Jen Baker (University of Bristol)

calendar-iconI currently dwell in what I suppose is the second year of my Ph.D. in English Literature, at least financially. Although I started in January 2012, my fees for the second year were (and this was not clear when I registered) expected in September 2012. So my first ‘tip’ is: make sure you are clear about when payments are due, even if you start mid-year! I am a full-time student, and I live in rented accommodation with my partner, who relocated with me for the Ph.D. The current Ph.D. cohort in my department is fairly equally divided between those who live in shared housing (this tends to be the younger ones), and some who live with another housemate or a partner.

self_funding2Because I am self-funding,  next to my research I work three days a week during term time as a Student Finance Adviser at a different university, to and from which my total travel time (trains and walking) is about an hour and a half and takes up about a quarter of my pay. The advantage of the job is that overall it is well-paid, part-time, and term-time only, thus giving me some leeway for my research. Yet, it is still a huge drain on my time (and energy). Although my partner works, Bristol is quite an expensive city, and money for conferences and books is something I want and need to earn myself as it just would not be possible to include these expenses in our living costs. I am extremely lucky that my family has banded together for the tuition fees, otherwise I would have considered a bank loan, or I would have reverted to part-time study, or left it a year and perhaps tried another university for scholarships and funding.

The following, I want to make clear, is mostly comprised of my own opinion and based on my specific experience, but I also know that others have a similar outlook.

17585003_mStarting mid-year, I was left off departmental emailing lists for months, despite being a registered student. I was receiving basic university emails until I navigated the complex institutional pages and decided to join a postgraduate reading group. I realised I had missed out on a lot; research seminars, calls for papers, information about funding, and much more. Similarly, unlike the September starters, we were not invited to any sort of welcome event until May when a student suggested it to the Head of Department.

14255080_mI felt, particularly when I started, as if being self-funded could be a disadvantage for future job prospects (I do not have evidence to support this, so please check out the statistics and other people’s experiences), and consequently threw myself into numerous projects: I devised and ran a two-day international conference for academics at any level which has led to editing a potential collection of conference proceedings with a reputable publisher. I am co-founder and Co-chief Editor of a peer-reviewed postgraduate journal for the arts and humanities. I have devised and taught a first-year undergraduate class. I set up an in-house reading group to which postgraduates and external speakers presented. I have presented at three conferences, two symposia/ research seminars, and I am still responding to CFPs for journals and essay collections to try and have something published. It is more than conceivable that I would have been this ridiculously involved had I been awarded a full scholarship, but I still feel I should show future employers that although my project was not deemed either interesting/ in vogue/ serious/ fresh enough (for whatever reason), I have much to offer. I know two fully-funded PhD students who do no other extra projects; they solely concentrate on their research, and maybe having been awarded a scholarship will see them through easily to a career, maybe not. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of my experience so far is that when I reapplied for funding (which could be done within 18 months of starting) I listed all the above and showed the progression of my research and still was not awarded anything.

stick_figure_presenting_stock_increase_400_clrA Ph.D. can be a very lonely time. It is not like undergraduate study or even a Masters, particularly if your course does not involve any compulsory attendance (our research seminars were voluntary for instance). You have to find the time and motivation to join or set up reading groups, or other extra-curricular activities. Living in shared housing may have the advantage of a small community (providing you get on), but for those who have lived and worked outside of academia, if only for a short while, it’s hard to revert to “student” living, especially if you are co-habiting and both enjoy your own space. My experience is that although our department has some money to help towards conferences (which I believe should be only for self-funded students), and budgets for setting up reading groups, you are spending (in the Arts and Humanities) £3,000 – £4,000 a year to see your supervisor about 5 times during that period – perhaps more if you do not also have to work – while having to fight for inter-library loan vouchers and get, if you are lucky, a weekend away in the UK for your holiday.

social-media1Having said all that, I do not believe that I am treated any differently than the fully-funded students in my department, only that I have had to work a lot harder to survive, remain on the course and feel I have an advantage in the job market. I also have thoroughly enjoyed being part of all the projects on which I feel those who are funded but did not get involved have missed out. The knock-backs and subsequent determination to boost my prospects has provided me with so many great new connections and publishing opportunities, and it has stopped the misery I felt in the first few months from not knowing anyone. I cannot deny, however, that now my misery is concerned with money, and having to work three days a week, which I would happily discard to focus on my research if I could.

