Anonymous

 

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.

parkinsonslawIn 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.

time-is-moneyPractically, 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.

3d small people - thinkerWorking 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.

supportTechOne 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.

Mental-health-007My 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.

make_moneyThere 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.

14255080_mThere 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.

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7 Responses

  1. Science Lady says:

    Thanks for talking about the harsh reality of being a part-time postgraduate – I really enjoyed your article and I can relate to a lot of it. Here’s a little about my experience:

    I had been working for about 10 years post-graduation and wished for every second of that time that I’d had the opportunity to do a Ph.D after my first degree. 10 years is a long time to be away from academia, so I decided not to leave it any longer. Right from the start I was faced with setbacks. Most institutions I applied to didn’t even respond, and those that did actively discouraged me because they didn’t have funding. It was only when I convinced one of the tutors at my current uni that I was willing to fund it myself that they started taking me a bit more seriously. This situation wasn’t ideal, but at least it allowed me to pursue the opportunities I wanted. In order to fund my studies I took a part-time job in the industry I’d been working in for the last decade. But even though I had made my intentions clear to both the university and my employer, both of them expected me to do full-time hours. I wasn’t especially happy about my work encroaching on my study time, as I had been looking for a career change anyway, and I missed out on a lot of the valuable experiences my fellow postgrads were able to exploit. And when I had to devote more time to being at university, my work colleagues saw it as a nuisance – I had got to a level in my career where people weren’t sure why I was going back to university. In my case it was my employer that saw my studies as a ‘vanity project’. About halfway through my Ph.D, I do feel that I am keeping up – but I know that I’m not flourishing. Both my studies and sanity are stretched to the limit, and while it is currently the most sustainable situation (no, really!), it doesn’t make me happy.

  2. Alyson says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and well done on your perseverance and achievements. I’m in the first year of a self funded phd juggling an admin job at uni and a research job at another uni and you’ve expressed exactly how I feel. You’ve given me hope that I can get through it. Thanks and good luck!

  3. Kati says:

    What an amazing story! If anything your story proves that you are a survivor and whilst completing your PhD have made invaluable connections with both your colleagues and students. You are an inspiration!!!

  4. I did my PhD part time and self funding in the early 1990s and your experience is horribly familiar. Fees were lower then of course, but even so my head of department once lent me £400 of his own money so I could pay them on time. I found a job working part time as a civil servant and wrote my thesis as a series of articles. It’s a very hard way to do it and you have my sympathy. Incidentally, I finished my PhD but never managed to land a full academic job. Good luck.

  5. Joseph Donovan says:

    I salute and commend you for your tenacity, commitment and resilience. Bravo!
    Go blaze a trail for others to follow. Best wishes and may success imbue your career like jojoba oil flowing along a vinculum of infinite length!

  6. Doreen Mcbride says:

    Congratulations! After that you can survive anything!

  7. Lucy says:

    This piece says everything I could want to say about my experiences and more. Thank you for sharing it with us, and for what it’s worth, I think you’ve done spectacularly.

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