Dr Luke Blaxill explains how he funded a PhD in History using a portfolio of grants from smaller charities and trusts.
Most things in life come down to money, and postgraduate study is one of them. If you’re not one of the 15% fortunate enough to possess a full scholarship, and don’t happen to have a Porsche in the garage, the chances are that the question of funding your PhD or Masters is giving you a headache. Studying is expensive - paying fees and maintenance will probably cost over £1000 a month, and nearly twice that if you’re an overseas student. Finding this money isn’t easy. Unless you’re eligible for a Career Development Loan, then borrowing at a reasonable rate is very challenging in the current economic climate. Finding a productive part-time job which will leave you enough time to still study properly is equally difficult.
Are those of us without that elusive scholarship destined to be eating economy spaghetti, wearing three jumpers to save on heating bills, and worrying when – or if – we’ll manage to finish our courses? That’s what I thought six months into my PhD in History at King’s College London.
One way to gain funding – I’d been told - was to look for alternative bodies, especially charities, trusts, and foundations which might help. Easy to say of course, but harder to do. My university had some links on its website to charities, but I was ineligible for almost all the awards- most being restricted to certain subjects or nationalities. I was left with just three more ‘general’ ones – Lawrence Atwell’s Charity, the Sidney Perry Foundation, and the Gilchrist Trust. Even then, there was no guidance on which would be appropriate for me, or how I could apply strongly.
For a while, I was put off. Even if I could find the proverbial needle in the haystack, and locate a suitable body, what chance would I have of gaining anything? The Sidney Perry Foundation say they receive twenty applications for each one that succeeds, and the Southdown Trust caution that their awards rarely exceed £100. Was it really worthwhile spending several days completing an application? Working a few extra hours overtime at the bar seemed a better bet.
But I decided to persist like a masochist, and over the next 2 and a half years, I gradually managed to win 40 awards from various bodies, and have been able to fund my PhD almost to research council levels, raising about £40,000. I list these quantities not to blow my own trumpet, but to show that charities really are a major alternative funding option if they are used properly. I feel very privileged to have had all this support, and I want to try and help other students use voluntary sector for their PhDs and Masters as I was able to do.
Many PhD students are put off even considering charities due to a number of common misconceptions.
The first myth is that they are all extremely specialized. Yes, there are bodies like the Leverhulme Trades Charities Trust, that helps the spouses or children of grocers, pharmacists, and commercial travelers, and the Vegetarian Charity, that funds only vegetarians and vegans. But the majority are simply general bodies concerned with helping people of all kinds – not just students - overcome financial barriers in doing what they want to do, especially in relation to education or training. Examples? Check out the Stapley Educational Trust, the Humanitarian Trust, the St. Clemant Dane Educational Foundation, and the Leatherseller’s Company. These bodies will help almost anyone, and there are hundreds of others. You just need to be able to find them.
The second myth is that these bodies are poor. Charities vary enormously- some are very small, but most have assets of over a million pounds. From your perspective, this means awards (usually) of £500-£2000. Small beer in comparison to a full scholarship, but still significant. Plus you can get awards renewed each year, and get backing from multiple bodies. In fact, when you gain one award, other charities are more likely to see you as a credible investment, and may also offer support. So funding can soon mount up. And they make fast decisions- they often have four or six deadlines spaced throughout a year, and reply within two months.
The third myth is that applying to charities is complex. In reality, application forms are usually short, and your statement to one charity can largely be reused when you apply to others. There are no strict word limits or places where you have to argue the finer points of your research or studies in detail. Charity committees will be most interested in your financial situation, and how plausible a case you present to overcoming your difficulties. Showing you are working hard, have a part time job, have minimized your living costs, and have a ‘backup plan’ if funding does not emerge will get you further than a painstakingly planned research statement and a glowing CV. Charities are really very different from ‘academic’ funding bodies like research councils.
The fourth myth is that charities are massively oversubscribed, and that the chances of winning awards are slim. It is true that some receive considerably more applications than they can fund, but many others actually do not receive many student applicants, mainly because so few know about them or consider applying! The Stapley Trust, for example, made awards to around 90% of students who applied in recent years.
The fifth and final myth is that overseas students shouldn’t bother, because funds are only available to home students. This simply isn’t true. Yes, there are some bodies which are open only to UK nationals, but many others will consider anyone currently resident in the UK. Plus there are a whole host of funds for people of particular nationalities. Whatever your age, nationality, or strength of CV, there are bodies out which can help you.
The first thing to do is to try to find contact details for as many bodies as possible for which you might be eligible. Search the webpages of universities, and check out search engines like scholarship search, unigrants, and RDFunding. Then look in the Grants Register, Directory of Grants Making Trusts, and any other useful-looking directory books at your local library.
Next, you must ask the charities you’ve earmarked whether they’ll consider you. There’s no point writing a long letter or filling in an application form until they’ve given you the green light. So write a brief initial letter stating your name, course, age, nationality, and that you have a deficit in your funding package for your postgraduate course. Use post rather than email, and always include a stamped, self-addressed envelope so the charity can reply. Send out lots of letters! I sent out over 100!
When you get some responses, you will then be in a position to apply formally. Fill out the financial sections of forms carefully, and include a breakdown of your likely income and expenses for the academic year (e.g. 2010-11) for which you need support. In your personal statement, avoid jargon, and describe your course or research as you would to an intelligent member of the public, and stress any wider societal benefits that might possibly result from it. Be clear that you are doing the course because its essential for your career, not an indulgence. But most of all, show that you are being thrifty and responsible in coping with your financial situation, and see the charity not as a potential savior, but as a partner who can contribute a little to helping you realize your dream of a PhD of Masters. Be persuasive, creative, and try to strike a balance between humility and optimism.
If you are rejected, politely ask why. Then send a revised application for the next board of trustee’s meeting, and tell the charity about other awards you’ve won. Finally, don’t give up. Persistence doesn’t always work, but it’s amazing what it can achieve.