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This category is for any advice on applying for research grants; there are of course many different types and levels of research, and a whole range of different bodies who award grants for undertaking it. I am going to write about my own personal experience in applying for research grants, which was in the "Doctoral Competition" run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (henceforth "AHRC"). The AHRC, for those of you wondering, is a body set up by the Government in 2005 as a successor organisation to the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB), which was established in 1998 to fund research in the arts and humanities in higher education. They receive £80 million of Government money each year to distribute to postgraduate researchers in universities (at both Masters and PhD level), professional researchers in universities, and also makes funding available to museums and galleries attached to UK universities. I should say that when I applied for funding in 2002 it was therefore to the AHRB, but as far as I can see the application process (and indeed everything else bar the logo and name) is identical now, so my experience and advice is still relevant here. I am writing about them in the hope that they will prove helpful to any aspiring postgraduate researchers out there who are thinking of applying for funding to complete a PhD, although it should also be of use to those applying through the "Research Preparation Masters Scheme" (i.e. people wanting money for a MPhil degree).
While there are several Government-backed research councils, the AHRC stands at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to the others. It is perhaps understandable that the Powers That Be prefer to sponsor scientific research over those projects in the arts and humanities, and this is reflected in the structuring of the councils. The AHRC covers a very wide remit of subjects - such as history, archaeology, English, literature, linguistics, philosophy, classics, drama and art - that also feature some of the most popular choices of degree subject, as I'm sure many of you will agree! The science councils, on the other hand, cover much more specific subject areas that attract far fewer students: there is a council for Biological Sciences and Biotechnology, and another for Particle Physics and Astronomy, for example. The outcome of this is that there is far more competition for AHRC postgraduate grants than there is for the grants offered by any of the other research councils. When I applied in 2002, I was advised at that time that around 2,000 grants were awarded each year to postgraduates…but there were at least five times that number of applicants. With just a 1 in 5 chance of successful application, you need to do it well!
Firstly, let me mention the eligibility criteria. To be eligible to apply to the AHRC Doctoral Competition you must fulfil two key criteria: academic and residency. In the first case, you need to be a graduate of a recognised higher education institution and have, or be studying for, a Master's level qualification in a relevant subject area (although, having said this, I know people who have got funded for a PhD straight from being an undergraduate, although it is pretty unusual). You also need to have been accepted at a UK university to undertake a named piece of doctoral research; you cannot apply to the AHRC unless you are attached to a specific university. In terms of residency, you need to be normally resident in the UK if you want to apply for a full award (fees and a maintenance grant, which currently stands at £10,500 per year) or have lived in the EU for at least 3 years for a fees only award. My initial piece of advice is therefore to make sure to fulfil *all* these criteria - if you decide to just "have a go" without them you will not get anywhere, and more importantly you will therefore be ineligible to apply again for another year.
Once you are sure you meet these criteria and that you want to apply, the next important thing you must do is make sure that you access all available information from the AHRC. Download a copy of the "Guide for Applicants", the application form and associated notes from their website (www.ahrc.ac.uk), read them carefully and be aware of the deadline for submission. The final completed document has to be in by May of each year, which means you need to get the (large and complex) application form completed and in the post by April. Please leave as much time as possible for doing this as it takes a surprisingly long time to do well.
The first three pages of the form are pretty straightforward and deal with your personal information. However, from page four onwards, things get a little more complex. You will need to provide here full details of your intended research programme so that the AHRC can assess whether they want to fund it or not - this means not only providing a vague subject area and your chosen university, but also naming who will be your supervisor, giving a provisional title and presenting a 500 word supporting case backing up this particular piece of research and why you are qualified to do it. This means you need to have done a lot of preparation before you can fill this section of the form in; you must have a clear idea of what you are going to do with your PhD. In my department, I was advised to look at past MA and PhD theses in the library to get a feel for what research could be done in my field, and to think in terms of what is current and fashionable in the subject. This second point is important because submitting a successful title can hang as much on politics - as is so often the case in academia - as anything else. If you can associate your research topic with the "buzz words" of the day, then you stand a better chance of producing a politically acceptable application. For example, I related my subject to the idea of social inclusion, which is very "in" within pretty much all areas of cultural studies. You must of course chose a topic that you can feel something for; an area than you genuinely want to study or a question you really want to know the answer to (you will be working within it for at least three years after all), but all the passion in world will not get you anywhere if the funding bodies reject your ideas.
My next tip is to read around the subject you have chosen. No one is expecting you to produce a full literature review at this stage, but if you can provide supporting evidence showing you have an awareness of the field and what research gaps exist within it - a PhD has to offer an original contribution to your subject - then this can only help your case. Make clear what you expect your original contribution to be in your statement. It is part of how the AHRC defines a PhD, so this is a key element to get across. It also helps to show that you are well prepared and have an idea of what is feasible for your research project. For example, as part of my statement, I wrote: "Up until now, this has been a subject that has attracted little attention and has only been addressed by social historians working predominantly on material from the past 200 years; coming from an archaeological background, this research will aim to provide new angles on this subject". This shows I have identified a research gap, however loosely (the archaeological perspective) and than I am qualified to study it (reminding the council that I have a BSc in archaeology).
Once you have some clear ideas developing, print out a copy of the application form and practice filling it in, using the accompanying notes for guidance. Pass on your practice form to at least one person (including the person you want to be your supervisor) for comments and feedback, and make sure you find time for a thorough discussion of your application and initial title. I found this process to be very helpful in identifying the weak parts of my application and improving it. It goes without saying that you should check very carefully for spelling. In my practice run I managed to mis-spell my prospective supervisor's name, which was very embarrassing!
I would now suggest that you are ready to fill in the real application form - although you are allowed to do it by hand, I would advise you to type it instead as it looks neater, reads easier and creates a much better impression. Before sending the form (and associated paperwork) off to the AHRC, it needs to be completed by two referees. Remember I said that the form will need posting in April, so make sure you pass it onto your first referee in plenty of time for them to complete their section and pass it on to the second referee. I would strongly suggest getting the form to your first referee sometime in March to be on the safe side (or earlier if at all possible), as they both have to provide a report and that can take a while to do. Before passing the form on, go carefully through the AHRC's checklist to make sure that all supporting paperwork has been included with your application, as the second referee with be sending it off to the AHRC once they have completed their section.
If you are successful, then the AHRC will contact you in August.
I was lucky to be supported by the AHRC on a full award whilst doing my PhD. I offer this advice as a successful applicant - I know the guidance that my department gave me was good, as in the year that I applied, two out of three applicants who tried for AHRC money got it. Those are pretty good odds, I reckon.
Good luck to anyone who does apply!
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I got my tuition fees paid by the ESRC, wouldn't be able to be a postgrad without it to be honest. Funding is vital. Good review.
a-true-ben 18.08.2006 16:19
Wish you'd written this a couple of years ago... Though I was lucky enough to get AHRB funding for my MPhil and now be on AHRC for my DPhil anyway. All very sensible advice, and it helps to hear from someone that's been through it before if you haven't. Ben