Funding postgraduate study and research in history

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As a follow-up (though later than intended) to earlier posts about doing a PhD and MA courses, this is about how to go about acquiring the financial wherewithal to do your post-grad and post-doc study and research – or at least to cut down on the burden on your own pocket as far as you can. It isn’t easy. It requires hard work and focus; and I’m afraid that there’s an element of luck, however good you are.* But at least you can avoid making unnecessary mistakes and increase your chances of success by going about it in the right way…

I’ve decided to split this post in two since I started it: this one will be about the basics of where to look for funding and the application processes, the second will look more at strategies for writing research proposals.

NB: I have in mind particularly students and starting-out post-docs in history (and related fields), by the way, rather than faculty looking for, say, grants for research leave and replacement staff, although some of the principles are the same. And as ever, when I focus on details I’m looking at the British system with which I’m familiar.

The sources of funding

You need to start by finding out what funding might be available in your field, for your course/study programme/research project. The ideal is, of course to get a substantial award that will cover as much as possible of your various costs: tuition fees, living expenses, research expenses. If you can only get partial funding – say, tuition-only grants or small bursaries – you may have to think hard about where the rest is to come from. But some is always better than none. Similarly, the fewer strings attached, the better. Some universities offer Teaching Assistantships for PhD students (though they seem much rarer than in north America), for example; you’ll need to look carefully at the workload that goes with this. Or (but this is much less common than in sciences) there are sometimes PhD studentships attached to larger research projects, but then of course you’re tied in to somebody else’s research agenda rather than being able to independently pursue your own. Make sure that research is something you really want to do.

There are various options: government funding through the national research councils; university studentships and fellowships; grants from other academic organisations; charitable organisations (usually for small grants only). For history, the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) website used to have an excellent freely-accessible database of grants in history. Now you have to buy the book (£15 + postage) to get most of that information, although a sample chapter is still available online. Yeah, thanks guys.

Jobs.ac.uk regularly advertises studentships and post-doc fellowships. Right now, for example, there are Masters and PhD studentships on offer at Cardiff University’s School of History and Archaeology (deadline 1 June 2005) and Research studentships at the Open University (deadline 1 March 2005). If you already have an idea of what university you want to go to, find out if it has its own studentship schemes on offer. The IHR itself has a range of competitions for post-grad and post-doc grants (which you can find in that online chapter). The British Academy runs an annual post-doc fellowship competition, amongst other post-doc level grant schemes. The main sources of university postdocs are Oxford and Cambridge colleges (where they are called Junior Research Fellowships); these are also advertised at jobs.ac.uk.

Postgrad history students in Britain will be looking at one of two research funding bodies, depending on what kind of historical research they want to do:

The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB)

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Application essentials

Read the requirements and all documentation provided for guidance, eg for AHRB Research Grants. Check, to start with:

1. Whether you personally are eligible to apply (eg, nationality or residency restrictions)

2. Whether what you want to do falls within the competition rules. Don’t apply to the AHRB if you want to do heavily statistical history, or to the ESRC if literary analysis is your thing… Don’t ask for £2000 for a small research grant if the top limit is £1000… And so on.

3. When the deadline is, and prepare well in advance accordingly. For most studentships for entry next autumn, you need to be preparing NOW, even though the deadlines are not until next spring (and the forms may not even be available yet). You need to have an offer of a place from a university before you can apply for grants; and moreover the universities will want to have your AHRB/ESRC form before Easter, so that they can complete their sections in time for the deadline (which is in early May).

The rules for the AHRB and ESRC postgraduate studentship competitions – and consequently the application forms – seem to become more complicated every year. Also, the AHRB rules have changed in recent years; they no longer fund stand-alone Masters (the ESRC made this change some time ago), only Masters’ courses explicitly intended to prepare students for PhD research. The research training and support provision by universities has become much more important than it used to be, and is likely to be a key part of your application.

Writing a strong research proposal

It’s not enough to have a good idea for research (whether postgrad or postdoc). You also have to be able to write a good proposal, one that will stand out from the crowd and convince committees that it’s a project that deserves their money. Only about one in four or five applications for AHRB/ESRC studentships is successful; the competition for postdoc and junior research fellowships will be even more intense. As I say, I hope to come back to this in more depth soon. In the meantime, you might want to read these:

ESRC: How to write a good application

The Art of Grantsmanship (this is written for scientists and with large-scale research projects in mind, but contains much of value at any level or scale (or field) of research)

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* If you follow the advice here and have no success, don’t sue me. I’m not making any guarantees.

6 thoughts on “Funding postgraduate study and research in history

  1. Pingback: detrimental postulation » the funding demon

  2. Pingback: detrimental postulation » tuesday

  3. First off: great post. Very helpful for those like me about to make the leap (although it really has very little in common with a leap, given all the required sloth).

    One minor point: when you say that the AHRB rules have changed to fund “only Masters’ courses explicitly intended to prepare students for PhD research,” you are mostly right for the purposes of people reading this blog. But they have also started a separate competition for those doing an MA for ‘Professional Preparation’–i.e. to give you suitable work skills. See here.

  4. Rob, you’re quite right. I decided not to mention that for readers here, but perhaps I should have…

  5. And as far as the AHRB is concerned, don’t get too comfortable, and don’t think that this year’s award pattern will be replicated next year. They are reviewing the structure of their provision entirely. I was at a workshop on this a few weeks ago, and I got the impression that they are listening to what people want, but (a) are almost certainly going to get more prescriptive about training, a la ESRC, and (b) are going to get overtaken by the Bologna process (Euro-standardisation of awards) real soon now whether they want to be or not.

  6. Does a year go by without a major change?

    I’ll obviously need to chat again to our postgrad coordinator to keep up with things; the last news was that they were concentrating more on tailored individual requirements (for PhDs anyway) compared to the ESRC. And this was a large part of what was making the application process more complex…

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