Finding and Funding your Humanities PhD

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Be Prepared: The Caveats

A great deal of mythology encircles the PhD and the people who take it on.  Before we even get to the practicalities of applying and finding funding, I’d like to dispel a few preconceptions.

  1. We’re not all geniuses. Anyone with the right idea, some writing ability, and the temerity to stick out three or more years of research and its financial, social and emotional implications can do a PhD.
  2. If you are embarking on an academic career, a PhD is not going to be the greatest thing you ever do. You might have a great deal more fun doing it, you may not, in comparison to your future research, but you must not think of it as your magnum opus – if you do, you’ve finished your career before you’ve even begun.
  3. Your social and romantic lives don’t have to go out of the window, although they will of course be affected. If you get involved in your home department, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for personal interaction. Get involved locally, as well, with groups outside your PhD cohort – this is really important. Sometimes, you just need to talk to people not doing a thesis.
  4. Getting a PhD is no free pass to the perfect job. It might sweeten some employers, but put off others, and in academia, everyone else going for work has one too: they have to. So do it if you want an academic job or if you want to do it for your own pleasure, but don’t expect it to make everything perfect.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. Now that we’ve gone and burst some bubbles, it’s time to get down to the reality.

A PhD is Nothing Without an Idea

The most important part of a PhD, without which nothing else really matters, is having the idea in the first place. It’s no good desiring a doctorate if you haven’t settled on a topic, thing, person, concept, on which to work. And that idea has to hold water: you have to be able to get enough out of it to justify years of work and a hundred thousand words of thesis. Specialisation is important, of course, but there is no point in attempting to write a thesis on something which only needs a journal article. Conversely, if your idea is too amorphous and cloudy, it won’t pass muster. Whilst most PhD projects begin with a more open framework and idea than they finish with, that idea still has to have some cohesive element.

And the idea has to be innovative. If you have to work too hard to explain why your notion is new and exciting, it’s probably been done before.  Try and make your thesis as unique as possible: the joy of being a student is that your work can be novel, even daringly so, precisely because you are a student, and you have more freedom now than you ever will again.

Beginning the Practicalities

Now you have your idea, it’s time to think about actually doing it. It often seems as though acceptance from a funding body and acceptance from a university are, circularly, reliant on each other. They aren’t. I’d say work on both applications at the same time, but if you have to, apply for the university first – well in advance – so that you have time to have sorted out the funding if you get accepted and start. Sometimes, you’ll be applying for both at the same time, so if you’re applying for a funded studentship, as I did, you won’t need to worry about ordering applications. But sometimes, the funding applications have deadlines – you have to think about this, too, and match up the dates of funding application with that of the university. However, some of you will be applying for funding throughout your PhD, compiling a mosaic income, so you have to think of them independently. Below, I’ll go through some of the places from which humanities students can gain funding or look for it

You’re Going to Need Cash

There are loads of websites out there that tell you where to get funding from, and it can all be a bit complex and overwhelming. Here, I’m really going to focus on the sources of interest to humanities students – though, if you’re doing a more transdisciplinary degree, you might like to be creative.

Research Councils

There are seven UK Research Councils who invest around £3 billion a year in innovative work. For the humanities student, the most promising for funding are likely to be the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESCRC). More information about what they offer can be found on their websites. Do remember, though, that some of their funding, such as the AHRC Block Grant Partnership, is offered through Universities.


If you are looking to do a PhD, it’s worth finding out what is on offer from individual institutions. This might range from large studentships – either sponsored by a Research Council or from an endowment given to the university – to smaller grants that you can put into a patchwork of other funding. Seek this information out on the pages of the individual institutions to which your thinking of applying, or on websites such as or FindAPhD.

Charitable Research Organisations

There are lots of research organisations out there who support researchers at all stages of their career, from PhDs to Emeritus Professors. The Wellcome Trust is a big player, and for those reading this article, it supports work in medical humanities and society and ethics. For the women among you, there’s also the British Federation of Women Graduates, which awards academic achievement, and the Funds for Women Graduates, who award based on need, and are worth thinking of if you find yourself in financial difficulties.

Learned Societies

There are also learned societies which often offer funding for students within their area of interest. Unfortunately, many of the humanities ones are postdoctoral only – the British Academy, for instance, would be one to look at after your PhD.

Charities and Trusts

There are many charities and trusts which fund students with specific characteristics, backgrounds or needs. For instance, I was funded for my MA by the Vegetarian Charity and the Mercer’s Guild. The best way to find out about these is to visit your local or university library and look for documents such as the Educational Grants Directory, the Charities Digest, the Grants Register, and the Directory of Grant Making Trusts.


Sometimes employers will make contributions if you can make a deal with them. They may well sponsor you if the course is relevant to your job. You certainly have rights to claim time off for training and study, but there are restrictions. This might be worth considering if you decide to pursue a part time doctorate and fund at least part of the study and your living costs through work.

Professional/Career Development Loan

These are potentially very useful funds, offered by a variety of banks. But the P/CDL is a loan, and whilst you pay reduced interest, you still have to pay it back afterwards. Consider what you can afford to pay back.


The way you approach funding bodies differs widely depending on who you choose. Most, however, will have some sort of application process in which you have to make your case – so make sure you make it wisely and well, and include all the evidence of your ability, how you fit the particular criteria, and argue strongly for the validity of your idea. Some bodies won’t have difficult applications – but be prepared for those who do, and make a considered plan for working on them.

Remember, too, that the funding body you apply to is politically meaningful, and who you get funded by can determine how much prestige that award is held in. It makes no difference to the quality of your work whether you are funded by a Research Council or a Career Development Loan – but it can, sadly, make all the social difference.

You’re Going to Need a University

When you have identified a university and a department to apply to, you have to go through certain processes to produce your application. My old department, the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, offers the following breakdown.

  1. Search our staff research interests to make sure we offer PhD supervision in the area you want to work in.
  2. Draft a research proposal that tells us what you want to research, how you intend to do it, and why it is worth doing.
  3. Prepare your supporting documents.
  4. Submit your online application or apply by post.

 My department had a research proposal document with a list of sections which you had to fill in. These sections included – bullet point objectives, a thesis outline and a reference list. The thesis outline was the most complex part, including: an introduction to the topic with research questions, aims, objectives and context; a referenced overview of existing work; a proposed methodology; the expected outcomes and their format; and the practical outcomes and benefits of the project.

If you follow these basic things, a research proposal of some quality should appear which can be sent to universities and funding bodies alike. But remember to be malleable, and to make sure that you highlight the specific things you think the university or funder will deem important. A one-size fits all approach does not work, here.

However, to make your proposal stand out from the rest, you need to show that you are a highly skilled writer and synthesiser of literature, that you can make a distinct contribution to the field and that your work is exciting, innovative and unique. You need to sell the project – and remember, y ou need to sell yourself, too. Make the person reading the thesis proposal excited – and, perhaps most importantly, make sure that you yourself are excited, and ready to take on the several years of hard work ahead.

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