Saturday, 28 August 2010

The College and University Scramble for PhD Funding

On Tuesday, this week, I went to a seminar in London about locating funding possibilities for Creative Writing PhDs.  What I learned was not good.  At least not for me.  The already slim opportunities that exist for Arts and Humanities research are now anorexic, and I emerged from the session kicking myself for having wasted £30 on the train fare simply to confirm what I already suspected: it's very unlikely I will receive funding because - like most postgrad Creative Writing students - I have not followed the traditional (i.e. preferred) academic route.  To be honest, rather than traipsing all the way to London for this news, it would have been less expensive and more convenient if I had just gone to Online PhD or one of the other online sites offering information and advice to postgraduate students.  

In short, this is what I learned: funding bodies such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council like to play safe and are rightly cautious when it comes to allocating money. When deciding what students to fund, they favour those with academic track records that can be held up for scrutiny by academics in other fields.  The merit and abilities of Creative Writing postgrads, therefore, are measured with the same yardstick as research students involved in the sciences.  And a 'mature student' returning to university to do a Biochemistry PhD, after twenty years in a variety of odd jobs, is not going get funding, either. Regardless of how brilliant s/he may be.

For anyone with vague hopes of being funded to do a PhD in Creative Writing in the UK, here is the route you need to take: A and A* grades in the A-Levels needed to get you onto an English Literature/Creative Writing programme at a pre-1992 university; a 1st in that degree; and an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing at an equally well-regarded institution immediately (or very soon) after completing the BA. It is essential that you remain focussed on your goal at all times and never allow yourself to become distracted by things such as marriage, kids, and the need to pay bills.  Whatever you do, do not get sidetracked by LIFE.  Having a life outside of academia will not help you in any way whatsoever. Neither will having a list of publication credits.  Or, apparently, that MA with Distinction if you don't already have a BA with top marks.  In short, it all goes straight back to those A-Level grades.  Any variation in this route towards the PhD provides funding bodies with a reason to weed-out your application.  Be warned.

It is also important, when considering a university for PhD studies, that a student should not automatically go back to the university where they received their MA - regardless of how much they like their supervisors, or the praise they received.  When the AHRC marks a candidate's application, they also evaluate the suitability of the institution the student is with to determine if that institution has the specific resources the student's research requires.  And by resources, they are not referring to the highly-esteemed writers who make up the supervisory staff overseeing the student's research.  In other words, if your project involves research into the literature and history of the American West, as mine does, the university needs to have suitable resources (a specialist library, a programme in American Studies, a museum of barbed wire, etc) with the materials you are likely to draw upon.  The fact that you've already spent hundreds of pounds on Amazon, building up your own specialist library doesn't count for a hill of beans.

Lastly, those applying for funding need to demonstrate the 'impact' their research will have, i.e. how it will benefit the academic world (or even better, how it will benefit SOCIETY) and to show that it will lead to more than the publication of a book. Here's a hint for anyone filling out applications: tell them you'll be presenting papers at specific, high-profile conferences; reading at specific, high-profile literary events; and publishing papers in specific, high-profile, ACADEMIC journals. If you mention that your novel will win the Booker Prize and lead to world peace as well, it can't hurt.

If I had known these things when I started, I might have done things differently...In fact, I might not have gone down this road at all.  So perhaps it's a good thing I didn't know.  I am, despite the bile rising up in my throat, happy to be shuffling along this dusty path, and I'm happy with the university I chose.  I just wish I weren't so desperately poor at this time in my life...

For those of you who are plotting your route to a PhD, here are some links to sources of funding which may prove fruitful:

Arts and Humanities Research Council
Economic and Social Research Council
National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts
The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
National Endowment for the Arts


Leila R said...

Hi, I am just considering doing a PhD in Writing, and there's no way I can afford it without funding, so this was a very useful post, thank you. I share your frustration with the funding issues, though I'm lucky I do have some good, relevant academic qualifications (not a 1st in my BA, though). Good luck with your PhD and I hope you manage to score some funding/ income soon! :)

Loree said...

Hi Leila.
Thanks for your comment. Funding is a big issue, but I guess it all comes down to priorities in the end. If a person wants something badly enough, they'll find a way of getting it, even if it means sacrificing other things.
For the past few months, I've been doing student support work at my local university, and this has kept my head above water, financially, without taking too much time away from my own studies.
And although I haven't received any direct funding for my PhD project, I have recently been awarded funding for administration and continued development of the THRESHOLDS short story forum (see link at top of page) from the University of Chichester. This is a project which my PhD supervisor has promoted with a great deal of vigor, and though I had to spend a number of months developing it with her with little in the way of recompense. With the THRESHOLDS project I'll now be able to pay my meagre household bills - at least until September - which is a great relief.
I will also be teaching 3 hours a week at the university, starting next Tuesday, so with those two sources of income, I should be okay.
As for having good, relevant academic qualifications - I had these too, but found I still wasn't in the running for AHRC (and other) funding. I recieved a distinction for my MA, had other teaching quals, and had been publishing off and on for quite a few years. However, what I found was that when funding bodies look at a person's record, emphasis is placed on how well they did in their BA.
I wish you lots of luck in your writing journey and would be interested in hearing about how you get on with the whole funding thing.