Funding, foreclosures of choice, and awh what the f…?

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.

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5 responses to “Funding, foreclosures of choice, and awh what the f…?

  1. Wow, difficult position in which to find oneself. Sorry that you’re dealing with this. I guess the two similar situations I’ve found myself in were applying to graduate programs (but not looking for funding other than grants, work study applications, and so on) and when I’ve applied for multiple jobs in the same timeframe and received one offer and was waiting to hear back from another potential employer.

    One thing you wrote stood out for me: “…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.”

    This brings to mind that you have to factor in your decision not only on the basis of what the placement can provide academically but also in terms of disability support and a willingness to be educated about your situation (and accommodate it). This an aspect of the decision other students have to consider and weigh in accepting an offer, and it is vitally important given your toxic past experience. How to assess whether or not the new placement will be supportive or not is not something I can easily outline – after all, I wrote about my own difficulties about assessing workplaces for a full time job and there you have to make friends with people already working at a company; already familiar with the company and how individuals accommodate disabled employees regardless of “official company policy”. Same flies for “official university policy”. Some people and places comply with their interpretation of the bare minimum standards while others will exceed expectations.

    I agree that it would be easier if this council had a national timetable and you could make an informed decision with more time on your side. This would be helpful for you and many other students who’ve applied. Why it is currently done the way it is is a question I’d want to raise with someone who sets the current timetable for applications. Is there a reason it’s done the way it is other than tradition?

  2. Typo correction: “This an aspect of the decision other students have to consider and weigh in accepting an offer, and it is vitally important given your toxic past experience.” should have read instead “This is an aspect of the decision other students do NOT have to consider and weigh in accepting an offer…”

  3. Given that it is the same research council, there should be better cooperation.
    The situation is worse for disabled students because access and support varies wildly from university to university.

    At postdoc/lectureship level it is slightly different. There is no cooperation, but then funding is generally offered by different bodies. I was in the same situation as you at that stage. I was offered a fellowship while the decision on another was still months away. The second was actually more flexible and more suited to my disability needs. However given the huge competition for these positions, I accepted the first without hesitation and sadly had to withdraw from the other.

    However at PhD level I don’t see any excuse. And the problems caused could be immense. I will not name names, but as a wheelchair user there were certain universities where I could barely get in the door. Conversely there were other universities with fantastic access, not only in my department but across campus.

    The question is, can the system be changed? And if so how do we go about it?

  4. I faced exactly the same dilemma before I started my Ph.D. I was really torn between wanting to give myself the opportunity to choose which offer to take up based on what was best for me rather than absurd timetabling, but also knowing that to do so would mean jerking other candidates around and possibly burning bridges with the academics at the first institution if I withdrew. I was not met with much sympathy when I explained my problem to prospective supervisors, who said I was naive to worry about other students, seemingly encouraging me to withdraw if a better offer came along, but also warning me that academics have a long memory when it comes to things like this,

    In the end, I did end up withdrawing, not just from one institution, but two. In hindsight, I do regret this and would do things differently if I had my time again, both because I think I chose badly and because I do feel unable to forge relationships with academics at the institutions I withdrew from. Whether any grudges are real or imagined because I feel guilty/embarrassed that I chose to withdraw when put in this situation by the AHRC, I don’t know.

    Sorry to be a downer, this was just my experience and if you choose to accept and withdraw, the consequences for you will might be very different! I just wanted to post to say I understand your frustration.

  5. The AHRC seems to have improved hugely this year – with the funding decisions being made across universities rather than at each one they sem to have made the decision to coordinate, and both of the ‘doctoral consortiums’ that I have applied to are deciding next week (*gulp*).

    Honestly, having talked frankly with prospective supervisors about the places I am applying and my probable choices, I have found them all pretty sympathetic – even the ones where I have said that I am making an application there as a remote third choice have been happy to accept that I will be making the choice based on what is best for my future and still put in time so that my application could be in the best possible shape. They have all been in similar situations and are (hopefully!) professional enough to accept it.
    I would recommend weighing up your options frankly and making a decision NOW. If you get funding at the other institution, would you rather go there? If not, you don’t have a problem and can accept this funding offer.
    The problem comes in only if you decide now that you would rather attend the other institution if you are offered full funding there as well. In this case, I would suggest that you do accept this offer and then wait and see. Yes, backing out of an offer you have accepted will cause a little extra work for people. But there are potential PhD students all over the country who are accepting offers – both for places and funding – which they may or may not take up (I currently have…four). Universities and academics know that it’s never quite a sure thing until registration, and people back out of funded places for personal reasons all the time as well. At the end of the day, you need to be making the best choice for you personally – and institutions and individuals should be able to recognise that without any burned bridges. Be polite, and if you do end up backing out of a place consider emailing your supervisors there to let them know and thank them for their interest. (Disclaimer: I am just another PhD applicant – maybe you have an academic friend/mentor you can ask for advice too?)

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