Six things I learned over two years trying to fund my PhD 2

Finding funding for a PhD project is a serious challenge. If you are flexible and a little lucky, you can maybe find a project that suits you for which funding has already been acquired. But if you are like me and your field of interest is limited, or you have ideas of what specifically you would like to do for your PhD, it may be necessary for you to procure your own funding. That can be a serious challenge.

In Germany, the main science funding body is the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; German Science Society), which is basically the equivalent of the American National Science Foundation (NSF) but with a considerably higher funding rate (~30% vs. 8%) and a considerably smaller budget (~€2.8 billion vs. ~$7 billion). The trouble is, the DFG doesn’t allow prospective PhD students to submit funding applications; you must have a PhD to apply for project funding. The system is designed so that the prospective supervisor can apply for the funding, and then interview prospective students for the position. This has some sense to it, but is not a very flexible system from the student’s perspective. So as a first step to procuring your own funding, you always need to have a ‘sponsor’ in the form of a prospective supervisor who is willing to apply for a project on your behalf, and who can practically guarantee that you will get the position if they are able to get the funding.

It took me nearly two years to procure funding for my PhD (I started during my Master’s study), which meant that I spent a full year as a PhD student without any kind of funding at all. I was immensely privileged to be able to do that with my parents’ support, but that is a rare privilege indeed, and understandably most need to minimise the gap between one degree/programme and the next. So to help you, I wanted to share the six biggest lessons I learned in the two years I spent searching for funding for my PhD:

1. Be self-sufficient

Professors and potential supervisors have a lot of strains on their time, be they other students, numerous grant proposals, or dozens of papers. I wound up having to write several applications almost entirely on my own. This can be especially daunting when you are trying to apply for things that are on the edge of your knowledge realm, which, I would argue, is the entire point of a PhD. The only solution in this situation is essentially to not rely on your supervisors too greatly, but to try to make do on your own for the most part. Take this as a good opportunity to familiarise yourself with the theoretical background of what you are trying to do, and the best methods that can be implemented to that end. This can be a real test of your creativity, but remember that it is not fair for you to expect yourself to get everything perfect at this stage. You are a lowly graduate student, after all. Getting periodic input from an advisor is certainly helpful, and will also show them the extent to which you are able to function independently. But don’t rely on their impetus. If I had not waited for my supervisor as long as I did, but had instead started sooner with my applications, I would have been able to submit more applications, and may have procured funding sooner.

2. Time management is key

Grant proposals sometimes do and sometimes do not have deadlines. Even those that do not have deadlines should be written as though they do, or else you may tend to opt to be lazy about it and not get it done in time to have the proposal approved before you run out of money and time. For a typical DFG proposal (or NSF proposal) you need a minimum of three months to write, but six months is most advisable. These projects need a huge amount of investment, but the dividends can make up for it. If you are writing two or three projects simultaneously, time management can be a real conflict, especially if there are also courses and other projects that might get in the way. So always try to schedule things out carefully and honestly, and, if you self-manage like me, make lots of to-do lists with easy tasks that can give you the satisfaction of ticking them off relatively frequently. Wunderlist’s *ding* sound is almost a direct dopamine link for my brain.

3. Apply for as many things as you can

Hedge your bets! Getting too invested in a single PhD proposal is a dangerous game. Even if, like me, you have very narrow interests, there are always options for granting agencies to apply to. I, for instance, applied to the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt to work on the microbiome of amphibians in Germany, despite it being of only marginal interest to me. Yes, you should spend the most time and energy on those proposals for the projects in which you are most interested, but it is definitely still worth spending some time applying to other funding bodies with other projects as well. Set yourself a goal of a certain number of proposals per year, and try to stick to it.

4. Prepare for failure

Even small granting agencies often have high refusal rates. The DFG has a higher success rate than the NSF, but still around two thirds of applications are rejected. Some granting agencies can only be applied to once, and others can be applied to repeatedly. Be prepared for the majority of your efforts to have been ‘in vain’. But remember also that these were realistic options and that the work was not entirely in vain, but rather was giving you potential options. Statistically, you are almost guaranteed to be rejected from most things you apply for. This is not a reflection on you or your abilities, and it is okay to fail at this most ridiculously competitive of stages. On the other hand, if you apply for three or more things with an acceptance rate of around one third, you are statistically highly likely to get at least one of them. We recently had a really big grant for the department preliminarily rejected, and it was a real blow to morale. But on the other hand, we were always aware that it was a long-shot, and I was very lucky that it was not the grant that I was waiting on; my funding had come through half a year before.

5. Decide when enough is enough

This is the toughest lesson that I learned over my two year hunt. I was so hopeful and so determined to get funding, but at the same time, I had to acknowledge to myself that it was a realistic possibility that I would not get any funding at all. I had to draw lines in the sand and say ‘if I don’t have funding by this time, I give up on my current work and apply for other things.’ That is a super hard thing to do, but for me it was imperative, in order to avoid being taken advantage of. As an academic, and someone who really enjoys their work, it was easy for me to forget that my time is worth something, and I should be earning money for the work I am doing. At some point I had to turn to my supervisor(s) and say ‘I can stay until December 2016. If I am not funded by then, I have to leave the group.’ That gave them also a sense of urgency, which in the end helped a lot in the search for funding.

Support of family, friends and colleagues, and especially my partner Ella, was of great importance to me during my PhD application period. These people gave me reasoned debate on what to do next, helped me motivate and manage myself, and also gave me perspective on the extent of my problems. I was fortunate in the end not have to put too much thought into contingency plans, but it was of great comfort to me to know that these people were there to help if everything went to hell.

6. Perseverance pays off

In the end, perseverance tends to pay off. That is not to say that it always will of course, and that is why this point follows that on contingency plans. But if you play the numbers game, and you stick to it, you will hopefully be paid off. After the dozens upon dozens of hours spent writing applications, my hard work was rewarded, and the application in which I was most invested was funded. My position began in November, and I could hardly have asked for a better project and working group. I hope, for those reading who are really seeking help and advice, that your hard work pays off as well.

If you had a hard time transitioning from your Master’s (or other degree) to your PhD, I would be interested to hear what your experiences were. Any other lessons you learned? Leave a comment and share your experiences!


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2 thoughts on “Six things I learned over two years trying to fund my PhD

  • Alex Kupfer

    Dear Mark,
    great stuff and well written indeed. This should be a motivation and guide for all willing, motivated but otherwise non-funded pre PhD students. I myself had some time between my first degree and the onset of the official PhD. However waiting paid off because the best and prosperous project (fully funded) just came up in time.



  • nobuhle ndlovu

    Great stuff going through the same thing too..thanks for encouragement n tape to reality of course!!!