“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” [i]
When I’m studying at home, 5pm to 9pm, after spending 9am to 5pm in work, something doesn’t feel quite right. I feel like Bilbo Baggins, off on one of his adventures, only I’ve forgotten more than my handkerchief, the dwarves haven’t turned up and Gandalf only pops in occasionally to give directions. (Apologies to my supervisors for the wizened wizard analogy, and indeed to my peers for the dwarves.)
My name is Andrea Nevitt, and I am a self-funded, part-time Ph.D. student.
Socio-academically I feel slightly embarrassed when I have to admit I work full-time so I can afford to study part-time. It feels confessional; admitting I’m not really ‘good enough’; ticking that ‘self-funded’ box seems like offering a bribe. Failing to attract funding has saddled me with an ‘imposter-syndrome’ monkey on my back. I manage to cage and gag him frequently enough to get on with my work, but I’m sure I’m not the only one (funded or not) fighting that fight. (I have a mental image of a circus lion-tamer, wearing a cap and gown, using a laser pointer and swivel chair to hold at bay an angry simian … and now so do you.) Even so, and in the face of claims people shouldn’t be encouraged to do Ph.Ds if they can’t secure funding, it would take an awful lot to discourage me. To use another Tolkien-inspired analogy: I may not be what the dwarves had in mind, but I’ll work harder in spite of it to make a valuable contribution to the effort.
At the root of academia is the sharing of knowledge and ideas; a mutual project of advancement. The sense of being a voyeur to that project underscores my part-timer experience. I might be doing something, but I’m not part of something. Meetings and conferences are held on weekdays, reading and writing groups gather on campus during lunch hours, mandatory training modules run during office hours. On the whole I’ve accepted that the functions, meetings, symposia, conferences and coffee-mornings I attend are the necessary ones rather than the ‘might-be-interesting’ ones. But acceptance can’t mask my concern that I’m missing experiences that could be crucial when a potential employer is balancing my CV against that of a full-timer – someone who has spent the last four years fully immersed in academic life, who had time to edit a journal and chair workshops on the side; someone still in their twenties. My worries have grown since completing my MA six years ago.
“I’m not done baking: I’m not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I’m cookie dough.” [ii]
Around the same time Buffy was battling to save humanity from the army of the First Evil, I had a growing need to be doing something. My physical prowess left something to be desired, but my mental capacity hadn’t yet been tested to its full. It didn’t take long after I’d graduated from my bachelor’s degree to realise I wasn’t all that good at making media, but I really liked talking and writing about it. An MA was what I wanted, but I needed money to pay the rent, bills, and to buy television boxsets. I had a job that paid just enough to allow me to pay fees in monthly installments – but I’d have to keep working full-time. Having been out of touch with education for almost a year, I had no idea that funding was even an option at postgraduate level, and applying to an institution I’d had no previous contact with didn’t help.
Reflecting on those more naïve years, I think when I heard of funded students I assumed they were especially gifted, and I always assumed I would never be good enough or would never be working on something important enough. That being said, self-funding my MA didn’t much trouble me on a confidence level. I was doing an MA and I thought that was jolly good in itself! Even better, I managed to work fan culture into all my modules, passed with a distinction, and didn’t accrue unmanageable debts. It was bloody hard work. I had no spare time, no spare money, and felt horribly guilty every moment I did not spend working. I’m not exaggerating. As much as I was glad and proud I was doing it, and as much as I desperately wanted to continue to study, my experience was enough to put me off doing a Ph.D. part-time. I shelved the idea until such a time as I miraculously acquired the funds for it. It was going to be full-time or nothing. Six years on, I’m doing it all over again. I couldn’t keep waiting for something to drop in my lap, and I had matured enough to realise it was only me holding me back – I survived the fight once and I could do it again.
“Maybe I should ease back in with some non-taxing classes, like Introduction to Pies, or maybe Advanced Walking.” [iii]
I understand the difficulties of implementing procedures, schedules and technology to suit all personal situations. I understand there is a limit to the funding available, and tough competition is necessary to decide who wins it. The financial impact is manageable, if not ideal, because I am lucky enough to be able to pay fees while I work. These are my own experiences. If you are looking for words of advice from an adventurer or a fighter I can’t confirm my journey is typical (perhaps this blog will change that), but through using Twitter and browsing online forums I can say that they certainly aren’t unique.
To those who can’t self-fund if they need to, I offer one platitude – “don’t give up hope” – and some more practical advice: make sure you keep up with developments in your field during the time you have to wait. Those of you deliberating whether or not to self-fund, ask yourself how long you’re prepared to wait. I regularly ask why I’m pushing myself through such an experience; there are many less taxing things I could do with my time. Everyone has their own reasons for furthering their education; one of mine is to stave off stagnation. For me it is an irresistible force. The simple fact is I’m doing something and I love it. When I’m not actively learning I feel stale, unfinished, incomplete. In the words of Buffy, I’m cookie dough.
[i] The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Dir. Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2001. Film
[ii] “Chosen.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer. UPN. 20 May 2003. Television
[iii] “Life Serial.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer. UPN. 23 October 2001. Television