Proof: I self-funded a full-time Ph.D. in Classics at the University of Nottingham, was awarded a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome, worked as a temporary Associate University Teacher in Roman Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, and have just taken up a permanent position as Lecturer in Classics at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Saying that, it was by no means easy.
I hadn’t planned to do a self-funded Ph.D. I actually hadn’t planned to do a Ph.D. at all. But after several years of mind-numbing and soul-destroying temping, I realised that I wanted to work in history and/or archaeology, and a Ph.D. would be necessary. I had some savings from several years of full-time work, and a partner who was not only gainfully employed but also very supportive. Our plan was that we would live together and his wages would maintain us both. Initially, our plan worked perfectly, but then, halfway through my first year, my partner was made redundant. He managed to get another job eventually, but the damage was done. My savings were gone, we were both in debt, and we were living in separate places, so spending twice as much as we had been previously.
In some respects I was lucky. I received nothing but advice, assistance, and support from my Ph.D. supervisors (Dr Mark Bradley and Dr Doug Lee). My department offered me a fee waiver. I was able to work fairly consistently as a postgraduate teaching assistant during term time. And I managed to serve as a residential tutor in one of the university’s halls and live in subsidised accommodation all year round.
However, it’s all the additional expenditure that proves so difficult to anticipate and manage, such as finally having to replace your antiquated laptop, wanting to go to an important conference or on a research trip, or having to pay for permission to use photographs in a publication. It’s depressing to have to consider the cost of everything first and foremost, as if that is the only thing that matters, with the short-term financial implications of paying for something beating the long-term professional development implications of doing it.
I do feel that I wasn’t free to take advantage of all the opportunities that came my way, and that my Ph.D. was one long compromise. Yet you can grit your teeth, and grin and bear the practical aspects of self-funding a Ph.D., however unpleasant, because it is, after all, a relatively short period of your life in the grand scheme of things, and as soon as you receive your first proper academic pay cheque your financial problems will be considerably alleviated, if not over entirely. It’s actually the emotional aspects of the whole process that are the hardest to bear, and these could be considerably lessened if universities were to offer more in the way of financial, logistical, and practical support.
I would be lying if I said I’d never wondered if I was wasting my time, if I was being self-indulgent and snobbish. After all, what’s so very wrong with being a receptionist? My supervisors assured me my work was good and that I was going to be a success. I was so keen to live up to their expectations, to prove them right (and to prove wrong all the places that had rejected my applications for funding), that I made a concerted effort to participate in events, present conference papers, and (perhaps most importantly) have articles accepted for publication by peer-reviewed academic journals. Would I have been so keen if I’d been funded? Perhaps not, but now, in addition to the monograph based on my thesis, I have a selection of articles that can be submitted to the REF 2014, although as an ECR who was awarded her Ph.D. at the end of 2011, I only need one.
I worried that since Ph.D. funding generally begets post-doc funding, I would never get any funding at all, but I tried to circumvent this by being creative and applying for every small grants scheme that I could find. I ended up having a very high success rate. Again, would I have gone to so much trouble if I’d been fully funded? Probably not, and while I certainly started off using standard funding databases, I found far more simply by googling every permeation of my topic I could think of in conjunction with the words ‘Ph.D. funding’ ‘research grant’, ‘small grant’, etc. It was incredibly time consuming, and usually something I did for the last hour of every working day, but well worth it in the end. The section of my CV that lists prizes and grants awarded is half a page long, and I was awarded a post-doc in the end.
My biggest fear was that the whole process was turning me into a rather embittered person, and this bitterness was only exacerbated by a sense of alienation. Generally, people just don’t want to know about, let alone try to sympathise or even empathise with, your first-world problems. Your family members don’t understand why reading books takes such a mental, emotional, and financial toll on you. Your friends think it’s funny that a fire alarm woke you up at 4AM when you had a class to teach at 9AM, or a drunk student vomited on your feet. It can also be extremely frustrating when your fully-funded peers complain about not having any money, but when you make what you think are helpful suggestions regarding how they could cut costs, based on your own experiences, they tell you that they deserve to live in a luxury flat, have a gym membership, and go down to London for a big night out once a month because they work so hard, or they tell you that, thanks to their parents paying for everything in years one to three, they are saving their monthly maintenance allowance to pay for their unfunded fourth year or their extensive research trips abroad. I’m not exaggerating, these conversations did actually happen, and it’s very hard to nod and smile while inwardly gnawing on your own liver, but in time you will acquire an excellent poker face.
I went into my Ph.D. with what I thought was the perfect plan, and events far beyond my control conspired against me at what seemed like every single turn, yet I learned a hell of a lot, and not just about my chosen subject, in the process. Ultimately, I succeeded and I have no doubt that you can too, if you genuinely love your subject, are completely and utterly determined, and have a plan A through Z, just in case.