Applying for PhD scholarships mid-candidature

This post is a response to a friend who asked me for advice on applying for PhD scholarships mid-candidature. I won two scholarships part way into my PhD after beginning as a part-time student with no funding. My tips may be useful to international students and graduate students outside of Australia but are based on my experiences applying for funding as a domestic PhD student in Australia. There are 2 main types of scholarships, described below, as well as a host of other types of funding from private, university, and not-for-profit sectors. I have held both an Australian Government Research Training Stipend and a Flinders University Research Scholarship and will discuss my experiences in preparing successful applications for these two types of scholarships.

Higher education funding is subject to government agenda. A complete overhaul of the higher education funding model, several years of conservative government, an anti-intellectual agenda, and increasing cuts to higher education funding have affected availability and application criteria for Australian PhD scholarships. The higher education sector and associated government policy is also constantly changing so the exact processes and benchmarks that applied to me may change.

The nationally ranked scholarship option

The Australian Government Research Training Stipend, previously known as the Australian Postgraduate Award, is a national scholarship so applications are ranked with other candidates nationwide and irrespective of discipline. This scholarship was previously transferable across universities, but this is now subject to individual university discretion and all South Australian universities will not take on these funding commitments. AGRTS scholarships are awarded to the top-ranking candidates on a points-based system. Points are allocated based on your Honours or Masters-by-Research grades, research experience, and publications. It is likely that the AGRTS scholarship favours lab-based disciplines where applicants are likely to have more publications to their name and will benefit from a more transparent grading system. Social Science, Arts, and Humanities students are disadvantaged because they are less likely to experience consistency in their grading systems and generally work alone and are not encouraged to publish in the same ways as lab-based students.

The goal is to accrue points to boost your overall score. I started with an 82 based on my grades from Honours and needed to boost that score as much as possible to be competitive with all other applicants, across disciplines and Australia-wide. My postgraduate coordinator and supervisor argued strongly on my behalf that my publications and research experience, as a Research Assistant, warranted an increase in my score. I was unsuccessful in this first application, but the arguments used were carried forward for my subsequent application. I reapplied for the Australian government research training stipend at the end of my second year in the PhD. At this point my application was likely bulkier than other applicants because I had completed consecutive applications. My postgraduate coordinator built on the previous coordinators’ argument that my research experience had increased to the point that it should be considered over my grades and that the experience that I had warranted a high enough score to receive a scholarship. I was granted a scholarship based on their arguments.

The university-based scholarship option

The Flinders University Research Scholarship is similar to scholarships at other universities that are faculty-based or, in Flinders’ case, university-based. It is usually awarded to the most competitive students or to strong candidates who would not necessarily gain AGRTS funding. This funding is awarded at the discretion of the university, so it is not as easy to tell how and why the university makes decisions about awarding scholarships and the rationale is likely to differ somewhat at each institution. In my experience, I would guess that FURS are granted to high-performing students with publications who have the support of a well-respected PhD supervisor.

When I applied to transfer institutions, I was able to leverage my existing scholarship and use my considerable research experience and publications to argue that I was a valuable addition to the university. Universities get funding based on publications, so if you can show them that you will be a worthwhile investment, they will be more inclined to take you on. I finished writing several projects that I had been working on and submitted them to top journals so that I could include them in my application as publications under review. The university also want to know that you will finish your PhD, so emphasise that you are self-motivated, productive and have a completion plan, so emphasise this over and above how good your ideas are. However, every thesis needs to make an original contribution to knowledge, so make sure you specify what that is and why it is significant.

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My top tips for gaining a scholarship part-way through candidature are:

  1. Delay entering the PhD program, work in research for 6 months or write publications, and re-apply mid-year.

It is much easier to win a scholarship before entering a PhD program so if possible, defer your acceptance and apply again mid-year for a scholarship and Commonwealth supported place. You can use the six months to gain research assistant work or focus on writing publications so that your application is stronger when you reapply. I narrowly missed out on funding so my chances could have been better mid-year when there are less applicants to compete against. There are also a lots of funding options that are not available to continuing students and you will have a better chance of gaining funding if you apply to a range of sources.

