• Abbie Tibbott

Friday Special: Funding Rejection, One Year On

This time last year I was rejected for government funding for a history PhD, which awakened a lot of self-doubt, sadness and frustration at myself and the world. A year on from that disappointment, I wanted to touch on how I feel now about the funding process, and how I've changed my mindset since.


Not getting the funding was a massive hinderance for me, for at the time, it was the only avenue into PhD study for myself. My circumstances meant that even if I took out the PhD loan of £27k, I would still need to find funding for my tuition fees, money I simply didn’t have. I felt like a door had been shut in my face, and it was hard not to feel like I’d suffered some major injustice. I’d worked hard, got two first-class degrees and had been repeatedly assured that I was the perfect candidate for doctoral research. I’d constructed a proposal, done lots of research and felt confident that this was the right direction for me to take. To talk yourself into believing that something is a possibility is hard enough, but dealing with the fallout of something not happening is equally as hard.

I’m not saying that I deliberately put myself on a pedestal, but I think you have to “big yourself up” when you’re applying for something that you have a lot of internalised doubt about. For me, that doubt had materialised itself into imposter syndrome which I’d only just got rid of after finishing my MA. I no longer felt confident in myself, and worried whether I had a stupidly inflated ego, or that everyone’s trust in me was seriously misplaced. Ultimately, taking the rejection personally was probably the worst thing I could have done, so learn that lesson from me!

Feeling shut out from PhD studies is part of a wider problem of doctoral study opportunities in the Humanities that working-class students are able to access. There may be some pockets of funding, but competition is fierce and you might have to compromise your own research interests to get the money you need. This sacrifice might not be worth it, especially if you have clearly established yourself in a certain field during previous study. It is essentially a pay-to-win scenario, meaning that as long as you have the money (and meet a university’s entrance requirements for doctoral study), finding a place to do your PhD won’t be much of an issue. For me, getting a place at Reading wasn’t the difficult bit, it was finding the money to pay my fees.

Ultimately, the loss of a relative ended up in my return to university. This has challenges of its own, as that money has been informally loaned to me with the expectation of being paid back, as well as the pressure of needing to perform well to make sure the money isn’t wasted. Large sums of money are few and far between, and I’m forever grateful for my parents' trust in me to go into my PhD and come out with a doctorate and a career-launching piece of research, otherwise none of this would have been possible. However, they shouldn’t have had to loan me the money in the first place, as a student such as myself would have been eligible for wider funding avenues that are now long gone due to the focus on STEM degrees and shrinking allocation of money to the Humanities. The expectation that money can take you anywhere in higher education is keenly felt at both master’s and doctoral level, as fees and cost of living expenses often outstrip government funding that everyone is eligible to.

I have searched for alternative funding, exploring charity avenues and trying to sneak onto things I’m very loosely eligible for. All so far has failed, so I’m relying on many part-time, casual jobs to buy my food and pay for my social life. I’m not complaining, as I’ve been working throughout my degrees, but to get a stipend to remove the worry about money would honestly be life changing, not to mention being able to free my parents from the burden of supporting me. As for now, I’m keeping an eye on things, and I’ll be sure to write an update to this blog if there’s any news.

If you’ve encountered similar emotions surrounding rejection, know that it’s perfectly valid to be upset about missing out on an opportunity that could change your life. Money makes the world go around, but it’s something that a lot of universities shy away from discussing. In the future, I want to make sure to talk truthfully to prospective students about the financial implications of studying for a postgraduate degree, and I don’t believe there is enough accessible information out there. I’m writing a post soon on some things to consider when applying for a postgraduate course, so watch out for that one.

Overall, although I did struggle with the rejection, I’ve come to recognise it as an opportunity that wasn’t really in my hands in the first place due to outside factors that weren’t a reflection of my personality, work-ethic or intelligence. Putting your best effort into an application is all you can do, and walking away from poor results is often the best way to retain your confidence and be prepared to try again next time.

Happy studying!