The Ph.D. experience intensified rather than diluted: this is how I would describe self-funding my part-time course. Ph.D. students face the intellectual challenges of their project, loneliness, preparing themselves for next phase while concentrating on the degree, and a lack of external validation. Ph.D.s are as much a test of character (stamina, self-belief, commitment, resilience, ongoing love for your subject, resourcefulness) as they are of intelligence. I would argue that self-funded, part-time students excel at dealing with all of these, yet are given insufficient respect and credit.
In a bad week, the requirements of postgraduate study (research seminars, etc.) plus paid work took up 70 hours, before I’d started research. I found it ironic that I had to pay tax on my low earnings, paying not only for my course but contributing to the pot paying for my colleagues’ funded positions. Nobody ever expected me to submit, so the university didn’t care. Every time something went wrong I would panic. I remember crying for days when a £1,500 pot of teaching work was shut down because the organiser had missed the deadline to apply for it. It doesn’t sound much, but that represented over 10% of my annual budget. Friends would get upset because it represented part of the deposit for their house, or a holiday. For me it meant piecing together another 150-200 hours of work from time I didn’t have, while in the short term tightening my belt even further. I sought big projects so I had fewer things to juggle, but inevitably my head was crowded out by the number of things I had to think about, making it hard to find the mental space for research. I was sometimes criticised for being ‘breathless’ with my ideas and writing. Is it surprising? I became exceptionally self-motivated, resilient and determined.
Practically, life could be awkward. I had to run a car to get to jobs, but this was a major expense. Stupid things like the university only paying once a month, even for expenses, meant I often found myself paying interest on their debt, which seemed grossly unfair, but there’s no way to claim interest on expenses. Some things paid annually, which left me in serious difficulties during the year. Even when the annual budget balanced, cash-flow rarely did. I became adept at budgeting.
The banks were useless, with no support for part-time humanities students: part-time students aren’t entitled to student accounts, even when the part-time status is due to self-funding, making student support critical. I had to pay back student debt while still a student. Again, it seemed extremely unfair, designed to force me into a debt spiral rather than work with me. The bank didn’t believe in personal contacts, but had a constant run of uninterested, short-term placement staff and endless forms and processes which meant they had no respect for me, or means to work with me.
Working in administration meant my academic colleagues sometimes viewed me as less serious. I was there to wash up and fix the photocopier, not to contribute to academic discussions. Colleagues who had shared conference panels, or even published with me, could suddenly be utterly dismissive. Self-funding seemed stigmatised, as though if I was any good, I’d have got funding, and as I hadn’t my work was clearly just a vanity project. Even my supervisor sometimes seemed to view me as a second-class student. I, however, learned what universities were like inside out, learned more about the establishment than anyone else, and was more resilient and organised than many others.
So much academic progress is down to being seen and contributing to the international conference scene. Regular work commitments meant getting away to conferences was hard, and paying to go even harder. My work was particularly interdisciplinary – I needed these conferences to help access new areas. My project seemed doomed, but I came to learn the kindness of the individual academic, the value of coffee or an email exchange, and became an expert networker.
One project manager was so impressed by my effort that he told our Head of Department to give me a bonus of £250. I had never felt so validated in my life. The torture of how to spend it though … I chose to take it as a bonus, get myself kit for a hobby rather than continue to deny my life. A Ph.D. is a long time to deny yourself; you need to make sure you’ve got a life worth living at the end. People looked at that and didn’t understand my decision to reward myself. The guilt was yet another emotion to add to my already cluttered mind.
My mental and physical health deteriorated as I struggled under the stress of the funding situation, aware that this issue was entirely of my own making – nobody had forced me to do the Ph.D. this way, after all. When my friends were going home for dinner with their partners, I was heading back to the house for another few hours of freelance work, exacerbating the loneliness of the doctorate. My social life dwindled away; I stopped eating for days, stopped sleeping properly, and found myself seriously ill. It took until I collapsed while teaching and woke up in hospital for my supervisor to realise how serious things were, and even then, her only advice was to take six months out. And pay for it how? Even this complicated health situation becomes a stigma to add to all the others.
There is, then, an inevitable knock-on effect on career prospects. Academia assumes you can manage a merry-go-round of short-term contracts, often only 6-9 months. With loan repayments and maxed-out overdrafts, this hasn’t been an option. I’m extremely lucky to have a job I enjoy, but it wouldn’t have been my first-choice role. My first job paid less than what I needed to live on, but I had to take it rather than risk waiting, then find more ways to supplement my income. I remain concerned about my efficiency in my present role, and my quality of life, as over-work has become a habit. I’m now older than the UK likes its post-docs, so can’t apply for positions, despite the wealth of energy and experience I could bring to them. Before my Ph.D. I was close to getting my first house. Now I’ll be lucky to manage that within the next 10 years. Affording children is an even more terrifying prospect.
There were positive times too. People always thought of me for work, which meant I got to know a lot of interesting people and projects. These have shaped my career choices, and I wouldn’t have such a fascinating job if I had taken a more traditional route. People learned they could rely on me. I learned how to cope under immense pressure, and sometimes even how not to cope. My graduation marked one of the best moments in my life. The Dean had given me my best-paid job and knew what graduating meant, so when he offered extra congratulations on the stage, my heart swelled. At the same time, there was a whoop from my undergraduate students in the audience. I realised how embedded I’d become in the university at large, how my combination of hard work and an interdisciplinary topic had made me more integrated than anyone else I know
My supervisor has commented that I maybe don’t have the strength to be an academic. I would argue that the self-funding experience proves precisely the opposite. I have a Ph.D., an awesome CV, immense teaching experience, some extraordinary life experiences and a number of publications from projects in which I found myself involved. Yet, somehow I’m considered not good enough. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, and wish others could be too.