Applying for PhD Funding | Lex Academic Blog

Agnes de Mille choreographed what she recognised as the ‘flamboyant success’ of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!. But she couldn’t understand why it was so well received. Her choreography was okay, she felt, but certainly not up to the standard of her earlier works, Rodeo and Three Virgins and a Devil. Yet these two pieces had been all but ignored. De Mille went to see Martha Graham (named by Time magazine as ‘dancer of the century’) and confessed her confusion:

‘It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares,’ Graham told her. ‘It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.’

Approach PhD Funding Like a Professional

Chances are, as a prospective arts or humanities PhD student, that you already recognise the insecurity at the heart of creative practice. You’ll have interpreted your fair share of texts, performed several compositions, or given many an outreach workshop. And you can likely readily accept Martha Graham’s inspirational response to de Mille: you can’t meaningfully make your own work if your eyes are on how others will receive it. But you’re applying for a PhD, so you’ll also have probably done a master’s degree or had some equivalent experience in formal higher education. And that means you’ll also know that other people will judge your work, and if it isn’t up to their standards, it’ll show in your grades and could have repercussions moving forward in your career.

The good news is that you’re now past the point where a bad grade can result in failure. In fact, ‘failure’ in research programmes is something you can negotiate, and can be one of the most exciting aspects of research (as we’ve remarked on this blog before: failure isn’t the opposite of success). You’re free to follow Martha Graham’s advice in a way you weren’t when you needed those top marks to get on to a PhD programme in the first place. A PhD student, in many ways, is a creative person allowed the freedom they need to make new, exciting, daring and challenging work.

The bad news, however, is that applying for PhD funding – actually, any kind of research funding – is a different discipline to the one you’ve been trained in. You might be the most capable scholar, producing exciting work, yet fail to get your PhD funded if you don’t pay extremely close attention to what a committee is looking for and provide precisely that. The first step to applying for PhD funding, then, is to isolate your academic work from the administrative task of applying for funding. In a way, applying for academic funding requires the precise opposite of what Martha Graham so inspirationally prescribes: in order to get the funding, it can feel like you have to make sacrifices, pummelling your project into a product that appeals to those holding the purse strings. You might have further responsibilities, too, ranging from dedicating some of your time to teaching or running public talks, to lending your expertise on an archaeological dig or curating an exhibition. It all depends on your field and the kind of funding you pursue.

Kinds of Arts and Humanities PhD Funding

Lex Academic maintains a Funding and Grants Knowledge Base that is worth exploring for its list of potential funders. Generally, though, funding can come from a variety of sources:

  • Open competitions: Open competitions are some of the most accommodating kinds of funding. They will allow you to set your own research agenda, while paying your fees, and providing you with a stipend for living expenses. They can come from individual universities or other research institutions (like museums), or otherwise funded by governments or charitable organisations. As with all such competitions, they are typically very competitive.
  • Cultural partnerships: For example, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in the UK offers Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) as well as Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDAs). Doctoral Training Partnerships consist of a network of universities from the same region, along with non-academic partners like museums, art galleries, and theatres. They tend to be similar to open competitions in that you’ll be expected to design your own research agenda, with the additional perk of being able to access the resources of partner institutions. You’ll be based at one of the named academic institutions, but have access to the resources across all the partnership organisations. There are ten partnerships across the UK, but each can accommodate only five PhD students per year, so, as always, these are very competitive. If you think an AHRC DTP might be for you, make sure your funding bid heavily relies on their resources – perhaps the manuscript collection in a partner library, or an object collection in a partner museum. For a Collaborative Doctoral Award, on the other hand, a student will be hosted by a cultural institution in partnership with an academic institution. The PhD project will also be largely designed by the institution, and they might also provide additional funding and training to help with practical aspects of working in their institution (for example, teaching or conservation).
  • PhD position on an academic project: When mid-career or senior academics design their projects, they are likely to assemble a team. Often, a team will have a position for a PhD student, who should already be interested in the project’s general area and excited to work as part of a larger academic team – almost like a science ‘lab’ but for the humanities. This is standard practice in the sciences and social sciences, and is becoming more common in the arts and humanities. Sometimes, a PhD position will be fairly prescriptive to fit with an overall project design. Other times, PhD candidates will be given great freedom to design their own PhD along with their supervisor.
  • Private funding: In the sciences, PhDs can be funded by an industrial partner – a pharmaceutical company, for instance, or an energy firm. This is possible but far rarer in the arts and humanities, since we tend not to ‘solve’ problems or make easily monetised ‘discoveries’ (though it’s worth saying that the idea that the humanities doesn’t ‘discover’ or ‘solve’ a problem is only a caricature – art historians can prove the provenance of a painting, historians can weigh evidence and judge whether an historical account might be trustworthy, and linguists can help us understand and make better use of languages). Unlike the other funding avenues, private funding is most likely to come with strings attached. Some of these might be unacceptable to a public body like a university (who may, furthermore, require background checks on any private individuals willing to fund research; universities will be wary of any links to things like oil and tobacco and should be vigilant against potential funders pressuring a student into creating and publishing biased work).

