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Self Funded PhD "advice"

I was recently asked for advice on Tumblr about self-funding a PhD so I thought I'd go into more detail here, on the off chance someone can benefit from my "wisdom".

I'll be honest, my first instinct is to say 'don't do it' but really that's not quite true. I'd say 'don't do it unless you are really sure'. People who are funded may disagree with me (and feel free to comment if so) but doing it self-funded is harder. Although the pressures (particularly of finishing to time) are greater with a funded PhD, the supreme juggling act of a self funded one, make the physical act of getting the damn thing on paper, and you out in one piece more of a challenge.

So here in no particular order is my advice:

 Make sure you want to do it.
This goes for any PhD. But if you're paying for it out of your own pocket make sure it's what you really want. That you're doing the research at the place you want

Loans can be your friends (if you can get them)
Loans are notoriously hard for postgrad study. I was lucky and did a PGCE the year before (that's the first time I said that was lucky, it was hell on earth) and for that you can get student loans. So I topped up my already substantial debt with more. It paid my first year's tuition. If you are going to get a loan (and if you can) for anything I'd say earmark it for tuition. You can find a way to get by for food and rent, but if a bill for £3k plus lands on your mat you need a way to pay. My back up was always paying on credit cards and playing 0% interest hopscotch for a year. Luckily it didn't come to that, but if you have to, then you have to.

Remember with fees you are a customer, stand up for your rights.
University registries can be a difficult bunch. I spent my first term trying to pay them without success only to get a bill 2 days after Christmas telling me I'd defaulted on fees and would be kicked off my course. I stood up to them, and all was well. You have the right to pay by installments, you have the right to not pay until the last day they're due. Don't let them bully you.

The 'customer' status also applies to your PhD itself. Universites increasingly treat Undergrads like customers and the slightest grumble is sometimes treated like World War Three. The same approach is not given to Postgrads, particularly PhD students. This isn't a personal gripe (for those still spying) but I've heard enough horror stories. If you feel you aren't getting what you pay for, or what you were promised (even if all you were promised was a dusty corner in the library) then speak up. Even if not directly, speak to student services, student union, student rep, you ARE paying for this and we should end the culture of just being eternally grateful to be let in.

Don't waste too much time chasing scholarships/bursaries
Yes they might help, yes it looks good on a CV BUT at the same time, all those hours you spent filling in/searching for money could be spent earning some money or actually doing your PhD. I'm not saying don't but I spent too long listening to advice about chasing funding, when in fact I should have just been getting on with the work.

Don't compare yourself to others if you don't get funding.
It doesn't mean you aren't as good. It's a lottery. The right research at the right time and the right place will secure funding. You could have identical credentials and still not get it. Don't beat yourself up about it, accept it and plough on.

Be honest with your supervisors (and anyone else who can help or advise you)

On this one I start with no matter how uncomfortable it makes them we're British. We don't like talking about money, it's vulgar. Tough. Money affects your PhD. I'm always put in mind of this exchange from 'Friends':

Ross: I guess I never think of money as an issue
Rachel: That's because you have it.

For supervisors, living on next to nothing is possibly a distant memory. Dependent on their age (I'm being delicate here) they may never have even experienced student loans. If they're younger, in order to be supervising you it's been a fair few years that they've been on £30k plus (more if they're higher-ranking) so they may need some gentle reminding that it's hard living on dry pasta and having a baked potato as a 'treat'. I'm being sarcastic (and referencing a well loved radio 4 sitcom) but the point still stands. For anyone in a position to supervise a PhD, the debate over whether to buy food or books is likely not a current issue. If you're lucky they remember what it's like and are sympathetic, if not it's still an issue they need to be aware of. I'm not saying spend every supervision moaning about lack of funds, but if things get really bad, they need to be told, because likelyhood is it's affecting your studies. Even if it's as simple as saying 'I can't hand this work in over Christmas because I need ot take advantage of the extra hours at my job, so I can take time off in January' just gently reminds them that you have to fund this yourself, and you have to fit both kinds of work into your day.

Be honest with your friends.