  1. Do research assistant work as much as possible

I love teaching and it is essential for gaining academic positions post-PhD. However, university teaching is also time consuming and notoriously exploitative. Research assistant work is more productive for PhD students because of the range of skills that you gain and the potential for increasing your publication count. Try to find work with an academic who will recognise your contributions by including you as an author on publications. There are various levels in the pay scales for research assistants that reflect the experience and skills required. Some projects will pay you as a research administrator, but you can argue for higher rates if you can develop and utilise your technical research skills such as interviewing, data analysis, or software use. Research assistant work is also valuable for arguing up your research experience and was essential in both of my scholarship applications.

  1. You need a supportive supervisor and postgraduate coordinator (or similar)

I would not have received either scholarship without the support of several key people in each institution that I have attended. The most important person in your corner is your supervisor. They need to approve of your strategy to gain a scholarship because it is likely to take time away from working on your thesis. Students do not get a lot of input to argue their capabilities on scholarship applications, so this argument is presented by your supervisor and the person responsible for PhD student administration, such as a postgraduate coordinator. You need to have the support of all people who have input into your application so make sure that you meet with them and that they are supportive of your application.

  1. Publish, publish, publish.

The strategy that my supervisor and I used for gaining this scholarship was to publish as much as possible to win a scholarship and our understanding was that conference papers counted as publications. We deemed them the quickest and easiest way to build up publication count and I worked on attending as many relevant conferences as possible during my first two years of candidature.  I had the support of my department, supervisor, and postgraduate coordinator for funding applications, including the APA and smaller grants to attend conferences.

However, conference papers are not looked on as favourably as other types of publications so make sure to publish journal articles and book chapters. Conference papers are ideally used to test ideas that will later form the basis of publications for a wider audience. If you give a conference presentation that is well received, use the feedback from this and prepare a journal article. I wrote publications based on previous work and aspects of my thesis that I wanted to explore such as particular theories or ideas that my participants raised. If you think that you have something significant to say about your research, you can write a journal article or book chapter about it.

Most scholarship applications will allow you to include publications under review so try and push yourself to submit the publications that you have been working on before scholarship deadlines so that you can include them. This method meant that an article that I submitted earlier than I otherwise would have was accepted with minor revisions to a top journal.  I think that this is also a useful exercise in letting go of some of the perfectionism and imposter syndrome that many of us face.

  1. Keep trying. Apply to as many scholarships as possible, no matter how small the funding is, and keep applying every round that you are eligible.

It is useful to know the terrain when preparing scholarships. Use professional associations, research digests, and university scholarship registers to remain aware of what scholarships are advertised and the criteria so that you can tailor your efforts to remain as competitive as possible. Every amount of funding, no matter how small, helps you to prepare future applications. Be vocal about seeking a scholarship so that people forward you opportunities and know to recommend you for funding and work. Part of the benefit of being a part-time student is that people will give you opportunities because you have greater financial need than full-time scholarship students and this enables you to build your CV and better compete for academic jobs.

Even if you do not eventually gain research funding, there is a significant silver lining in the skills that you gain from preparing scholarship applications. The skills involved in applying for research funding make you more competitive for academic jobs once you complete your PhD. Hiring committees want to see that you have research skills, have published your work, and can gain research funding. In 4 years, I have given 13 conference and seminar presentations, have 4 publications and 3 more under review, taught across 5 topics, and have assisted on 9 research projects, in addition to significant departmental and discipline service and public engagement. The bulk of this work was completed or started during the 2 years that worked on a part-time basis.

Big thanks to the supervisors, postgraduate coordinators, and other staff who supported my applications and all of the work that went into them. 

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