I am a self-funded postgraduate history student. I am in the final year of my degree, and in the middle of the slow, at times laborious, process of writing up my research. As an undergraduate I decided that I wanted to pursue an academic career, and so completing an MA and a Ph.D. was always my plan. I applied for AHRC funding for the Ph.D. in the first and second years of my programme, but was unsuccessful. During my undergraduate days I had a part-time job (although in my final undergraduate year I worked 28 hours a week), and I continued working throughout my MA course, and I only recently left that job in order to concentrate on writing up my research.
My part-time job has contributed to paying my tuition fees and paying my living expenses for the last few years, but it has also put additional pressure on my time for research and writing. It has also meant that I have been unable to participate in many conferences, workshops and other events that have been held on any days that I was due to work, without using limited holiday days or taking unpaid leave. I have now come to the conclusion that this difficulty could have been mitigated had I opted for a part-time Ph.D. rather than a full-time programme. However, as any research student knows, there is never a shortage of such events to attend, and there are regular postgraduate seminars, skills training workshops, and inter-disciplinary conferences at my institution that I have been able to attend and from which I have benefited by learning about new ideas, networking with other researchers, and developing my skills.
I have also on many occasions been unable to attend major conferences away from my home institution because the costs have been prohibitive. However, most institutions offer generous bursaries for postgraduate students, and mine offers travel grants and assistance with research costs, and a combination of these funding opportunities has enabled me to travel to a number of conferences and other events when I needed to.
One advantage of self-funding a research project can be the independence that this brings. I have often heard from fellow research students that as a consequence of receiving funding from this or that organisation or institution they were obliged to use a prescribed methodology or restrict their work to a rigidly defined field. In fairness, this is more often the case for research projects based in the physical or medical sciences rather than the humanities, but being independent of any funding body has meant that I haven’t had to jump through any unwelcome hoops. I have been free to carry out my research in whichever direction my supervisors and I have thought most promising, and according to my own schedule. I have also been free to participate in those projects that I have felt to be most beneficial or those of greatest interest to me personally. Of course, this has meant that I have had to be careful not to get involved in so many additional projects that I have fallen behind on my research, and guidance from supervisors and an awareness of my priorities have been vital here.
When I was rejected for AHRC funding, I was initially concerned that my project would lack the prestige of funded programmes. I worried that not being awarded funding from a recognised funding council might be seen, both by my peers and by myself, as an implicit statement that my research project was of less intrinsic and academic value than projects that were awarded funding. This does seem to be a common concern for new Ph.D. students, but in my experience this is not the case at all.
My concerns were assuaged first by learning more about the way in which the funding councils and university grant their awards, and about the paucity of funds that are available; secondly my worries were alleviated by realising that the breadth of research projects undertaken by Ph.D. students makes any comparison in terms of academic value redundant. Furthermore, no Ph.D. student ever takes funding for granted, from whatever source, and in my experience self-funded students are often accorded a good deal of respect for sticking with their research project despite a lack of funding.
While I have experienced a few difficulties that have arisen from a lack of external funding, these problems have not been insurmountable. If I could go back, I would perhaps think more seriously about a part-time programme rather than full-time, and I would be more careful about balancing additional commitments, but the experience of undertaking a research degree and the opportunities that have opened up to me during the programme have made it more than worthwhile.