Tips and links for PhD and Masters Scholarships (Social Sciences and Humanities)

I have been receiving a number of messages from friends and colleagues on procedures and tips regarding scholarships abroad (especially in Western universities). So, I decided to write a note on the steps and the resources that I have come across over the years. You have to keep in mind that I am a Public Policy and Politics graduate, so my tips are mostly confined to Social Sciences and Humanities disciplines. Hence, don’t take it as the final word on scholarships. Finally, I’ve heard many friends and peers argue that it is “impossible to get PhD funding”. I, respectfully, disagree! It all depends on how you approach the whole process in terms of applying to the right place at the right time, while contacting the right supervisor. There are hundreds of scholarships in dozens of countries. So, you just need to persist and be patient. However, the process also requires you to anticipate and accept rejections. I applied for 9 scholarships in different countries and was rejected by 7.

For a PhD, the first and the most important step is to stay in touch with various databases (mentioned below). But if you want to take initiative on your own or apply to Universities directly, then visit University websites in Australia, USA or Europe. Almost all of them have a scholarship section for various disciplines.

For both Masters (by research) and PhD positions, the application matters and for that you need to contact the Professors who are teaching the courses of your choice in your preferred university. The MOST Important factor is the potential “Supervisor”. If they like your topic and encourage you to apply for a scholarship, then a good part of your job is done, the rest will depend on your academic/professional background, evaluation committee and the selection criteria. However, the supervisor loving your topic does not ensure a scholarship. It will only help you clear the first stage of your application process.

Important Note: While selecting or short listing potential supervisors, make sure their methodological approach is similar to yours. If your proposal is qualitative and your potential supervisor has worked on quantitative methods, there is very little chance that the supervisor will entertain your proposal. There remains “some” divide and friction between qual and quant academics. Even if they do entertain your proposal, they might try to change your methodological approach. If you are happy with that, then no harm in contacting a supervsior with a different methodological experience. Also, don’t get angry or irritated if you don’t get a response from a supervisor. Don’t email them more than twice. If they don’t respond after your second email, it might mean they are busy and might not be interested. Move on to another supervisor. While going through my emails from 2014, I saw that I emailed over 70 academics for PhD supervision and received around 20 responses. Out of those 20, around 8 or 9 expressed interest in supervising me. So, be prepared for lack of responses.

You always need to make sure that the professor you contact has somewhat a broader idea on the broad nature of the topic.

Many students think that a PhD proposal is something novel, or that you have to come up with a totally new idea. I think it is a misconception. You just need to develop a “new angle” to a common or a broader concept.

For example, if you think you wish to work on “Democratic decline in the Global South”, on paper, it may seem “novel”, but someone in some corner of the world would have worked on it in some way. They might have written a newspaper article, a paper or a book chapter. What matters in such cases is how can you make the broader idea “specific and different”. However, you also need to make sure that you have the capacity, access and permissions to get your desired data for analysis, either primary or secondary. That is where you need to make sure that during your literature search, or review, you establish the fact that further down the line you have enough data to work with and mention it in your proposal.

Your proposal length should depend on the application criteria. But whatever the length or the case, you need to make sure that you present a clear and concise picture of what you need to do as part of your research. The proposal reflects your capacity to conduct research on the topic of your interest, and that is why, you need to make sure that your capacity is clearly reflected in the proposal.

Important Note on the Proposals: If your primary aim – like me – is to learn and explore new and different avenues of knowledge, don’t be too rigid with your proposal. I have no shame in admitting that I had four different proposals for three different disciplines. Maybe my Masters in Public Policy helped me be eligible for different disciplines for a PhD position. However, I would have been equally happy if my other proposals were accepted and had I not conducted my PhD on the topic that I ultimately did. When I contacted my potential PhD supervisors, I mostly sent them two proposals at the same time, and gave them the option, rather than forcing them to accept one. It worked for me, however, I cannot say it will work for others as well.

Also, don’t take your proposal as something final, as it is bound to change. It only helps the evaluation committee to decide whether you have an idea (and capacity) of the topic you wish to do your research on. I finalised my proposal and outline in the 10th month of starting my PhD.

Also make sure that you have some sort of publications (whether academic or semi-academic) before applying for a PhD. Even if you don’t that is fine, but having some publications in your bag helps you application and selection a lot. It proves to the selection committee that you have the ability to conduct research.

Additionally, IELTS or TOEFL are also an important component and you need to make sure that you get ATLEAST 6.5 in all modules (but it also depends on the university criteria, a safe bet is 7.0 in all modules).

P.S. I originally wrote this note on Facebook a few years ago, therefore, adding this part after completing my PhD. THINK HARD before pursuing a PhD. It can both be easy and hard. It can be fun as well as boring. If you are someone who can, on and off, lock themselves off in a room and consistently read and write, then a PhD might be an ideal fit for you. But if you don’t like writing (and reading), then you would make your life miserable. I personally enjoyed my journey a lot. I learnt probably more than what I learnt throughout my college and university (Bachelors and Masters) days. But even for someone like myself (who loves writing), there were days where I just wished I could escape the stress of this journey.

You can check the following web links for scholarships all over the world. I will keep updating the list below:

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