The Self-Funded PhD: Is it Really Worth it?

One of the questions I often get asked, but really hate answering, is “who are you funded by?” The vast majority of PhD students I know are funded by various institutions, research councils, or organisations, so I understand the assumption. However, with bigger and bigger cuts to funding, and the re-organisation of how funds are allocated (from last academic year, AHRC funding was largely given to groups of universities, or consortia, for allocation to new starters only, thus removing the opportunity for second-year students or above to obtain it), the numbers of self-funded students is rising.

It doesn’t stop the questions, though, or indeed the looks of shock/horror/awe when I tell people I’m self-funded.

“How do you do it?” they ask. “Why didn’t you get funding?” “How do you time manage?” “Is it really worth it?” So I thought I would write a blog post about my experiences, and what consequences my status as self-funded has had.

When I was first applying for my PhD, I read article after article, forum after forum, that essentially said “no funding, no point.” What is the point in doing a PhD if you’re not being paid for it? If a university doesn’t believe in your project enough to fund it, why bother doing it? And so I went through the application process thinking that if I didn’t get funding, I wouldn’t do the PhD. I would stop, work for a bit, and try again. Sounds simple enough.

The thing is, is that by the time I had gone through the arduous and at times frantic application process, I was so invested in my ideas that there was nothing else I wanted to do. I had no interest in spending time on anything except this project. I was so confident in my ideas, that I felt sure the funders would be too.

Unfortunately for me, that wasn’t the case. I was devastated when the rejection came through. I had put every bit of effort I had into refining my proposal and was all but ready to start, and then suddenly it was all taken away from me in one, small paragraph.

So, I had three options: 1) try again a year later, 2) do it anyway, or 3) throw in the towel and give up. For a while, the third option seemed favourable. But then I realised that there was nothing I would rather do, so I decided to start the course.

I am in an incredibly privileged position: thanks to the wonderful support of my family I was able to start as a full-time student, rather than part-time. I understand that this is not a privilege that most people get, as the costs are just too high, but being able to go into a full-time course, with the added benefits of council tax exemption, desk space provision, a full-year’s quota of printing credits, and the generally, in my personal experience, greater feelings of community that come from being full-time, has made all the difference to my experience as a student.

But, it is still hard. I work a part-time job whilst studying, fortunately at the university with incredibly flexible working hours, but when, as one member of staff so lovingly reminded me, you should spend “90% of your time on the thesis. Everything else can wait,” time management can sometimes be difficult, as can the feeling when you’re having a productive half-hour but have to go to work, subsequently breaking up the day and sometimes losing track. Aside from tuition fees and general living costs, research is expensive. Conference registration, travel, printing, books (and, in my case, French films that aren’t available in the library), stationery, it all adds up. I’ve become very good at living on a budget, but it’s tiring sometimes having to turn down invitations from friends who have long since graduated and entered the “real world,” or having to meticulously manage my spending.

Sometimes people ask me if being self-funded will make it harder for me to get employed: if the funders didn’t believe in my PhD, why would they believe in me as an employee? First of all, there is no obligation to state whether or not your PhD was funded on your CV; I attended some departmental interviews here at Exeter two years ago, and only one of the applicants stated their funding on their application. Secondly, I genuinely believe that a lack of funding does not reflect the quality of the research; it simply reflects that, at the time of interview, you were not as strong as the other [insert small number of available studentships here] candidates. Getting a job is hard for everyone at the end of the PhD; I don’t think a self-funded PhD is a deciding factor in an application.

So yes, it is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes downright miserable. But at the end of the day, what research degree isn’t? There is still nothing else I would rather be doing (except maybe sitting on a beach somewhere sipping margaritas… but that’s not a viable career choice), and as long as that is true, then it is worth it. My advice to anyone considering self-funding would be to think about practicalities: if you are in a position to start, be it full-time or part-time, (and also realistically still going to be in a position to continue in a few years’ time), and you are passionate about your project, then do consider the self-funded option. If you’re not so sure it’s viable, then there is no shame in taking some time out and re-applying at a later date when you have more savings.

In short: yes, my PhD is definitely worth it. I just might pass on that fancy conference dinner or cocktails after work…

If you have any experiences of self-funding, part-time study, or anything else relating to this, let me know in the comments!

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