Stay-positive-700x687My advice? If you are self-funding, you need to get involved, but you also need to be prepared for the hardships, both mentally and financially, that you will face. Keep trying for funding where you can, but research the costs of living and materials and conferences as if you will have no help. Most importantly: chin up and onwards!

Jen Baker

Jen Baker

Jen Baker is currently undertaking a Ph.D. English Literature at the University of Bristol. Her research charts the literary and cultural genealogy of the ‘Monstrous Child’. She is Co-Chief Editor of HARTS & Minds postgraduate journal, and you can find her profile on Academia.edu.

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6 Responses

  1. Kathryn says:

    “Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of my experience so far is that when I reapplied for funding (which could be done within 18 months of starting) I listed all the above and showed the progression of my research and still was not awarded anything.”

    Oh, goodness, this has happened to me twice now, and it really resonates. Taking so much time and emotional energy to apply for funding only to be turned down twice and given no reason is pretty heartbreaking.

    I have also been ‘over-achieving’ in professional development stakes, as being part-time and self-funded I am really concerned that this will have a hugely negative effect on my job applications. I don’t have any evidence for this either, but it is a niggling worry. I wonder if anyone has any evidence for or against this?

  2. T. says:

    Hi Jen!
    It was great to read this as I think we’re in very similar situations… I too live in one of the UK’s most expensive cities and am doing a full-time, self-funded Literature PhD. The difference is that my partner cannot work due to health reasons and cannot claim housing support due to us losing our flat if he does! As a result I work in several admin roles for the university on top of tutoring and still have to beg family to help with tuition fees.
    The second time I was turned down for an AHRC scholarship the school was kind enough to offer a reason: “For your information, all successful candidates for the award had obtained a First Class result in their undergraduate degree and a Distinction result at Masters level.” So it didn’t matter, the topic I chose to be current and “impact”-ful, the reading group I started, the international journal I review for, the article published in my first year, the largest conference in my field I’m presenting to, nothing mattered at all… I just couldn’t believe PhD funding was resting entirely on whether or not I got a 70% at this exam on Wordsworth 6 years ago!
    Yes it’s hard, and yes, I’m jealous of the fully-funded ones who can afford to work on their thesis while I push paper for minimum wage, but at the end of it all I’m hoping to gain useful skills and show employers that I can manage with multitasking and challenges. The only problem is, I’m not sure I can anymore.

    • Jen says:

      Hi T,

      Thanks for sharing your experience, which certainly makes mine seem much easier, but I guess as with all of us it’s a matter of perspective. I was never offered feedback for my applications, however even with the feedback they gave you – if that was the criteria then why not state that in the first place?! It is a very unfair system that needs overhauling so we feel as if we know what criteria we are responding to, for it comes across as if it is the whims and fancies of the individual University and board.

      Before I even started I had come across people who had given up PhD’s for various reasons. I can appreciate that people decide researching, lecturing etc is not for them and they fall in love with a different career, but when it comes down to money that is the hardest to accept. I really hope you find a way, even if it is taking a “year out” (deferring is an option) or going part time, because if it is still something you love, despite the financial hardships, it is worth pursuing every avenue. Or at least so we are told in the blogs by those who have survived it.
      If you ever wish to talk outside of here academically or otherwise please do get in touch 🙂
      Jen

  3. Sarah Pett says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing your experience. Really shocking to hear that you were left off departmental mailing lists, and sad about your funding reapplication. It sounds like you are incredibly committed and valuable member of your department, and I hope they can find some way of recognising that.

    My PhD was funded by the AHRC, and although I feel guilty saying it, I have found it difficult to survive financially – I can’t imagine what it must be like to be self-funded. I know that funding makes a crucial difference and don’t want to belittle that, but many of the things you have highlighted affect PGRs across the board, especially when it comes to living arrangements, conferences, and holidays, which are crucial for wellbeing and stamina throughout the degree. It really worries me that, at most institutions, funding for PhDs hasn’t increased since I began in 2009, in spite of inflation. Also, while I appreciate your views on ringfencing conference funding for self-funded students, at the end of my first year I (and all other AHRC funded students) were informed that we were no longer eligible for the individual conference funding advertised when we applied, and that this would instead be pooled by the department for all PGRs – leaving many students committed to attending conferences for which they were no longer going to be funded. Though funding is supposed to provide a level of security, the terms and conditions of funding can change suddenly and without warning.

