21. How to apply for PhD funding?

This week’s blog is based on the all-important topic of applying for PhD funding. We took your questions to Professor Peter Hopkins who currently works at Newcastle University and has plentiful experience of both applying and judging applications for funding. From this interview, Beth and Wilbert have created a summary of helpful things to note when thinking of applying.

Where can you apply for funding?

Firstly, Peter named the main bodies of funding which Geography students are open to applying for.   

These research councils often have rules and regulations about where you live, such as being a UK or EU resident, to be eligible to apply.

Alternatively, some Universities have their own studentship competitions which are sometimes open to all students to apply, including European and International students.

Other opportunities for funding arise when a large project receives funding for specific research where PhD students are needed to work alongside leading academics as part of this greater research project. This therefore means you are less flexible to complete your own research project but still have the opportunity to complete a PhD that is your own contribution to knowledge.

What time of year is best to apply?

Peter had a simple message – the earlier you start thinking about applying, the better!

The first steps of the process are ideally completed by late Autumn – making contact by email and expressing your interest with potential supervisors who have a similar interest to you. This is important to confirm that they all want to, and are able to, support your application. Peter confirmed that the majority of deadlines come just after the New Year and before early March, and the application process requires a lot of time as you will need to work on your proposal and respond to feedback.

There are very few studentships available throughout the rest of the year, however, some may be advertised internally within Universities or as part of greater research projects.

“If you have a certain area of interest then you should contact a particular specialist in your area and start having a conversation with them first, as you also need to check they are not going to be too busy to help you.”

Applying to more than one funding body?

Applying to more than one project can be a lot of hard work but Peter said that it is normally okay to apply to as many as you want. For example cultural geographers can apply to both ESRC and AHRC programmes, however some universities may restrict you to only applying to one of these schemes rather than both of them at the same time

You can also apply to different institutions on the same funding body. However, Peter advises to apply to one university within each centre of research funding. Each centre has several universities within the same region collaboratively working together such as the North East Doctoral Training centre, which Peter was previously the Director of. Here, seven universities within the North East and Northern Ireland combine together to compete for the same pot of ESRC funding. This doesn’t stop you applying to other centres in different areas, and if you don’t receive funding the first time, applying again the next year or later to other pockets of funding such as departmental funding.

Peter shared his personal experience where he missed out on receiving funding from the research council. He then was nominated to enter the University of Edinburgh’s Geography Department studentship which involved 100 hours a year of teaching in exchange for his studentship. He won this opportunity and further enjoyed the teaching.

“These opportunities do become available sometimes for those who just miss out, so speak to your supervisors about your options”

To want to be a potential supervisor, there are three main things Peter wants to see in his students:

  • Strong marks – a student needs to be attaining highly, with firsts and high 2.1, particularly in dissertation and research based modules where outstanding marks can help to demonstrate excellence in research. Professional experience within the research area does also help.

  • A very good research proposal – it needs to not only show good ideas, but shows it fits well into the literature and is achievable. At first it doesn’t need to be perfect, as this can be worked on, but needs to have potential.

  • A positive attitude – Peter wants to see that they will respond well to feedback and be excited and thankful for new ideas, rather than ignore and be upset from constructive criticism and advice.

“Are they going to go in a huff because I’ve track changed it or will they be responsive, open and communicative?”

How to create a good supervisory team?

In regards to creating a good supervisory match, Peter said this can be handled often by the lead supervisor as they will have good knowledge about the people they can bring together to make a strong team. This may mean students are best to first talk to one potential supervisor who they know has a similar research interest, to gain their advice on who else would be a good fit for their proposal.

The importance of a good supervisory team depends on the competition and its selection criteria, but for doctoral training partnerships, Peter says that this is normally very important. Supervisors need to have good experience in your research area where they may have published and successfully supported previous PhD students. Each supervisor doesn’t need to be a perfect match as long as they link in some way such as using similar methodologies or have an expertise in a specific concept or set of debates. Even a third supervisor who has area expertise or may be an experienced professor, could help to develop the proposal, especially when the other supervisors are quite junior.

“There is a particular art in writing how your supervisor matches your proposal and the supervisor would normally take the lead with this.”

Which University should I apply to?

This depends on your research area, and where the best opportunities are available to get the right supervisors. Peter argues that moving to a University with a strong research culture can be transformative. For this reason, Peter himself moved away from a small department to a higher ranked one that has more opportunities.

“There is nothing wrong with staying at your current University, if the right staff and support are there.“

What is different about this application as an international student?