Friends and the PhD is a whole other blog post. However, whether self funded or not, you're probably not making as much as your other friends of the same age. Be honest about that. Explain that you have to watch the budget. I once was quite blunt and told someone 'That cocktail costs an hour's wages, I can't afford it' at the time it was harsh but it put things into perspective and we adjusted our social engagements. Yes it sucks. It sucks not to be able to do the things you like. It really sucks when it's people's weddings or big Birthdays and you just can't afford to give your friends what you want to. If they are your friends they will understand. And one day, they might be low on funds and you can treat them to a cocktail, or buy them the sort of Birthday gift for their 40th that you wanted to for their 30th. I repeat, if they are your friends they won't care. If they are your friends they don't care if you talk over a cup of tea on their sofa or fancy cocktails.

Choose your paid work wisely and be wise about teaching work
I cannot emphaise these two things enough. Firstly teaching, I was offered teaching work which was the key draw to my choice of University. Frankly it was the only way I was able to do the PhD. I was offered initially 6 hours of seminar teaching per week. This worked really well, the module leader supported me and another PhD student well and though demanding wasn't too demanding. As time went on I was offered additional teaching, and marking which is difficult to say no to both in terms of the money and the experience. I took on too much, including too much responsibility in running modules. Supervisors and students need to be mindful of this trap, the supervisor may be trying to help (either financially or for experience) but both sides need to be mindful of the stress and time away from the PhD.

When hourly paid teaching comes to an end it's also tricky. I turned down 2 hours a week teaching this year, because I felt that the amount of preparation/time relative to income wasn't worth it. As a result I've probably been written off as a HPL for my current University. That's sad, but I made my bed I suppose. That was after a long anxious summer waiting to hear about teaching hours, of which there were really none. It's a difficult game to play, especially when juggling other work.

The other work you do is also important. It's a fine balance between income and sacrifice to the PhD. At my worst I juggled 4 jobs. The nature of work is important too, I worked in a call centre (in hindsight boring, but do-able as it required no physical or mental exertion) I worked for two theatres, and as a support worker for disabled students in my University. The latter is by far the best job I had, I learnt lots (particularly having sat in on lots of lectures and worked with lots of students) to the point I'm now considering this area as a career option. The theatre work was related to my PhD and seemed like a good idea at the time. The one theatre was a great job, I learned lots and enjoyed it. The second was without a doubt the worst job I ever had. Barely a shift went by without me crying before/during or after. I later took a full time job from which one of my closest friends got me fired. So all in all an epic fail (as the kids say)

What also happened to me was exhaustion. Working nights during the final year of my PhD nearly finished me off. I'd leave for work at say 4.30 and get in at 11 but be up again at 7 and at my desk by 8 trying to work on the PhD. I wasn't eating right, I wasn't sleeping right and all for minimum wage. I was exhausted and my work wasn't what it should be. During the brief period I returned to an office job I experienced the two killer elements that drove me from that in the first place: boredom and 'clever girl resentment'. I was bored out of my mind and my colleagues started sneering the minute they heard I was doing a PhD (which I tried desperately to keep secret)

Those jobs are just my experience, I detailed them to show it takes a careful balance and a good fit to support a PhD. I'd go for minimum wage, minimum effort any day if it keeps a roof over your head and food (books) in your cupboards.

Pace your paid work 
And remember why you are doing the work. You are working to fund the PhD that is all. Focus on that.

You'd be surprised how little you can get by on so in those key PhD months scale back the paid work, when the PhD takes a break, scale it up. Abuse the zero hour contract machine for all it's worth.

Try not to schedule a late/long shift before important meetings. For some supervisors won't care that you've been pulling pints until 1am, they'll still rip apart your work, and if you're anything like me you'll cry from sheer exhaustion. Do what you can to schedule paid work around your best PhD hours whenever you can. And when you can't just accept that this is the life of self-funding, it sucks but you'll get through.

It will probably take you longer
I'll end this with something I'm yet to make peace with. The sad fact is the self-funded PhD will take longer. I hate this, I resent it with every fibre of my being. But it's a sad fact of life. Physically you cannot do the same amount of PhD work while funding yourself. There is also less pressure on Universities to push you through without the end of a bursary snapping at their heels. Push them though, because they'll let you go on forever otherwise. And push yourself, but not too hard. A viva is no good if you collapse from exhaustion halfway through because you were flipping burgers until midnight.

Finally, usual disclaimer, these are my general experiences compiled with experiences of others. They are in no way a directed attack on my University or former employers. Well one former employer, I maintain that it was the very worst job I ever had.


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