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I am a parent of disabled teenager. My career has been interrupted, as has my academic path. My son is in and out of hospital and school. But now I am doing a PhD at a top UK university and am winning awards for my projects and am devising and teaching courses. Only problem, I can't get funding. I keep missing out on Studentships as they go to people half my age with straight A academic results. Well, this is what I am told. I think this is discrimination. Someone with my background - even with a brilliant, original research project - is never ever going to get a studentship if the decisive criteria is your undergraduate and MA results. Studentships are lucrative (16K a year in London) and people like me, in the, um, diversity and inclusion basket - are told to search through the Alternative Funding Guide and 'write lots of letters'. It would take a professional fundraiser a year at least to raise the same amount as a studentship! Does anyone have any experience of seeking funding as a carer doing a PhD, or even some good practice from their institution to share? I'm in the UK so UK examples would be most helpful to me.

Edit 9/22:

My first years part time were funded by my part-time work in a related industry, but due to my teaching and PhD commitments, and Carer commitments, I haven't had time to seek more clients. So that's dried up. I also received a discretionary fund fee waiver for the fees - this wasn't an advertised hardship fund, this was a result of asking and asking until finally finding something was available. You are only supposed to apply to this once during your degree, but I have applied once again because there just is nothing else. Awaiting outcome.

I've had success with small funding for trips abroad to conferences and considerable success with funding for public engagement projects - but I can't pay my living costs or wages with that.

My supervisor thinks that my identity as a carer is something that we can't seem to escape from, so we it is something that will be addressed in my thesis (that's ok with me, and it sits nicely with my ambition to teach creative writing and to explore under-represented groups in film and tv).

I never intended to campaign on this issue, but since posting this question, I have been successful in getting the student union to take up the issue of Carers at our university as one of their priority vulnerable groups, and the first thing we will ask for is for Student Records to include Carers in the equality and diversity questions (not a statutory requirement for this data to be collected, but why not). Our university is behind others in offering support and recognition for carers. Secondly, within the graduate school, the student advisor I was talking to has recommended Carers be considered under the university's Widening Participation policy. And just the other day, I got to explain to the Vice Dean of the Faculty what a Carer is -- it's someone who looks after someone else who has a life limiting condition such as a disability or illness -- for more than 35 hours per week (that's the statuory number of hours in order to apply for Carer's Allowance, a means tested benefit).

So, no studentship yet but I have delegated my campaigning tendencies! I will keep this trail updated and hope others continue to contribute.

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    It's not clear exactly what the problem is. Is it your time away from academia, that your undergraduate and masters grades were not good, both, something else? Perhaps you can edit this post to explain what (perceived) deficit in your background you are trying to overcome. – ff524 Jul 25 '16 at 23:04
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    This also differs tremendously from field to field (say, computer science vs literature), so that would also be helpful to someone trying to craft an answer for you. – BrianH Jul 25 '16 at 23:45
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    Hi, yes, I'm studying literature. I have a child who is in and out of hospital, and who is regularly out of school. This is the 'deficit', the disadvantage. This has affected my grades and career path. If the child is disabled, then the ability of the parent to progress career and earnings is affected. – Brandnewshoes Jul 26 '16 at 11:08
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    Also I just found this news, "Student carers will be able to identify themselves on UCAS application forms" - so that's a start! carers.org/news-item/ucas-form-identify-student-carers – Brandnewshoes Jul 26 '16 at 11:20
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    Thank you for all the responses so far. Funding so far has been through part time work, I had a successful self-employed business. But with teaching responsibilities, caring and phd, I have run out of clients. Also I got a discretionary fee waiver, I kept asking different sources at my university for assistance until finally someone mentioned this secret source of discretionary funding. – Brandnewshoes Sep 22 '16 at 12:57
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But now I am doing a PhD at a top UK university and am winning awards for my projects and am devising and teaching courses.

In my experience, once you start a PhD in the UK, it is extremely difficult to get a studentship. It is not clear if you are looking for a full time studentship or a part time studentship. UK studentships tend to come from four sources of funding: university/school level funding, doctoral training center (DTC) grants, individual grants from charities and research councils given to a supervisor, and individual studentships awarded to the student.

