Pick topic, seek grant, take job as cleaner...

October 10, 2003

Anna Fazackerley reports on fears about Labour's plans for research, while Simon Francis recalls the nightmare of trying to fund his PhD study

My fondest memory is of the first flash of inspiration some years ago that doing a PhD would be a good idea. I could write, I could think, and I liked to do both. I popped in to my alma mater for advice from Gaie, the most supportive of my ex-lecturers. She was delighted when I told her I wanted to do a PhD, but her smile diminished when I started to outline the first of my two ideas for a thesis - the reinvigoration of political psychology as a subject in its own right.

"Of course it's a massively under-researched subject, dear, but that is a reason not to do it as a PhD. You can't challenge the foundations of a subject with a PhD. It has to be much narrower and more modest than that.

Also, if it's a dead subject, you won't find a supervisor. Most of all, if it's not a hip subject, your chances of getting a grant are zilch."

I tabled my second: the need for strategic thinking in green politics. Gaie brightened. The environment was a hot subject and the world of political science was buzzing with it. But I had to move quickly. It was now February. Gaie warned me I had only three months to sort out my university department as well as get my application in to the Economic and Social Research Council, the main funding body.

All this would be sweaty and frustrating work. First, I had to get the form from the ESRC, then concoct 2,000 words over the weekend outlining my proposed thesis for Gaie to check. Then I had to send the thesis outline to my chosen university departments to sound them out.

I honed my proposal outline to what I thought was perfection and handed it to Gaie, who phoned me back later to tell me that it would not do because I was still "seeing a PhD as a way of reshaping the universe". I tried to narrow the focus but found that I was unable to do this without knowing much more than I did about the current literature.

I found myself wondering, am I expected to be expert in the subject before I have started studying it? It took three weeks and two more drafts before I could get the outline past Gaie. I duly sent it off to four universities.

The next month or so was the happiest time of the whole process. I heard back from the universities within two weeks. Each seemed to like the outline. My idea and I seemed to be in demand - and I was floating on a cloud of self-value.

But of course it was downhill from then on. The newly arrived ESRC form demanded details that forced me to burrow through all my files and boxes in search of scores of bits of forgotten paper. One piece, my teaching certificate, turned up only after a full four days of searching, in a disused fridge in the basement. But these were only the sorts of problems associated with completing any application form. The ESRC wanted much more than that.

Just having a great idea for a thesis was not good enough. I had to show why I was interested, why the idea was important and how it would fit into my general life plan. I felt that I had to prove more than an interest in the subject - I had to prove that I was neurotically obsessed with it.

Without doing this PhD, the ESRC seemed to want me to demonstrate, the future of both my life and the world would be in jeopardy.

Nonetheless, I did eventually finish the application form and send it off to Gaie, my first testimonial writer. She took over the task of hassling the second testimonial writer and my final choice of university department to make sure each did their bit, and finally got the completed form back to the ESRC.

By now it was May, and all I had to do was to wait. And read, for I was determined to be on top of my subject. I took a job as a cycle courier to beef up my savings. This, as it turned out, was the only sensible thing I had done since my first visit to Gaie's office four months before. By the end of July I had lost half a kilo in weight and had amassed Pounds 2,000 in savings.

Then, the calamity came. No grant; not a penny. I was plunged into dejection.

However, after a few weeks a mood of grim determination began to grow in me. I resolved to try to start the PhD anyway, by whatever means I could find, and however long it took me. I consulted Gaie, who pointed me to the various lists of trusts in the library. I quickly learnt that I would be lucky to get more than a few hundred pounds. I also learnt that my chances of getting even this were minimal unless, first, I wanted to study a vocational course, and second, I fitted into a very, very particular category of person. I was not, for instance, the offspring of a cobbler under the age of 25 and intending to study shoemaking.

I scanned hundreds of these sorts of entries before giving up. A few hundred quid was not going to make much difference anyway.

Next, I tried for sponsorship. I printed more than 200 letters asking for cash. Any organisation or person who had become known for their sympathies for any environmental matter was a target. A copy of my letter ended up in the waste bins of the likes of Sainsbury's, Sir Paul McCartney, Sting and Stephen King. Lots of polite "nos", a few rude ones, and one jokey reply from a well-known Cockney actor ("Are you extracting the Michael?") that I now have framed.

Silly methods having failed, I finally decided to be sensible about my search. In so doing, I experienced some revelations about financing PhDs.

First, I contacted the four universities to ask about internal studentships/scholarships/grants/ awards/bursaries (I still do not know what the difference is). In each case the answer was roughly the same: even if the department has the money, it will not go to you unless you are a) brilliant, and have the academic record to prove it, and b) you have really severe circumstances. I was and had neither.

Having exhausted all avenues, I was on the point of giving up. But Gaie was having none of it. "Enrol part time," she urged. Why had I not thought of that before? I discovered that you pay much lower fees but get the same resources. I did not have to suffer the usual funding-body-imposed strictures of PhD work. I was also controlled far less by the department than I would have been had I been studying full time. Best of all, there was no pressure to do part-time lecturing - and this freed up my time so I could earn much more as a cleaner.

And I was able to pursue something much nearer to my originally planned masterpiece. This last, of course, was another mistake. I would later have great cause to remember Gaie's initial advice and curse my continuing naivety. But then again, without that, I might never have started a PhD at all.

Simon Francis lectures in politics at the Open University.

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