Academic Survival Kit Part 1: Getting Funded

At the 9th European Feminist Research Conference, I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop called a “Survival Kit for Young Researchers”. We were 3 panelists at different stages of our careers, sharing our experiences and tips for dealing with problems we face as feminist researchers in an increasingly competitive and neoliberal academy. In the hope that my thoughts on this topic might be useful to people who could not make it to the workshop, I am sharing them here. My comments are clustered around 3 themes.

  • getting a paid PhD position – or, how to deal with rejections.
  • work habits and procrastination – or, I spent all my work hours on facebook, does it mean I am a terrible person who will never finish their PhD?
  • imposter syndrome – or, everyone around me is incredibly smart and it’s just a question of time until they discover that they were mistaken about me and realize I shouldn’t be here at all.

Today, I’ll start with the first part: getting a PhD position. I am writing from my own experience, so this is mostly about finding a paid PhD position in the humanities (gender studies / feminist theory) in the Netherlands/Europe. Some things might be the same in other places, some things might be different.

On my CV, it looks like I went straight on to do a PhD. I studied philosophy, then did  a second masters in gender studies, and then started my PhD research. My graduation ceremony from the master in Gender and Ethnicity from Utrecht University was in august, and I started my PhD in Nijmegen in September. A seemingly seamless transition, a smooth success story. But of course, it is not the whole story. What you don’t see on my CV is before getting this position, I applied to 5 different PhD positions that I didn’t get. What you don’t see are the 5 rejection letters, and the insecurity and self-doubt that came along with them. What you also don’t see is the extra study loans that I took on to finance that second masters degree, because I really wanted to continue on the academic path, and was not ready to give up yet.

In the end I got lucky and I got the position. Of course, I also worked hard for that, but I realize that a large part of it is just luck. It could have taken me a year longer, it could have taken me another 5 applications. I also know some people who got a PhD position on their first application – of course that also happens! I would like to think that that does not say anything about how good our PhD research will be in the end. Many different factors play a role in what projects get funded, as much as we would like to think that academia is a meritocracy.

I think it is important to talk openly about experiences with rejections, because we are so caught up in these rhetoric of ‘excellence’ and ‘success’. Talking about it for me helps to take a bit of the sting out of these feelings of failure I experienced as I was looking for an opportunity to start a PhD project. Now, I am not ashamed to tell you that I got a ‘no’ 5 times before I got a ‘yes’ and could actually start my project. More than being proud of getting the job in the end, I am proud that I kept going and in that that process led me to where I am now: in the third year of a job that I still love and that I think is right for me. (Of course, that doesn’t mean it is all sunshine and rainbows since I started the PhD, but more about that later…)

My tips for the process of searching for PhD funding

  • Apply to as many positions as possible. Even if it does not work out, it is a good experience and gives you a chance to improve your application. Of course, this does not mean that you should be uncritical and just go for any position that pops up. Think seriously about what the profile of the department is and how it fits with your interests, who you would actually work with at any given place? What about the pay – is it a scholarship, a stipend or a salary, and is it realistic for the place where you would be living? Would you have to get another job on the side, or would you be able to focus completely on your research? Assess whether the opportunity would be a good choice for you academically and personally. Would you really be willing to move to Rovaniemi at this point in your life, if you got a PhD position there?
  • Give yourself a deadline, a kind of time-frame for your search. In my case, I gave myself one more year. When the deadline comes closer, critically reconsider. Is it still what you want? Why? Are there other jobs where you could develop the same skills or that have similar element than what attracts you to academia? Reassess why it is you want to do a PhD, and your chances of realizing this goal. If the answer is still ‘yes, I want this’, then set a new deadline.
  • While you are searching, make sure you do other meaningful projects at the same time as you are applying for a PhD. I decided to go for the second masters degree in gender studies while I was applying for different positions. As I mentioned, I took on extra study loans to do that, so it is not necessarily something I would really advise to others, but to me it made sense. Work part-time and try to get an article or a book review published. Keep going to lectures and events; start a reading group to actually read all those authors that you did not have time to go in depth with during your masters.

buzzfeed – 19 things every academic will immediately relate to

  • When you apply somewhere and get a rejection, don’t be too hard on yourself and keep a healthy perspective. Don’t think of rejections as failures, and don’t take it too personally. It does not mean that the project is no good, or that you are not good enough, or that it will never work and this whole thing was hopeless to begin with… No! It just means that they went for another project that maybe fit better with the profile of the professors working there, or the research foci of the department. Remember that it is a really tough time to get funding, and many people who are all really great are trying to get one of the few paid positions that are out there. If there are 200 people applying for a position (as I know happens), then really, if they don’t pick you, it’s not that weird.. Also remember that everyone has to deal with rejections at some point or other – whether it is an article for a journal, a postdoc. Maybe you are just getting a head-start on how to face rejections?
  • Get as much feedback on your research proposal as you can. Ask you thesis supervisor to give feedback on it, ask your friends if they can proofread and give comments. It is always a work in progress and the input from others can help you to improve and fine tune your ideas. The same counts for the CV: have other people look at your CV, and look at other people’s CVs. How do they style and format them, and how can you make sure that the information that you want to highlight really jumps out to the reader? Don’t be afraid to ask people for their feedback and tips. At one point, I was invited for an interview for a PhD position, and I was the second choice for that position. When I had another interview coming up, I emailed the person who interviewed me to ask for some feedback about how I had come across in the interview and if she had any tips for me for future interview situations. She sent me a really kind letter, which was useful in preparing for the next interview.
  • One more thing about feedback: remember that feedback and advice are helpful, but it is up to you to decide what you incorporate and what you don’t. Stay true to your own commitments and don’t change your research proposal just because someone else thinks it would be stronger or have a better chance of getting funding. So for example, if you really want to do an in-depth study case study, but your advisor thinks that your proposal would stand a better chance if you make your study comparative, don’t do it just because you might have a better chance at getting funding. Think about it of course, but in the end the decision is yours to make. Or do it strategically, and then if you get funded, the plan will change anyway in the course of the research itself.

buzzfeed – 19 things every academic will immediately relate to

  • Get together with others who are in the same situation as you are, and who understand how tough and demotivating it can be. Online, like a facebook group for a masters programme is good – you can easily share any vacancies or scholarships that you see coming by with each other. In the Netherlands, you can find academic vacancies on the website ‘academic transfer’, but my experience is that posts shared by colleagues and friends in my network are often much more specific to the topics I’m interested in. But while sharing online can be concretely helpful, meeting up in real-life is even better, because you can drink wine together and commiserate. Think of each other not as competitors (even if in some cases you are), but as colleagues who are going through the same process.

Good luck with your search! Let me know if you disagree with anything I wrote, or want to add your own tips in the comment section!

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