As UK PhDs generally last 3 years of full time work, asking for less than 3 years of funding will result in odd gaps on any type of grant. While funding directly from the university or school is more flexible, unfortunately, if they did not offer you funding when they accepted you, they likely are not going to offer you funding now.

That leaves you with "special interest" funding, but again, having already started, will put you at a disadvantage.

  • Ahh, some info from the UK. Good.... But now what can the OP do about this? In the US, if a person were locked out in this way, I would suggest continuing on a part-time basis, while teaching, e.g as an adjunct at a community college. What might work in the UK? – aparente001 Sep 20 '16 at 4:19
  • +1 for "once you start a PhD in the UK, it is extremely difficult to get a studentship" - I didn't really mention this in my answer as I wasn't sure if it was different for literature, but certainly from a (UK) science perspective this is relatively unheard-of. – arboviral Sep 20 '16 at 10:10
  • Yes, it will be difficult. But not unheard of! Some of my colleagues have received research council funding in their third year. I'm taking a proactive approach... – Brandnewshoes Sep 22 '16 at 12:59
  • While informative, this answer in its current form would have a hard time earning the bounty. Can you do something to alleviate the depressing feeling it leaves one with? – aparente001 Sep 23 '16 at 15:30
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    @aparente001 I don't think so. The chances of a PhD student who has already started of obtaining funding are pretty bleak. – StrongBad Sep 23 '16 at 15:48
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I don't know the system in the UK, so I am afraid I only have one suggestion, but I hope it will be helpful as a start.

Find allies. Networking is part of this but there's more to it than that. Places to look:

  • disability rights organizations
  • caregivers' support groups (I think in the UK the term is carers)
  • returning students groups
  • in case you are female: women's groups
  • parents groups

I was a returning student at one time, and there was a group on campus that gave me key financial and moral support at a critical juncture.

One minor additional suggestion: My impression is that the concept of a returning student is more supported in the US than in the UK. So, if you can find some respite care for your teenager for a few days, attending a conference in your field in the US might give you a shot in the arm. Visiting a supportive environment can be remarkably helpful.

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    Someone who is having trouble getting basic funding is unlikely to get support for transatlantic travel to a conference. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 18 '16 at 16:01
  • @PatriciaShanahan - Good point. My problem is I don't know the UK system. I don't know how much money is involved in "basic funding". If I think in terms of a graduate stipend in the US, however, an airplane ticket to a conference is a much smaller figure.... But given the OP's situation, I am not even sure respite care would be feasible. There's the UK disability care system, which I'm unfamiliar with, and then there are the particulars of the young person. I don't know if a respite carer would be acceptable emotionally and practically.... – aparente001 Sep 18 '16 at 17:52
  • Yes, networking is key. Thank you for raising this, and that's a great suggestion. I will try and get to the US! Since I posted my question, I have done a bit of networking/campaigning, with the result being that a local carers organisation is going to apply for some small grants for me; the university union's vp for welfare and vulnerable groups is going to take up the issue of carers on campus and we are going to ask Student Records to add Carer to its diversity and equalities monitoring. Not sure about Parents Groups - some of us care for chronical ill old people and siblings. – Brandnewshoes Sep 22 '16 at 13:07
  • It's definitely easier to get support to go to a conference abroad, no problems. And I have received thousands in small grants for public engagement projects that I lead, but I can't pay myself with that. – Brandnewshoes Sep 22 '16 at 13:09
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First of all, this is from a UK perspective but a different discipline (science).

You strongly imply in two areas that you think your academic record is affecting your success:

Studentships [...] go to people [...] with straight A academic results.

and

Someone with my background [...] is never ever going to get a studentship if the decisive criteria is your undergraduate and MA results.

It would be easier to tell if you provided some information about your academic track record (although of course you don't have to), but most sources of funding I'm aware of wouldn't directly select against applicants with caring responsibilities, so if your track record appears poor (which was in turn a consequence of your caring responsibilities) I suspect that is more likely to be the problem. Most sources of funding will be highly oversubscribed and may use grades/degree class as a screen before reading applications in detail, even though they shouldn't.

