Part One: Planning and Applying for a historical-political PhD: some general advice
Applying for four years’ PhD funding on a tentative, 500-word proposal is a terrifying and bizarre idea. This is only my experience of planning, applying and working on an ESRC 1+3 masters, but hopefully these series of posts will provide a little window in to the ESRC 1+3 world for those thinking of it, or applying for it, already.
A year ago, applying directly to the university of your choice was the main route, then, to get ESRC funding for a combined one-year Masters and three-year PhD in something vaguely economic, social or political. (The application procedure has now changed: this isn’t intended to be a how-to guide for funding proposals, but the basics remain similar.) The temptation is to wait until you feel like you know what you’re talking about in your application, when you’re convinced it has academic merit and a firm theoretical basis. This will probably never happen. So far it hasn’t happened to me – if anything, the opposite. And, as Zoe says, the PhD is the time to become an expert in something: there’s no point spending five years working up expertise and then heading into three years’ study. I still feel worried that I haven’t spent enough time in Sudan, or know enough about Sudan, to justify my funding, but that is, I guess, what the time to research a 100,000 word thesis is for.
I started working on my ideas by going to the Oxford Sudan conference series, and downloading what articles there were publicly available. The lack of access to JSTOR and a good reference library made feeling confident in my ideas quite difficult – I didn’t know whether there was research actually being done on the topics I was interested in – so I started emailing people. I’ve learnt that emailing researchers out of nowhere is actually fine to do, despite my worries. I spoke to an expert on migration in the Horn of Africa at SOAS, several people in African Studies at Oxford and Cambridge, and emailed my old boss Justin at Durham.
I then realised that I was looking for the holy trinity of funding, the right supervisor and the right institution. For various reasons, SOAS, Oxford and Cambridge didn’t have the full house. Durham’s history faculty had two ESRC quota places to apply for that year; I would have had to pay for a masters’ course at Oxford, and there was then no funding at Cambridge or SOAS for what I wanted to do. Everywhere had exceptional supervisors, but my good relationship with my now-supervisor in Durham, the department’s positivity about research in Sudan (some people were a little reticent about me planning to research in Sudan, instead suggesting Kenya as a safer, cheaper, more visa-friendly alternative) and the Sudan Archives there tipped the balance. I talked to people, asked questions, and went to conferences for well over a year before I both knew I should do a PhD, and I’d found the right place and application to make.
With this in mind, I’d advise undergraduates wanting to study something political, social-sciencey or historical to take at least a year off: not only because with funding as it is at the moment, working up a good proposal at the same time as getting a first is ambitious in the extreme. I’d been advised by other researchers that their years working as research assistants before their PhD paid off in experience and funding applications; although I had several academics tell me to “get on with it” and not “waste time”, I took three years to work as a research assistant and to train as a legal representative at tribunal level for asylum seekers. While I still feel that this experience – particularly my legal experience – is looked at a bit askance by some academics, I don’t think I would have got my funding without it, and I definitely don’t think I would have had the time to work up the proposal and find the right place to apply.
I could have taken out loans and afforded a taught course. If you’re interested in African studies, there are lots and lots of fabulous courses to look at, all very different and engineered towards different career paths and specialisms. I’d looked around a bit, but because I knew I had a PhD topic that I was absolutely sure about, and that I knew would take over four years to actually engineer, I wanted to get on with it. At the time I thought I was unlikely to get funding, so decided to apply and then apply late for masters programmes or reapply to everything the following year. I think I’ve missed out – I know I have – but it was a choice between getting a little (paid) head-start on some reading and settling back into university versus a very intensive, very expensive stand-alone masters programme that probably would have left me pretty exhausted. I also knew that I would still be looking at applying for the ESRC funding programme, which includes the obligatory Masters year, so I would be taking two Masters degrees. I have regretted not taking a more intense course this year, but funding-wise and for my PhD project, I feel I’ve made the best decision coming to Durham with the right supervisor, the right funding body and the right academic support for the research.
I hope everyone tuned out during the beginning of this ramble, but maybe this explanation of one way of going about deciding on and getting PhD funding will be helpful to potential students in the future. I’m going to work on writing Part Two of this overlong explanation of the ESRC 1+3 process, which will be specifically about the 1+ Masters course.