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Top 10 Tips from a PhD student who’s been there: What Master’s students should expect when applying for a PhD History scholarship
If there is one thing that a Master’s degree in History taught me, it’s that a year can pass in little more than the blink of an eye. At the best of times this intense period of study can be stressful, confusing and isolating. At the worst, it can feel almost impossible to fund, plan and complete an extended research project in the narrow space of time allotted to a Master’s degree. Yet each year hundreds of history students decide to take the plunge and prolong this challenging -but often hugely rewarding- juggling act by putting together a PhD application while still in the process of studying towards their MA. I was one of these people last year.
In my case I had been aiming for a career in academia since my undergraduate studies so had already read a great deal about what was needed to achieve this. This made the decision to apply for my PhD much less daunting than it might otherwise have been while in the middle of an intensive year-long Master’s degree. Yet when it became clear that I would need full funding in order to fund my studies (unfortunately a PhD does not come cheap!) I was amazed at how difficult it was to find information about what to expect when constructing a scholarship application. This was particularly problematic for someone who wished –if at all possible- to enter straight into my PhD at the end of my Master’s year, and so did not have a great deal of time to gradually figure out the best way to plan and approach a funding application alongside the many other demands of my Master’s degree.
Luckily, thanks to the advice of a number of fantastic lecturers and university departments, I was able to construct a successful funding application for my PhD – but it was definitely the most challenging experience of my life to have to do so with so little knowledge or experience about the scholarship application process. It is for this reason that I have written my own brief guide of what to expect when applying for PhD funding in the UK, in hopes that this will be of some use to other historians as they plan their own scholarship applications in the near future.
Here are my Top 10 Tips of what to expect when applying for a PhD scholarship in History:
1) Start thinking about your research proposal early. This includes reading around your chosen research topic and brushing up on any debates surrounding the research methods which most interest you. A number of funding deadlines –particularly for the major research councils AHRC and ESRC- are often as early as the end of January, so you really need to be proactive to give yourself the best chance of being considered for these in particular.
2) Discuss your application with your current Master’s supervisor or other members of staff at your current university. They will need to put together a reference in support of your application, and the more they know about the research you are proposing (and about your reasons for applying for PhD) the better they can tailor their reference to your needs. You will usually require two academic references when applying for the PhD itself (note: sometimes you need these to be resubmitted separately for your funding application as well) so be sure to allow your chosen referees plenty of time to discuss your research proposal with you, to write these references out and to send them off to your chosen university/universities.
3) Don’t think that you won’t be considered just because you haven’t yet completed your Master’s. Most universities simply state that you need to have a Bachelor’s degree with a 2:1 or above to be considered for PhD funding. They might ask for a copy of your academic transcript and degree certificate so it’s worth having these to hand. Another good idea to supplement your application is to draw up an academic cv which lists any conferences you have attended, talks you have given about your research, any publications (including a blog if you have one) and other relevant experience which will show that you are serious and passionate about entering into the world of academia.
4) Once you have chosen your research topic/method/key questions and have discussed these with your current history department, start sending out informal emails to get feedback from the leading historians in your chosen field. Ideally have a draft research proposal to send them which briefly explains your proposed research topic, any questions to be addressed, potential research methods, as well as explaining why you feel this research matters. Expect some constructive criticism – it’s very rare to get everything right the first time around! Also expect to make significant changes to your proposal and to do some further reading based on any feedback you are given. If you are corresponding with a potential supervisor, keep them informed about any subsequent alterations that you make to your research proposal, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask them for advice about how their department considers scholarship applications and what you can do to maximise your chances of being considered for any funding.
5) As previously mentioned, as part of a PhD scholarship application most universities will ask you for a research proposal, academic transcript for your Bachelor’s degree (and for your Master’s degree once this is completed), and two academic references. What they will likely also wish to see is a personal statement. This is a chance to show off your passion and suitability for academia and why you think you are a good fit for their particular history department. You might consider discussing such subjects as: what first sparked your interest in a particular field of research/theme or subject, why you wish to undertake a PhD in this field, and why you have selected to apply to this specific university. Your personal statement would also be a good place to mention in more detail about any previous research experience, projects, relevant skills training or presentations/publications of your work.
6) By November many History departments will have announced any scholarship deadlines for the following September/October. Choose your top 5 departments/supervisors for your field of research and check to see if they have funding advertised (this will usually be on the History department’s website) and whether the funding on offer is sufficient for your needs. Some departments will offer full research council scholarships with a yearly stipend, others will have an equivalent full departmental scholarship, some will just cover tuition fees and some will only offer part-fee funding. It’s important to make sure that if you are going to take the time to apply to an institution that the funding on offer is going to be enough to cover your cost of living, travel, research expenses and any other costs you are likely to incur over the 3+ years. It’s also worth asking if a History department will be recruiting any of their PhD students for GTA work, as this can be another way to supplement your income while gaining valuable HE teaching experience at the same time.
7) Once you have planned, written, received feedback from academics, edited and then proof read your research proposal (sometimes even multiple times!) be sure to send it off to the relevant History department/funding body in plenty of time. Some departments need to have formally accepted your PhD application before they can even consider your scholarship application, so you need to be aware of this and be prepared to send everything off much earlier than the deadline suggests if necessary. You can easily check this by emailing the individual department.
8) Be prepared for the bittersweet feeling of being accepted onto a PhD programme and then subsequently rejected for any funding. Scholarships are like gold dust in the humanities and sometimes, even with solid preparation and an exciting research proposal, there simply aren’t enough scholarships to go around for all those who submitted worthy applications. This is why, to save time and a lot of wasted effort, it might be worth only applying to universities where you already know that a relevant supervisor is available (and have already made contact with them to confirm their interest in your proposal) and preferably where there seems to be a strong departmental interest in the themes and subjects to be touched upon by your research. If scholars are genuinely excited about your research and know that you will be working in line with their History department’s specialisms then this inevitably places you in a stronger position when it comes to your application, as it is immediately clear what the department can offer you and how you might return the favour. It also might be worth applying to more than one university if you are able (note: this will not adversely impact your application and there is no limit to the number of applications you can make at this level). When I applied for my PhD last year, I sent off my application to more than one university and was rejected for funding by one and accepted by another with exactly the same proposal a few days later.
9) Prepare to defend your proposal in person as many universities now interview for their highly-competitive scholarships. If you are short-listed for an interview then it is worth asking them what to expect before you arrive, and to ask your current History department (if you are still doing your MA) if they are able to advise you and help you prepare for this at all.
10) Don’t panic if you do not succeed on your first attempt. Scholarships are not easy to come by, and unfortunately things don’t always fall into place on the first attempt for everyone. If you are unsuccessful in your first round of applications then ask for feedback about why this was the case and how you can better improve your application for next time. If you are really determined to start your PhD by the end of that year then you can also consider other external funding options. One option if your PhD application has already been accepted by a department but was not awarded their internal scholarship is to have a look at the Alternative Funding Guide – something which many UK universities now subscribe to: http://www.gradfunding.co.uk/subscribers.jpg
Obviously no list is perfect and for the specifics of how to structure your research proposal you are best to contact the individual History departments themselves as this varies widely. However I hope this has offered a rough idea of how to get started and what to expect as a Master’s student applying for History funding in the increasingly competitive world of academia.