When I applied to start a Ph.D. I thought that there were two fairly clear models of study and funding. I thought that if you had funding, you worked full-time on your Ph.D. and didn’t worry about undertaking much paid work, whereas if you didn’t have funding, you worked to make it affordable. My own experience doesn’t really fit with either of these two models as I moved between different levels of funding and different patterns of employment for the four years that it took to complete. I hope that this experience may resonate with others and perhaps even be useful to those contemplating further study.
When I found out I had a place to undertake a Ph.D. in 2004, I was overjoyed. I had submitted my application too late to be considered for a 1+3 place, but I was able to start my full-time Ph.D. without having completed an MA and the department would contribute £4,000 of funding in my first year. I soon realised that of this I would pay back £3,000 in fees, but it was a start.
I muddled my way through the first year through cashing in a pension, support from my parents, and part-time teaching work at the university. As part of my departmental bursary, I was obliged to undertake some teaching without payment, but it meant that I would have contact with students and it seemed like a good way to enhance my CV. So while the teaching work didn’t actually contribute much financially that year, I didn’t mind doing it (actually, I really enjoyed it). During my first year I applied for research council funding. I thought I’d put in a good application but didn’t win a funding award. However, I found out that I would get a £9,000 bursary from my department for the next two years. This meant that after fees, I would have £6,000 to live on; a much better situation than the previous year! I worked out that realistically I needed £9K per year to live, so I needed another £3,000 per year once I’d paid my fees. The small cathedral city where I was based was a relatively cheap place to live; rent wasn’t as ludicrous as London prices, and I cycled everywhere for transport.
I took on more teaching for the department, leading seminars for first and second-year students, and again, I asked my family if they could help make up the difference (which luckily they were able to do). At the time I had very mixed feelings about all the teaching I was doing. On the one hand, I enjoyed being a seminar leader and genuinely liked the students: we were close in age, and I enjoyed the camaraderie. On the other hand, I was only paid for contact hours and had huge amounts of coursework to mark all the time. I remember getting my first batch of 40 or so 4,000 word essays to mark and thinking ‘okay, 45 minutes per essay multiplied by 40 essays equals … 30 hours of work! How am I ever going to finish this Ph.D.?’ I certainly didn’t feel as though I was doing my Ph.D. full-time. Indeed, the unpaid work that is expected from doctoral candidates has been criticised recently.
I took on the most teaching during my third year, and this was probably the least productive year for my Ph.D. It was hard managing all the teaching and marking; trying to read and write; living in a great but utterly freezing, chaotic, shared household; having intense friendships and relationships; trying not to spend more than the £400 a month I had to cover travel, food, books, social life; going to conferences, and so on. It was a (mostly) happy time, but certainly not the best year for my Ph.D. Then, once my funding ran out I had no alternative but to move back home (a common feature of the ‘writing-up’ year). Through a colleague, I managed to get some more teaching work nearer home. It was only a couple of hours per week, but at least it meant I had some income. I then embarked on a period of getting my head down and writing. It was isolating, but it also felt good.
One day my Dad saw a job advertisement for a curatorial post. It sounded ideal, as it meant I would have a decent income of my own, maintain contact with academic research, and learn something new and interesting. Unbelievably, I got the job and started in the January of my writing-up year. It was so good to finally have some money of my own and to have something new and challenging to think about. Yet, at this point I still had about four substantial chapters of the thesis to write. I wondered how I would manage and decided my only hope was to work like a maniac. I moved into a shared house with three guys who pretty much left me to myself.
The household was laid back and messy, but my room was large and airy, overlooking the delightful, overgrown garden. Every day I got into work between 8.30 and 9.00am. I finished work at around 5.00 – 5.30pm and started ‘job number two’. Sometimes I would stay at work and read relevant papers, but most days I would head straight home, go for a run, cook something quick, and then read and write from about 7.30 – 11.00pm. Every weekend I worked all day. I hardly had a social life. I’m sure I must have seemed a strange combination of vague, tired, and anxious to my friends and family (whom I hardly saw). Crucially though, I didn’t feel too miserable!
It helped knowing that this pattern of work was not sustainable. I knew I had no choice but to finish the thesis as soon as possible; I became more pragmatic and started to fret less about what I was writing. It was probably the most intense period of work for me, but I think that the chapters that I wrote during this period were actually some of the better ones. Working this way I submitted my Ph.D. in the August of my writing-up year. I was beyond exhausted by this point and so relieved to have some time to myself. I felt as though I had forgotten how to relax and not work. I booked a holiday and went to stay in Paris with some kind friends. Then I began to start to think about my viva.
The whole experience of funding and completing a Ph.D. felt messy to me: time and money were messy, emotions were messy, and my identity was messy. When I look back now I feel sure that if I had won the research council funding, it would have made a difference to my completion time as I would have taken on less teaching. However, I also feel that my experience of working full-time and writing-up boosted my confidence and made me a more efficient writer. It has certainly left me with a lot of admiration for those who take on a Ph.D. part-time and self-fund – who must surely have a combination of tenacity, confidence and diligence that I’m not sure I could ever attain!