Starting your PhD: surviving self-funding

By Kim Braxton, PhD Candidate, English Literature 

As a self-funded PhD student who is not from a wealthy family, or landed upon a large chunk of inheritance, actually getting to this stage of my PhD has taken some time. I knew by the end of my undergraduate degree that I wanted to do a PhD but it took four years before that dream would be realised. Having already saved up the money to fund my MA, I knew I had the discipline to save up to fund my PhD. For those wondering why I opted to self-fund the answer is quite simple: I wanted to do it that much. Whilst a good and dedicated student, I’ve never been what is considered the best of the best and those are the ones who get funded. I didn’t want to place all my hopes of my future career on the slim chance of funding so I opted to save the money.

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Research definitely isn’t all doom and gloom! Kim channelling her inner Victorianist

Saving meant three years of having very little life, no holidays and working full time being paid minimum wage. Nevertheless, I still managed to save up the tuition fees – so it is possible! It did feel strange to be returning to university after a three year hiatus, and I started my PhD at a new university. In my mid-twenties all my friends were going through the post-degree malaise where they desperately missed being a student so I felt very lucky to be returning. However, I was aware that PhD life would not be like undergraduate or even my Masters year: there would be no seminar groups; little structure; I would have to motivate myself and structure my own time. As I was self-funded, I knew I would have to have some form of employment to support myself. I was very lucky to have a job where they were willing to change my hours to fit around my studies, and I had a permanent contract so I knew I had a stable job to support me throughout my PhD. I had saved my fees so now I could start saving for all those things I had missed like holidays, a car and a deposit on house.

However, in the week of my PhD induction the company I worked for went into administration and I lost my job. All my stability had gone and what I thought would be a great first week at uni became one of the darkest weeks. I met only one other self-funded student and was informed that the chances of self-funded students lasting to the end of their PhD are slim. This also added to growing anxieties about actually being a student again: the fear that my intelligence was not what it used to be, I had forgotten so much, would I be of a PhD standard now? That week I considered giving up and stepping down from my place. Through autumn and winter that thought occurred to me two more times. But all the reasons were due to money and had nothing to do with the work. The work I loved, being told I could have a whole month to just read sounded like a luxury, to be told I would be funded by the university to go and do research at the Brontë Parsonage was a dream. So no matter what my financial doubts were telling me, on the other side I clung to my PhD with all my might. This is wanted to do, this is what I had worked for, saved for, waited for and now it was here why should I let it go?

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Research escapism is sometimes important.

Being a self-funded PhD student is not easy. Being a PhD student alone is not easy but when you’re self-funded it is that little bit harder. Firstly, you need to accept that you will be surrounded by people who are better off than you. There will be frustrating moments when they work fewer hours than you, complain to you about money, tell you that they’re just doing a PhD to fill the time, or that paying for Continuation is out of the question. Nevertheless, these are the people who will keep you going, talk you down when you’re panicking and sit and have a cup of tea with you when you finally get a much-needed break. Resenting them for their funding does nothing but isolate you; the main focus should be that you are both PhD students fighting your own battles but if you have each other those battles can seem a little more bearable.

Even though a PhD can feel like more work than is physically and mentally possible I love every minute of it and feel so lucky to be doing it. Whilst people can say I could use my tuition money to buy a house or a car or go travelling in New Zealand what I am doing is making an investment in my future. Therefore, when the time comes and I finally get that longed for lecturing position I will be able to do all those things whilst doing a job I love.

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