If this is the case, then references and letters of support from previous supervisors or lecturers that draw attention to your circumstances may be the most effective way to get funders to consider this, rather than attempting to argue your own case. Also make sure you have a strong reference from your current supervisor. (I'm assuming you had similar caring responsibilities during your A-levels, undergrad and MSc as well, by the way; if you can point to a change in your achievements when these began that might also strengthen your case.)

Lastly, even if the funders accept that your caring responsibilities affected your previous results, they will want to be confident that you will attain a high level of performance in your doctorate. It sounds like you are already doing well so you can just point at your recent track record, but mention any change in your circumstances since the previous degrees (if the amount of care required has reduced, or if you are receiving additional external support) that will improve your ability to focus on academic performance.

Sources of funding: One other part of the problem may be the bodies you're applying to; as @StrongBad notes, many will only fund students starting a doctorate, rather than partway through. There is some useful information on ways to fund a doctorate here and a list of some charities that fund doctorates here. Finally, it may be too late to help you but from 2018 the government will offer £25k loans for doctorates (link).

Finally - what does your supervisor say? Supervisors are there to help with all aspects of study and will understand your individual situation better.

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    All these comments have been every helpful, thank you. I think the main message here is to get the Carer responsibilities and impact outlined in the letters of support. – Brandnewshoes Sep 22 '16 at 12:55
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    The reason I think my record is affecting my success is that I was flatly told that this was the reason the funding went to others. Better academic records. That's what's frustrating. My track record since starting the PhD has been outstanding. I take the message that I need to get my Caring circumstances outlined in support letters, that's good advice and I hope others read this and follow it. Would I get far with a complaint about discrimination? I am not sure. But I will keep this thread posted. – Brandnewshoes Sep 22 '16 at 13:12
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    And also thank you for those links, very useful. I didn't now about the loans coming in for doctorates, very interesting. But as a carer, I already have slightly more than the average amount of unsecured debt for a carer (It's an official statistic!) – Brandnewshoes Sep 22 '16 at 13:18
  • @Brandnewshoes - I don't know anything about discrimination complaints in the UK. You might try asking at law.stackexchange.com. However, I have not so far found them to be strong in this general area, at least where the US is concerned. (Not to discourage you from asking -- only by asking will we stimulate that site to develop more of a strength in this area.) Regarding discrimination complaints in the US -- I have three comments. (1) This might be a stretch -- but it could certainly be researched; (2) My experience has been that the processing is extremely slow... – aparente001 Sep 22 '16 at 19:12
  • ... and the approach taken with the investigations is very nitpicky, for example, one of my allegations was rejected for investigation because the provision the school had committed to providing was phrased "should" instead of "must"; (3) the documentation required, at various stages in the process, is substantial, and one could get distracted from one's own studies. But please take into account that all three remarks apply only to the US (and only to my personal experience). – aparente001 Sep 22 '16 at 19:15
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+100

Hopefully information brought to light in this thread will help the next Carer applying for studentships.

Apparently it is key to get the carer role situation documented in the support letters from the start. I know I am disadvantaged by having already started, but it's not unheard of to get funding mid-doctorate.

I have applied for a second discretionary fund fee waiver for the fees - this wasn't an advertised hardship fund, this was a result of asking and asking until finally finding something was available. You are only supposed to apply to this once during your degree, but I have applied once again because there just is nothing else. Awaiting outcome.

I've had success with small funding for trips abroad to conferences and considerable success with funding for public engagement projects (although I can't pay my living costs or wages with that).

The following action steps look promising for helping with this general problem, in the long term:

  • get the student union to take up the issue of carers
  • ask that Student Records include carers in the equality and diversity questions
  • recommend carers be considered under the university's Widening Participation policy
  • explain to the Vice Dean of the Faculty what a carer is: a person who looks after someone who has a life limiting condition such as a disability or illness for more than 35 number of hours per week (that's the statutory number of hours needed to apply for Carer's Allowance, a means-tested benefit).
  • I'm glad to hear about your early successes, small as they may be! As this is not an answer, I'll be deleting it, but best of luck in your future work on getting funding! – eykanal Sep 22 '16 at 14:19

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