This is the second in a short series of posts which I wanted to write in the first half of this year but did not have the time to put together. In this post I wanted to talk about the trials and tribulations of attempting to fund a PhD in the UK with a self-conceived project. I feel able to do this now that I can sit here as a fully funded Midlands3Cities PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham.
My funding purgatory started in 2014 when I had graduated from my MA in Medieval Archaeology at the University of Sheffield and wanted to continue on to PhD level in Sheffield. I applied to the university and was offered a place to study my PhD almost immediately, at the same time I also applied to all the possible funding option available from School level prizes up to the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities. I did not necessarily expect to be successful straight away and so when I was told that I was placed number 57 on the reserve list for the White Rose scholarships I was disappointed but not disheartened.
From that point, and even during that initial application process I was consistently told that I had an "excellent" self-conceived project which eventually had been contributed to and improved by at least 8 academics from multiple institutions. I applied a second time to the University of Sheffield in 2015 for 2016 entry and also to an external funding scheme with the Wellcome Trust. I was rejected from the university funding schemes (as far as I could tell this was at least partially because I had been unsuccessful the year before) and I was unfortunately unsuccessful with the Wellcome Trust application.
At this point I broadened my horizons and decided to apply to four universities; The University of Amsterdam. University College Dublin, the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg VA, and The University of Nottingham in the UK. I had started to feel like I had failed to find the "magic bullet" which would allow me to be successful in my funding applications. I was still being told that my project was "excellent" and that I had a great chance of getting funding. If I am honest this was even more disheartening as I was failing to achieve the level required, at least that is how it seemed to me. In this case I missed out on a place at the College of William and Mary by one spot, and was rejected by the Irish Research Council. I was finally successful however in the Midlands3Cities Arts and Humanities Research Council Consortium at The University of Nottingham, an excellent institution and the most generous funding of any that I applied to. I am happy with my supervision team's expertise and support so far and think that, tending to cliché as these kinds of things do, it worked out for the best.
I relate this story not because I am angry with any institution, academic, or funding body. In fact the support and input of so many respected academics in different countries and institutions was, I think, ultimately invaluable to the shape and potential success of my project. I recognise that this funding situation reflects grant writing and other funding more generally in the Arts and Humanities in the UK, and I think that I am able to take the positive from this. Now that I am funded I can see that experiencing funding rejection will be a skill I will use constantly in academia or museums or any area where I will have to apply for funding for work that I want to do.
Instead I relate this story to make a less depressing / utilitarian point. I wanted to force people who were considering applying for a PhD and PhD funding, especially with a self-conceived project to consider whether this kind of rejection is worth it. Not everyone can successfully apply for funding the first time, or even the second. It is something which I wish I had been more prepared for in 2014. In my opinion it is absolutely worth it: a 3 to 7 year period (depending on the norms where you plan to study) working on something you aren't 100% sure you want to study is most likely worse than the process of applying for funding, even repeatedly. However this is something which I think each person has to decide for themselves.