As the original author of the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding – in both book and web form – it’s something of an oddity that I haven’t yet told the story of how I funded my own PhD, in History and the Digital Humanities at KCL, which I studied part-time between 2006 and 2012.
In the first two years before I started, I applied to numerous funded PhD scholarships and was rejected by them all, despite an excellent academic record at Bachelors and Master’s level. In particular, the AHRC – which at that time operated differently – placed me on a blacklist reserved for applicants who had unsuccessfully applied to them twice which prevented further applications (a practice that has, happily, been discontinued). This was despite them describing my application as ‘excellent’. Armed with little more than a love of my subject, and a sense of burning indignation at being (as I then saw it) discarded by the system, I begun my PhD at KCL entirely unfunded.
While I did have a very flexible part-time job, it didn’t pay anywhere near enough to get me through the PhD on its own. In truth, I probably needed a further £40,000 to pay for everything including fees, rent, maintenance, research costs etc. So it was obvious I was going to have to be rather imaginative if I was going to make it. I knew that there were pots of money here and there for students, from charities and from universities, but with the former in particular, there was no guidebook or any co-ordinated source of information. I resolved that I would leave no stone unturned, and hunt for as many as I possibly could- and turn myself into a small grant winning machine.
Initially, I looked locally. My university, KCL, had a few awards for current students, but these were heavily oversubscribed and were only partial. However, I found several small travel and conference grants of £250-£500 each, and also won three grants from the university hardship fund throughout my PhD for around £700 to £1000 each. I was also fortunate enough to win an £8,000 bursary in my second year of study, which was an enormous help. In addition, I applied to academic learned societies- the Royal Historical Society supported me for three years, to the tune of £250 a year, and the Lynne Grundy Memorial Trust (also an academic society) also chipped in with £250. I also won several awards from the Conrad Russell Fund at the Institute of Historical Research in London where I attended academic seminars, and also from the University of London’s Central Research Fund. All of these funding sources were from academic bodies and associations close to home, but altogether they contributed very substantially.
Despite my success here with some of the more obvious small funders, I still had a huge black hole in my funding package. So I began to look further than just academic bodies, and into the mysterious world of charities and trusts. I trawled the internet, and scoured all of the books I could find in my local library such as the Grants Register, Directory of Grants Making Trusts, Guide to Grants for Individuals in Need, etc. Some bodies were very obscure, but my strategy was to make a long list of possible funders, then write or email each one with a simple generic letter to ask if they’d consider me. I marched to the postbox many times armed with dozens of letters. Of course many of them didn’t get replies, or if they did, they were negative. Initially I was very discouraged and thought I had wasted my time. But then one evening a lady from the St. Clemant Dane’s Educational Trust called me and invited me to apply, which I duly did. This Trust was for people who had been schooled in London, and who were 25 or under. A few weeks later, the Trust let me know that I’d won a grant of £1,000, which I also was able to renew one year later. Once I had this grant, I mentioned this in my enquiry letters to other charities, and my success rate seemed to pick up. I then won awards from the Newby Trust, and the Leatherseller’s Company. Since I got these awards to run for three and two years respectively, this netted another £5,000.
Another set of bodies I was successful with were those which were interested in helping the sons and daughters of travelling salespeople and businesspeople (familial connection with particular trades, even if they are from your grandparents, are very common criteria with charities). My father’s time as a businessman- where he ran a copier company and worked as a travelling salesmen for McVities Biscuits and ICI, were incredibly useful here. I won an award of £500 (three times renewed) from the Ruby and Will George Charitable Trust and then from the Leverhulme Trades Charitable Trust for nearly £10,000. My father was somewhat incredulous (although pleasantly surprised) that his career as a salesman, including shipping Ginger Nuts and Shortbread Fingers around in a van, had had the unintended consequence of winning such a large sum of money for his son! I also won awards from other bodies without such particular eligibility criteria, including the Sir Richard Stapley Charitable Trust (three times), the Roger Sarah and Bancroft Clerk Charitable Trust (twice) and the Humanitarian Trust (twice).
In the end, I managed to fund my PhD nearly to the same level as a research council award. It certainly took me a long time, and recounting how much I won as I have done here underplays the numerous rejections, dead ends, and fallow periods where the trail ran cold or my luck appeared to turn sour. On hindsight, if I had one piece of advice it would be simply to persist, and to not give up. Also, to be methodical, and mechanical. Just sending off a few letters here and there to selected bodies might work, but it probably won’t. Unless you are very lucky, you need to spin the wheel many times to be odds on to hit the jackpot. Also, if you need to raise a lot, as I had to, play the game hard. By that, I mean play every card you’ve got in your hand- think about anything you can do to raise money, whether its through charities as I did, or maybe something else too- like Crowdfunding. Also, remember that it is almost always not what you are, but what you appear to be that matters. For example, even a dry PhD or Masters, and a modest CV can, given the correct tone and presentation, seem highly compelling.
The Alternative Guide remains, as it was when it was released in 2009, essentially the same strategy – albeit refined and expanded with the invaluable help of others – that I used for funding my PhD. I hope you find it useful, and that ultimately you also one day have your own successful funding story to tell too. Good luck.