“Once you are eligible to apply to a certain body of funding, applicants will then be treated in the same way, but the eligibility depends on the funding body which is usually made very clear in the application stage.”

Peter says it can be hard for international students because of the restrictions to apply for certain funding being restricted to UK or EU residents and emphasises that there may be other funding opportunities available for them.

If you are an international student and want to study a PhD at a UK university, then Peter says to follow the same procedure in contacting supervisors first. There might be research excellence scholarships, and other departmental funding which international students can apply for. Sometimes the university will be happy to offer a scholarship up to the same fee as it would be for a UK resident, and it will be up to the individual to top up the rest; personally, or from other areas of funding where you can apply for top ups. International governments sometimes offer this funding. However, Peter says to note that different UK universities will charge different fees, and if science based (rather than social science), these can cost more.

How do you decide who gets funding and who doesn’t?

Peter stressed that different funding bodies have different criteria but usually includes grades, background and CV, references, research area and supervisory fit. Some may have other criteria such as being cross-institutional or interdisciplinary.

Some will request an interview for those who meet the criteria and are ranked highest to help make the final decision. This is often like a job interview, with leading academics asking questions about your research area and your research proposal.

Other universities may have specific research criteria which they are really keen on as a department. For example, they may be wanting to prioritise students who research a theme they are paying particular attention to, such as climate change.

Other funding bodies may want to fund applications which work with collaborative partners, outside of academia, as they can offer greater support and a student may be graded on the strength of this partnership and nature of it. A collaborative partner can give a student an advantage as funding bodies sometimes have a target to fund more of these. Furthermore, it looks good that you have this support when contacting potential supervisors too. Often, the supervisors you work with will know the criteria of the funding you are applying to, and can therefore help guide your application to be a suitable fit.

“It is good to speak to your potential supervisor as they should know the criteria for the funding body you are applying to and if they don’t, they should be able to direct you to someone in the department who does, such as the director of graduate studies.”

Who reads my application and how can I prepare for them?

Peter says there is usually a central admissions team at most universities, which will check that your proposal meets their requirements e.g. have achieved a 2.1 or 1st at undergraduate, or have completed a certain Masters programme. At this stage, a postgraduate director or PhD coordinator or someone who is in charge of postgraduate admissions, will review your application and speak to your potential supervisors to check they are aware and supportive of your application. This can then give you a place to study at University, which Peter says is often not the difficult part as many people with places don’t show up each year as they have not been able to secure funding.

When applying for funding, there is normally a committee or set of committees which review the application according to what department / pathway you are applying to. Applications are often ranked, sometimes firstly by a post graduate director at each university, which are then reviewed and compared. It may be that a certain pathway gives a mark and then a central committee will review these ranks.

At Newcastle, Peter says two academics in each subject grade the application, then two other directors of the NEDTC will grade the application, so it receives four grades before it’s been moderated and ranked. The ones at the top of the rank would then be funded. Sometimes external people on a committee such as experienced professors are invited to check the grades and validate the list and agree the scores. Sometimes, non-specialists look at the proposal to gain external advice or they are sometimes the people who get the last say, as they are looking at all of the research proposals, not just a certain disciplines. For this reason, Peter recommends to keep this in mind when writing your application.

 “It needs to strike a balance between showing you’re really into Geography and expert on this topic but writing in such a way, a reasonably intelligent person in another discipline such as Economics or Sociology could understand it.”

Is there funding available after receiving your studentship for practical costs of research?

“There is not an endless pot of money”

Again, this depends on the funding body, although Peter said some have grants to apply for, but these pots of money are not endless. Departments too have funding to apply for to go conferences, learn languages, travel, etc. Research councils often make it clear what is available to apply for so it is important to check this if you may be needing extra funding when for example having lots of overnight stays within your research or going overseas.

To round up, what is your most important piece of advice?

“Start the process as early as possible, and don’t delay approaching someone; the more time you have to work on the proposal, the more time there is to target specific funding opportunities, so therefore start emailing and making contact as early as possible. Following that, do what you are told by your supervisors, and follow their advice and feedback – they know how it goes, so it is best to do what they say.”

Beth Robertson and Peter Hopkins (Newcastle University)

Compiled by Beth Robertson @BrobertsonNcl and Wilbert den Hoed @wilbert_dh.

With thanks to Prof Peter Hopkins (former North East Doctoral Training Centre director, and current professor of social geography at Newcastle University) @hopkinspeter1.