Funding was not my initial thought when planning to embark on the arduous journey of Ph.D. research. My list of priorities consisted: what will I research? How will I research? How do I write a research proposal? Is my subject a viable and worthy a Ph.D.? And only then: how am I going pay for this? Rather than chase funded Ph.D. places, and possibly end up researching a topic I neither liked nor cared about, I decided to stay at the university where I gained my BA and MA in order to retain the continuity of expertise and excellent working relationship I had developed with my academic supervisor over the previous four years. I did apply for funding from various sources, including the AHRC, and while the feedback I received was extremely positive, I was not successful. The university itself was only able to offer two half-fees bursaries, one of which I was awarded after a full application, selection, and interview process.
While the half-fees bursary did help with the initial financial outlay, I still needed to take on paid work in order to pay for living expenses, research trips and conferences. It seemed unfair to me that the bursary restricted its recipients to the same rules governing most other fully-funded Ph.D.s (i.e. submission of thesis within three years and three months), which didn’t take into account the added pressures on my time. Therefore, the constant need to earn money in order to survive was in competition with my love of, and dedication to, research and reading. I feel that the lack of funding provision can be a distinct barrier to social mobility. I did not have wealthy parents to help me financially and the only other option was a career development loan which, after undergraduate loans and Masters expenses, I was reluctant to take on, especially as I had no guarantee of a paid job at the end of my Ph.D. Instead, I found myself continually applying to charitable organisations for small amounts of funding for conference attendance and research trips. My department offered the opportunity to apply for up to £300 per year to all Ph.D. students (regardless of their funding status) for conference attendance, and I also applied to the Graduate School for a one-off award that would match the department’s amount for one conference or trip; no other support was forthcoming.
It was not just monetary support that was lacking, but also a space in which to work. The main library and work spaces were always occupied with undergraduate students and the Graduate School was a noisy place, seemingly used for people’s Skype addiction rather than research, and lacking in work stations. Office space (restricted to only 2 office hours per week on hotdesk basis) was granted to those who, like myself, were aiming for an academic career, required teaching experience and were successful in application. These teaching roles, after a full selection and panel interview process, were also restricted to just 2 hours per week and the hourly rate included all the time spent preparing seminars and marking essay/exam papers. The only option for working on campus were the seven hotdesks (unable to leave books, laptops, papers, etc.) in another building, with a limited opening time of 9am – 5pm, though this option itself may now be under threat. I do feel rather strongly that if academic departments wish for their postgraduate students to take on Ph.D. research and wish them to complete on time, but are unable to offer full scholarships to all, then perhaps awarding half-scholarships of £6,500 per annum, a larger conference/research trip fund, and a dedicated space in which to work would at least make life bearable for them.
One of my personal saving graces, though, was the support I received from my friends and family. My fellow Ph.D. researchers provided much needed social gatherings, and my other friends and family offered sympathetic ear. Likewise, my supervisor was outstanding in her commitment, work ethic, and knowledge. So armed, I was able to complete and submit my Ph.D. thesis within three years, but not without it impinging on my personal life and living situation. Ultimately, I feel my experiences have actually served me well. I have proven that a self-funded Ph.D. can be completed on time, and I also delivered on extra-curricular activities: ten conference papers, one research article, two book reviews, organising an international academic conference, completing my duties as postgraduate representative on an executive committee for a national association, seminar planning and delivery, essay and examination marking, and various (sometimes concurrent) paid work positions as a member of the university student events team, exam invigilator, and project assistant.
This often meant 70+ hours of work in a week and sometimes months without a day off. Yet, they have also demonstrated my ability to multitask, my sheer commitment and determination, and above all how undeniably organised and driven a self-funded Ph.D. researcher has to be. Any disadvantage when applying for positions regarding the possible ‘stigma’ attached to being self-funded remains to be seen. Although I don’t see why this should be the case due to the fact that all, often self-imposed, deadlines were met and all commitments were fulfilled to the highest standard. My work/life balance has occasionally, and inevitably, been heavily skewed towards work and personal sacrifices have been made with regard to social activities and living standards, but the experience as a whole has fully prepared me for the dedication and organisational skills necessary for juggling research, teaching, administrative duties and the rigors of an academic life.