In a recent post I described how being invited to interview for UK Research Council funding competition was a less than straightforward experience. Since then there has been some amazing news: I got the funding.
In a field where women and disabled students are in the minority, I feel proud that
despite being both of these things (though still cis, still white) I won the funding. The competition was “fierce”. Turns out, so was I.
The news arrived by email on Monday 7th April. The Research Council has given me until the 17th April to accept or decline the offer. There will be reserve candidates waiting on tenterhooks to learn if any of the first-choice applicants will decline the offer so it can be passed along. I was one of these in 2009. So far, so fair enough.
But I have another iron in the fire, and I won’t know what colour it turns until that funding competition completes and notifies applicants and that may not happen for a few more weeks.
What prospective PhD student applies to only one funding competition, after all? Much like any other application process, one makes multiple applications to maximise one’s chances of getting a place and getting funded.
I spent six weeks hammering away at PhD applications creating no less than three separate applications for two PhD places: two funding competitions – one internal, one external – for each place. It was last-minute because I was busy grieving, not just over the first Christmas without my mum, not just about my own health, but about having to finally elect to withdraw from an interrupted PhD place that had become toxic – for reasons relating to failures of disability support – beyond the point of being salvageable. This cost my health. I’ve heard people speaking about needing to take an entire month off to rest after doing PhD applications. These are costs disabled students bear that others may not.
With one place now funded, I immediately contacted the other to let them know, to ask when I could expect the funding news from their research council competition – note, the same research council but run by a different consortium of universities in another part of the country.
I was told by this other department that since they won’t be making their decision until after April 17th – until “late April/early May” – and since funding is incredibly hard to come by, I should accept the first offer to land in my inbox and be proud to have been offered it.
I’m very pleased to have been made a funding offer. Suddenly, I’m definitely going back to the PhD, whatever happens. This is fantastic news.
But wait a minute. Since when was my choice of PhD offer going to be determined not on the basis of which department is the best fit for me, my research, and, crucially, on the basis of a judgement about which of the two departments will be best able to support me given the realities of my disability, but instead on whichever funding competition was first to make an offer? Surprise! PhD funding competitions work on a ‘first across the finish line’ basis. Who knew?
This is despite the external funding competitions all being part of the same Research Council, albeit with coordination devolved to localized partnerships in different parts of the country. With decisions on funding competitions potentially being four to six weeks apart, the absence of coordinated timetables combined with limited acceptance windows potentially forecloses my ability to choose for myself where I want to go.
I didn’t want to choose my PhD home for the next three years by temporal fiat. And whether or not I was going to choose this funded place over the still-uncertain alternative, I wanted to choose it because of what it had to offer, not because of some twist of scheduling fate.
I thought that by creating the possibility of choice between multiple opportunities I would be able to exercise that choice from a position of knowing what my options were. As a disabled student, who has been burned badly in the past by academia at undergraduate, taught post-graduate, and now research postgraduate level, it matters that the decision is mine. If things go wrong, it’s my life, my health, and my career that will deleteriously impacted; not the Research Council, and not the Academy at large.
Though this is an issue that has genuinely serious implications for disabled PhD applicants who need to ensure appropriate support and access arrangements, how many other UK PhD applicants, with or without disabilities, will be in this situation, right now?
One piece of advice was to accept the offer I’ve got. If the other comes in and I decide to take it instead, just go back and decline the first offer. Heck, even the other department recommended I take up the offer. But I’m loathe to do this. Doing this won’t just affect me: it affects the department, the people who helped me prepare my application and expended supportive energy and time. Most importantly, it affects other candidates waiting to see if they’ve got funding and I know from past experience this is not a nice place to be.
Another response has been to say well, institutions are autonomous entities, even when working together under Research Council Partnerships. Of course one can’t ask them to work to shared timetables. I don’t buy this: having worked as a teacher for years with colleagues who managed coursework submissions, marking, moderation, and reporting on national qualifications like the GCSE and A Level, I know that it’s perfectly possible for self-governing institutions to work according to a national timetable.
The point here is that all of these university partnerships are running competitions for the same Research Council. Given that applicants are likely to be in multiple competitions up and down the country, this failure to coordinate timings so that funding decisions are released at roughly the same time of the year (yet again) puts the burden of cost on applicants and not on institutions.
Still baffled, Academy. Still can’t work out why for all the phenomenal talent, creativity and ingenuity evidenced in the scholarship done by the Academy at large, we can’t find better ways to ensure work done by the next generation of researchers isn’t wasted like this, especially when they haven’t got the energy to spare, and where their eventual justification for choosing between offers may just be to point at a calendar and sigh.
I had less than 24 hours to celebrate my funding news before realizing that receiving it might mean the loss of the opportunity to make a genuine choice between potential options. Talk about a bittersweet victory.
What do you think? Have you experienced something similar? Are there plausible arguments in favour of this that we’ve missed?
Tell us in the comments below or come talk to us at @PhDisabled on Twitter.
Image: ‘Light chaos’ by kevin dooley. Licensed under Creative Commons (Generic) 2.0.