Having just started as a Funding mentor for the postgrad hub at the University of Warwick who helps MA students as they prepare and apply for funding for their PhD’s I thought I would think about five things that have helped me in my applications for funding for my AHRC funded masters and PhD. No doubt in time I will change them in the future but at the moment these seem to be the key ones.
1. Follow the money
As shallow as it might seem to seek after places with money when looking for places to do your PhD pragmatically it is crucial. Yes, your ideal university might have your ideal supervisor but if they can only subsidise some of your fees then its going to be very difficult for you to do your PhD there unless you have significant savings, wealthy parents, or a winning lottery ticket in which case apply for wherever you like. For most of us however we don’t have that luxury so it is therefore important to know the places that have funding and those that don’t as pragmatism often trumps idealism. Because applying for a PhD is a demanding and lengthy process it is important that before you start to apply you need to know if you will have a chance of obtaining funding for it otherwise it is a waste of time to apply for it if you will eventual have to decline it because you have no way to support yourself. So find out where the available funding is before you start to apply.
The process of applying for a PhD requires a lot of research both for the places you are thinking about applying to and for your future research project. You need to know what the institution you are applying to looks for in its postgraduate students; what funding it has available and what is the process for applying for it; who could possibly supervise you there; what other projects have been successful in the past in gaining funding and most importantly what are the deadlines for applying for them. Secondly, you have to research your future project. This does not mean that you have to do a comprehensive literature review to establish what you will research, although an awareness of the state of research in the field you want to study is always beneficial, but it is about showing that your project is substantial enough to devote three years or more to studying and that it is something new and interesting. To do this requires researching potential and interesting avenues of study.
3. Contact potential supervisor
This is a crucial step. Early on in your application process you need to contact people who you think might be able to supervise you. This is useful for three reasons. Your supervisor is your primary contact point and your PhD experience depends almost entirely upon your relationship with them. It is important therefore that you find out if you get along with them before you start and contacting them is the only way to do this. Secondly, you need a supervisor who is able to supervise you. If you want to look at nineteenth century romantic poets then you need someone has expertise in that field so they can supervise you effectively an expert on world war two simply won’t have sufficient knowledge to be able to supervise you. Finally, contacting them early allows you to discuss your ideas with them. Undoubtably they will have a lot of ideas and a better knowledge of the field then you do and will be able to help you refine your project and give you additional ideas. Listen to their ideas and advice, in my experience it has made a big difference in how successful a funding application is. Working with your potential supervisor will allow you to craft a research proposal that they approve of which increases the chance of it getting ranked higher by the departmental board. A funding proposal with approval of one of the members of the department has a better chance then a proposal that is unknown.
4. Remember your audience
It may seem obvious to you why research into the gender relationships of early modern quaker women is important and must be done, however for most people who read your funding application it is not obvious. You have to highlight why your research matters, why it is interesting and important to those who will probably know little about your research area. Most funding applications have several stages. The first stage is departmental support, your department will nominate a certain amount of students who they think should receive funding and will rank them according to a criteria they have set. This criteria is often based on how well you did at university before, the strength of your proposal, any extra-curricular activities you have done and the support from your department. This is where contacting your supervisor early helps as if your potential supervisor is enthusiastic about your research proposal then it is more likely to get departmental support. The final stage depends on the university as it may go through a further stage in which they go to a faculty panel, and even a university panel and judged by them. Each panel will read the applications and decide if they think they should receive funding. This means that your funding application will be read by people from different departments across the university. It is vital therefore that you make it clear in non-specalist terms why your research is important and therefore must be funded. This requires clarity in your proposal and an ability to sell it to a broader audience then the other specialists.
5. Its about your research potential not just your project.
The truth is that your research project will change focus a lot over the course of three years. Your supervisor and the panel will all know that what you propose in your funding application will most likely not be the same as what you submit in three years time. What they are looking for is as much the potential you have to succeed as the topic itself. To award funding is to take a gamble and invest resources in someone. They ultimately want to make sure that they are investing their money in someone who will complete a PhD and has the ability to come up with an interesting project. In your proposal it is important then to highlight the potential of the project and your potential as an individual.
Applying for funding is a daunting and demanding process. You will invest a lot of time and effort into completing it, but it is a worthwhile process. As long as you keep in mind what the people who will be evaluating it are looking for and write with them in mind you will come up with a wonderful application. Good luck with your application.