sciences rather than the humanities like me. Stewart commented on how he got ‘far too excited’ because he was doing real science (for a change, rather than other stuff) and it immediately struck home for me, because I felt the same way in the record office. Nothing quite like the smell of a record office in the morning… (!) but in all seriousness, I think most people who work as serious historians will recognise what I mean: the excitement that comes when handling old documents, primary sources, of figuring out how to make them relate to your theory, of the implications of them… For me, however, there’s the ‘ding’ moment when you find a document or something that completes the puzzle, makes your theory work, makes you understand something that you were trying to work out… how it contributes to the ding isn’t so important, but the ‘ding’ moment is this moment of incredible clarity where the world, just a little bit, a tiny little bit, suddenly makes sense, or more sense than it did before, and I just feel on cloud nine when I get that. I don’t know whether other historians feel the same way – its not something that I think most people would feel comfortable discussing!

Anyway, back to the week’s review. Thursday, I uploaded the photographs and PDFs (of the trade directories) from my phone to my laptop, so they’re in a better format for working with next week. This was easier said than done as previously I had done this on a one-by-one basis – not suitable when you’re dealing with several hundred photos! So I had to research, investigate and download a suitable app for downloading large amounts of material, and finally found one, then had to sort them out – what with one thing and another that took most of the afternoon. I also did some final preparation for Friday’s meeting, then rounded off the day with a little reading of an edited book.

The meeting on Friday went well – that was discussing a new job that I will be doing, very part time, working as a social media officer for the Leicestershire Victoria County History project. This is something I’m looking forward to getting involved with – even did a little work on it on Friday afternoon and was very happy to see results immediately, so that’s good news. I’m also hoping to put in for another part time job doing research – it all looks good on the CV and its something I enjoy doing, so why not?

Next week: More work on the social media project, applying for that other research role, more work on Charnwood Roots, starting to pull together that Lit Review, more reading, and more research work in the record office – can’t wait for that day, at least! My mother is dropping by for a cup of tea tomorrow, on the way past, so it will be good to see her too 🙂

just too hot

at 33*C…. its just too hot. I hope it cools down soon as it’s so difficult to maintain any kind of focus in this heat. I managed to get some notes done on the Coward book; I just need to press on with it.

On the plus side, I did pick up a new PhD-how-to book – 101 Top Tips for PhD Students by Professor Iain H. Woodhouse, available as a kindlebook from amazon (thanks to #DailyPhD‘s recommendation). I’ve not gotten very far through it at this point, but so far its very good, very easy to read and I’ll be able to plough through it quickly I think.  I’m realising the importance of planning – but not just planning. Its easy to say, for example, that for my PhD proposal I need to do some reading, to do a lit review of the material in my field, and that I need to write X number of words on this by the end of July. But this is actually really difficult to achieve because its not measurable, definable. How many books should I read? of what standard? How many articles? What is the aim of the lit review? Given I have just a month left to write it, I think its important that some decisions are made on this. I’m not sure an arbitrary number is a wise choice. I certainly have to include some form of bibliography with the proposal but they are looking for quality over quantity, so reading every single book/article going on the subject would not be smart. I think, too, that different reading patterns need to apply for different books. Books like Spaeth’s Church in an Age of Danger, since they so closey correlate to my proposed field of study, need more extensive reading than, say, J. A. Sharpe’s Early Modern England, and it may be smart to group them accordingly.

I had an email back from the conference organiser that I had contacted to ask about communication support. He made it very clear that they weren’t set up to arrange it but if I knew someone who could come along to interpret, that they would do what they could to facilitiate things – facilitiate being very vague! I’ve had some discussions with the disability support person at the uni, who has made it clear that in this case, and under the Equality Act, the onus is on the institution to sort out communication support, so I’ve written back to the conference organiser to explain that yes, I know interpreters, but they need paying, so… we’ll see what he says. Fingers crossed he writes back with a “no problem, organise it and send us the invoice”, but we’ll have to see.

I never did get that siesta, but since downstairs at home is very much cooler than upstairs (where my office is) I’m going to go downstairs with my new book and relax in the relative coolness … and hope the temperature drops tonight!

difficult to motivate myself

the heat today is making it difficult for me to press on, particularly this afternoon. This morning wasn’t too bad: i got some serious notes done on the Coward book. It’s really firmed up my understanding of the positioning of the various different splinter groups within the overaching Protestant faith, the different theological concepts and positions that are possible to take. Perhaps more importantly I’m now understanding what ‘Puritans’ aren’t, and what position/beliefs the average Protestant of the period would have held.

This afternoon I read part of How to get a PhD by Estelle M Phillips and Derek S Pugh. A really useful book, I’m starting to get a much firmer idea of what the PhD entails and what I can expect, which is a good thing.

Tomorrow promises to be even warmer. In this heat its difficult to concentrate, all I want to do is to go and lie on the bed in the other room and doze. I wonder if it is worth, for a few days, just adopting continental sleeping patterns and going for a siesta, and then working later? I may try it….