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PhD Student....will work for food or books

A couple of weekends ago I had a conversation about self-funded PhD students that made me want to write this post. I didn't get around to it then, however this week has motivated me to write it.

Friends will know that I recently started a full time job. Well started and finished in the space of two weeks. I won't go into why here, suffice to say the circumstances are not pleasant.

But I'm ok really. It wasn't my dream job. I was more than any job in recent years actually, doing it for the money. And I hated that. The reasons I had to leave aside, a week in I was already counting the months until I could leave. It wasn't horrible, I was just horribly bored already. Because that's the thing, once you've done a job you love, once you've found the thing you're good at it's hard to go back to anything else. More of that later.

What I wanted to address in this blog post is the constant battle that self funded PhD students face. I'm including in that too those who get a scholarship or partial scholarship for fees. Because even if you don't have to pay out increasingly extortionate sums in tuition, supporting yourself while balancing arguably the most demanding course of study anyone will undertake, is a big ask of anyone.

In Britain also there is shockingly little in the way of financial support available. Putting aside the lack of funding schemes for PhD and postgraduate education, there is no loan system that adequately supports PhD students. We have an excellent Student Loan scheme in this country (well unless David Cameron gets his way) by which students from all backgrounds can access funds for their studies. I wouldn't have been able to complete Undergraduate study without it. But as soon as the BA or BSC is after your name there is little or no way to access loans for study. I'd gladly have added to my (already substantial) student debt to secure a loan to cover my PhD. For me it's an investment, the earnings potential later in life is offset by the short term investment. That aside, the peace of mind of having even just my fees covered by a loan would have been worth the interest eventually paid.

Then there is the struggle of what kind of work you do? I was lucky in that I was given teaching work at the University for the first three years. A blessing and a curse in that it gave me all the experience I needed and then some for my CV but obviously preparing at one point 3 different courses to teach. On top of that it's only paid in term time (and on an hourly paid basis) therefore another job was also needed. At one point I was teaching, working two part time jobs and doing the PhD. This enabled me to have a financial cushion at least when things dried up in one job or another. Because of course, the most convenient jobs to get are zero hours contracts, therefore earnings are never guaranteed.

Because as a PhD student what work do you do? You can't take one a 9-5 particularly in the first years of study, unless you do the PhD part time. And unless you already have a great job you don't want to give up, who wants to commit to 7 or 8 years of a job you don't want and no life because every spare hour is taken up with the PhD? So we do all the student jobs we swore when we graduated (the first time) we'd never do again. And I never minded that. I will work in customer service, I will work the long hours for little pay but just now and again I want someone to acknowledge that it's hard, and that I'm better than that.

Yes, I said better than that. I am not ashamed to work these jobs. I don't judge anyone who does. I'm a working class girl who by virtue of some natural talent and opportunities has managed to work hard and get ahead in life. Another set of circumstances and I could still be in my first job in a supermarket and there is nothing wrong with that. But, I have two degrees, a teaching qualification, 3/4 of a PhD and 4 plus years of professional experience in a variety of job roles. I don't think it's unreasonable to say "I not want to be doing something more than making coffee or pulling pints. I want to use the skills and experience and yes the intelligence I have"

But employers see PhD and run a mile. You know what I would too. I'd think 'they aren't going to stay' or 'they are going to need time off' or just be scared of what that means. A middle manager say in a company gets a girl in her 20s a year, 6 months off having 'PhD' after her name. He's intimidated. And yes in that I use girl deliberately. But that's a whole other discussion. PhD's scare people outside of academia. Which means getting any kind of 'proper' job while doing one is nigh on impossible. Which means we're back to coffee and pulling pints.

I have been lucky. I got part time jobs in theatres that fueled my knowledge of my field and allowed me to work in an environment with like-minded people. But it had it's drawbacks, short shifts and low pay mean you can't survive on that alone. Late nights combined with getting up and working on the PhD meant I was exhausted. I burnt out, I knew I was on the verge of not doing my job or my PhD properly so when a 9-5 none to challenging job came up I jumped at it. But again this wasn't going to work. Putting aside the unfortunate circumstances in this job, I already realised that it was going to be so difficult. Scheduling PhD work, sacrificing everything else even as far as exercise or time to cook properly was becoming apparent.

And it's hard because people don't understand. I don't resent anyone who gets funding for their PhD, but it's hard particularly those who got it a while ago, to think what that experience would have been while dealing with such financial stress. Those in workplaces can't really comprehend it either. They think it's like a part time course, or like writing a slightly longer dissertation. And I don't blame them, unless you've done it you don't know. On the flip side, academics who were lucky enough to be funded, or have family support, can never truly get their head around it. To both those groups I say simply: it's not as easy as just finding a job, it's not as easy as just finding the time for the PhD. It's a constant act of juggling with swords never knowing which part of your life is getting impaled next when you drop one, because you will drop one, and you'll pick it up and drop another. And so on, and so on.

All that said, I find myself an unemployed PhD student again. Anyone who has any job suggestions send them my way. There's almost nothing I won't do. There's almost nothing I haven't done so far. And if nothing else I earned every last payslip and every last letter in front of or behind my name. I've done good work for every employer, and I've produced my PhD alongside it. And I'm proud of that.


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