That’s right, folks, it’s funding application season! This week I have some excellent advice from this year’s intake of SGSAH AHRC funded students, to help and encourage anyone in the process of composing a proposal. I also thought I’d share the story of my own funding journey, as a means of proving that dreams can come true with a little perseverance.
When I finished my MSc at the University of Edinburgh in 2012, I applied for a PhD then on a bit of a whim, after a tutor suggested I might do well at one. It really wasn’t something I’d considered before that – I thought I might find a job in…advertising! Gasp! But apply I did to Edinburgh. I got the place, but not the funding, possibly because I wasn’t fully invested in the idea and had rushed my proposal.
Oh, also prescient: the SGSAH as we know it didn’t exist then, so the process was slightly different as we were applying to the straight up AHRC and therefore competing with hopefuls around the country. Anyway the following year (still no SGSAH), I tweaked my proposal and applied again. Same story, but this time I was going through a really awful break up to boot and decided I would never try anything again, WAH!
Start by finding a potential supervisor who’s enthusiastic about your project and has experience guiding PhD applicants! It’s really invaluable to have good practical support for your application.
Anyway, application time rolled around again in late 2013 and UH OH! Guess who applied? Obviously me. But this time I realised I would need to up my game if this was actually something I wanted to do, which, as it turned out, I really did. I spent a lot of time reading and researching the literature around my subject and I reformulated my research question in light of this. I also talked a lot with my supervisor at Edinburgh.
I’d been taught and supervised by him during my MSc and he really helped me refine my application loads, for which I am eternally grateful – literally wouldn’t be here doing this if it wasn’t for Alan Gillis (it’s okay, he emphatically told me he doesn’t read these, so he’ll never know how #blessed he’s made me feel, unless I tell him face-to-face like a normal person would. Maybe one day…) As almost all PhD candidates will tell you, finding a supervisor you get along with, who knows your subject area and is willing to help you is extremely important. Shop around and see who you might click with.
Be prepared to make substantial changes for the 2nd stage of the application
My application got through to the next round this time (yay!) and I received the SGSAH AHRC funding application. This is the form where you’re offered the chance to expand on your original proposal and make very clear why your research ought to be funded above all the others. Bare facts: it’s a scary form. But not so scary you need to curl up into a ball and cry. Chatting with your supervisor in depth here is, again, essential. Meet with them in person if poss, or phone/Skype if that’s not plausible.
…the process of refining my proposal in response to questions and comments from my proposed supervisor was challenging and time-consuming but worthwhile
If you want to get the funding, you have to spend a long time going over your answers to the questions. The word limits are there to suggest how much you ought to be writing for each answer – if it says 500 words, write 500 words, even if you think you’ve covered it in 400. Squeezing out that last 100 might encourage your proposal down a new route you hadn’t thought about before. At the same time though, don’t go over those limits – it can be a good exercise in condensing your ideas too.
I found it very helpful to get feedback from as many people as possible – academics from different disciplines can pick up on different issues in the text, and the more varied the comments the better.
I know that imposter syndrome is a huge issue for many PhD students, and if you’re anything like me, that might be kicking in during the application process too. BUT you should feel confident in your ability to produce an excellent application. While competition is very stiff, these forms still come down to one human communicating with another. So I think calm, self-assured persuasiveness is the proper mindset to go forward with (dunno who I’m trying to kid, I was terrified…)
I want to encourage students who are discouraged by similar experiences or find the process/competition daunting that sometimes it does take some people a bit longer than others, and that if you are committed, have a really excellent project, and listen to the advice of your supervisors, you can be successful with the SGSAH.
When I read the above quote, it made me really happy, and I think it hits the nail on the head perfectly. It took me three years and 2 failed attempts to secure funding at the university I wanted, with a supervisory team I really like and I’m actually grateful that I had to wait because it pushed me harder and forced me to focus on my goal. I started my PhD with 2 fantastic poets-now-friends at Edinburgh, plus being part of the first SGSAH cohort means I’ve met tons of fantastic PhD students studying across Scotland. So basically, give it 100% and if it doesn’t work out, come back and give it a bit more the next time.
Peace, love and good luck to everyone going through the application process right now!
(Honestly it has taken me ALL day to get this written because we’re dog-sitting for a pal. These two have been nonstop cute/annoying for a full 24hrs now. Good excuse to post a picture of some PhDogs though!)