When applying for any kind of funding, including research grants, be aware of what will be expected of you. An open competition like those offered by the AHRC, Leverhulme, or the European Research Council (ERC) will be far more accommodating. A cultural institution partner will expect something different than a university. Private funding may require you to get special permission from your prospective host university. In all cases, though, recognise that the process will be a lengthy one.

Giving Yourself Enough Time for the Whole Process

It is easy to underestimate how long applying for a PhD can take. Even if you’re coming to a PhD at midlife, with a wealth of experience and ideas, it can still take many months to marshal your thoughts into a coherent set of questions and to design a viable project. It can then take months more for the administrative stuff – in most cases, you have to apply for a PhD first, then begin a funding application once you’ve been accepted as a candidate.

Whatever funding avenue you pursue, you should first know generally the area you’re interested in exploring at PhD level, then contact potential organisations and supervisors whose work or approach you admire. When you make your interests known, they will guide you in making an application to the university. Once accepted, they should also help you with a funding bid – it looks good on an institution when they attract PhD funding, so they, too, have an interest in seeing you succeed.

Focus on Relevance

There must be a reason for a funding body to support your work. When you’re making your application, show that your interests will make full use of your host organisation and its resources. Perhaps you want to study the private life of Charles Lindbergh, then Yale’s collection pertaining to him would make that university a perfect match. Maybe your project on disability and dance can only really be done with a particular supervisor at Aberystwyth. It isn’t enough for your project to simply be well designed and insightful: you have to ask what the funder is looking for. This information will be prominent in the documents that come with the application form. Guidelines are highly specific, requirements must all be met, and results committed to.

If you aren’t designing the project yourself – for example, if you’re applying for an ARHC CDA or to be a PhD student on a funded project – your task for showing relevance is flipped. In this case, the question becomes: what makes you the best fit for the project? You’ll need to show you understand the project, that you have a background in the discipline in question, perhaps even some experience working in a specific research area or with the kind of organisation that’s hosting the project.

Consider the Impact of Your Work

Some funders may want you to focus exclusively on your PhD project. It’s more likely, these days, that you’ll have commitments beyond the PhD itself. This is sometimes a question of financial return – perhaps more straightforward in the sciences, where deep connections with industrial partners push students into creating intellectual property. In the humanities, this is less likely to be the case, but funders will still look for the impact of your work and the activities you plan around it.

In an academic world of interdisciplinary and non-academic partnerships, our impact is often beyond the university. Will your work improve the public understanding of heritage issues? Does it constitute a new approach to making art in care homes? Will your work engage a community underrepresented in your field? Sometimes, it can be entirely separate from your research interest, and consist in teaching or administrative commitments (these might be a condition of PhD funding, but often you’ll be paid extra). Such activities beyond PhD research, even if they feel irrelevant, should be embraced. They are incredibly important for an academic profile, and are one of the reasons a funded PhD can be one of life’s most fun and rewarding experiences.