Starting your PhD: what it means to be funded for your humanities PhD

By Gemma Scott, PhD Candidate, History

Securing funding for a humanities PhD is no easy task. Full scholarships are few and far between, and finding pockets of money whilst you’re studying is often even harder. If you manage to get a full scholarship, you find yourself in a strong position. Privileged is not the right word; you have, after all, not just been given the money. Rather, you’ve earned it with a strong project proposal, application and good grades from previous degrees. But you find yourself starting at an advantage, as I did in September 2013 when I began my AHRC funded PhD in History at Keele. You at least have a guaranteed regular income for the next three years. My research on a period of political Emergency in India (1975-1977) requires extensive (and costly) international fieldwork, and so this funding was particularly essential to my project. It allowed me, first and foremost, to plan and partially fund a three month visit to India to examine archival material and conduct interviews.

But the hard work, and attempt to gather funds, is by no means over once the research council money is in the bag. Yes, my fees are paid and I receive a maintenance stipend, but most of that money is needed for, as the name would suggest, maintenance. I used it to meet my living costs whilst abroad, pay for my VISA and other related expenses, but also had to travel extensively within the UK during my first year visiting archives and libraries up and down the country to collect material. Getting the most out of your postgraduate life and training also means doing a lot more than just writing your thesis. It includes attending and presenting at conferences, organising academic events, being involved in the postgraduate community, and in my case, learning a language. These things cost lots of time, as well as money.

The AHRC funding, crucially, frees up time that might otherwise be spent earning money to fully engage in these activities. I’ve organised seminars, a symposium, a conference, been involved in producing a postgraduate journal and many other initiatives at Keele. It also gives you valuable practice at securing funding. Not only does it stand you in good stead, but means you’ve had practical experience completing a successful funding application, which is very valuable for securing money for additional expenses from institutional and other schemes. Having AHRC funding also opens other doors. I spent three months from January 2015 on a fellowship at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, on an International Placement Scheme (only open to students already funded by the AHRC). This was not only integral to my current project, practically reshaping my thesis, but was also an amazing experience and opportunity.

Because of these two international trips and the extent of my fieldwork, the idea that I might submit the thesis within my three years of funding feels fairly unachievable. At first, I was determined to get the work done before the money ran out. But I’m quickly realising that for a more developed thesis and greater selection of other skills on my CV, it will be well worth going into un-funded territory.  Every PhD journey, like every project, is unique. For me, it’s not only about writing my thesis for this project. I want an academic career at the end of it, and getting involved in those other activities, organising, publishing and taking on teaching is crucial for this. This has been the real value of the AHRC funding. It’s provided me with time, and sometimes with contacts and opportunities, to engage in these additional activities as well as work on my thesis.

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