    I feel we are fast approaching a situation in which funding is becoming materially meaningless, with the result that nominally full-time, fully funded students are, for most of their degree, effectively part-time, part-funded students. Yes, it is a marker of prestige, although for perhaps dubious reasons (I was never interviewed, which I strongly feel should be part of the process and so am often racked with insecurity, feeling that it should have gone to someone else). It also acts as an official mark of approval for a project, although again the application process is so superficial that this can compound, rather than combat, impostor syndrome. However, if it doesn’t mean that you can actually focus on full-time research while being able to afford reasonable accommodation and to take some time off, it becomes primarily symbolic, and creates a whole host of problems which often only become apparent later on down the line. Not least of these problems is the division funding creates between those who have and those who don’t, fragmenting a PGR community that should be joining together to advocate for better conditions all round.

    On a broader level, this has serious implications for the future (current?) demographic of HE professionals in the UK, privileging those who have parents or a partner who can provide some level of financial help. I acknowledge that I and most of my cohort are “beneficiaries” of this, and that we are to a degree complicit in perpetuating this inequality. This is one of the things that drives me to stay in HE: to advocate for change. However, at this point I am in significant debt to my family, fed up with struggling to live on less than I had as an undergraduate, and worried that my relationship won’t survive either my need to relocate to find work or my inability to financially contribute. So I can’t help but balk at the prospect of following the arduous and financially debilitating apprenticeship of a PhD with a year (or more) of stressful, badly paid teaching and admin jobs in the quest for a postdoc or lectureship, and ultimately for the authority to be able to drive change through. I’m sure I’m not the only in this position! Funding needs to be of a level on which a single person can live with a basic degree of comfort and stability for the time realistically required to complete a PhD, and there needs to be far more support–both financial and otherwise–for those who choose to undertake a PhD without. As it stands, the precarious existence of the vast majority of PGRs, both funded and unfunded, is a huge threat to the future of HE in the UK.

    • Jen says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Thank you for your response! I think although this blog is an excellent way for us self-funded and/or part-time students to vent our frustrations, it does have the negative aspects which is firstly, that it can come across as if we resent our funded colleagues and as you say cause a division. I certainly hope to dispel that impression a little, especially to other readers.

      It is great to hear your views particularly because my funded colleagues, from various disciplines, are very reserved and hesitant to discuss anything to do with their funding (whilst many of us self-funded are at times one step away from pulling out our bank statements to prove how poor we are). I believe they are hesitant for this very reason, that as you say, they feel guilty.

      It is definitely a problem across the board, and I definitely agree we should all be interviewed if we apply for funding, and that I feel that it should not just be the topic, but particularly in a reapplication, should be about how far you have gone to improve your professional development that aids your application. It seems to me we have exactly the same problems both financially and in terms of our day-to-day living, the only difference is you have the guilt of having the money and I have the bitterness of not receiving any, which certainly does not make for a positive PhD experience. I am starting to realise why so many of the PhD-ers who started before me are (in my eyes) dragging out their thesis as long as possible, because they too do not want to face what the aftermath means.

      Some people are extremely lucky and they get a break. As much as I have moaned in my post, I cannot complain at opportunity, I was offered two classes of teaching this coming academic year, when most people get one. I am part of a fantastic journal with an ever expanding board and audience, I have now had two book chapter proposals accepted (taken on too much, moi?!) but none of this excellent news has changed what has been one of the hardest years of my life both emotionally and for my relationship. My partner has now had a break and got a well paid, secure job and we breathe a sigh of relief. And actually maybe now we will be slightly better off than my funded counterparts.

      There certainly needs to be an overhaul, and a better spread of money, every student should get some form of help, even if it is say £100 a year towards materials. If anyone knows of particular, productive groups (not just discussion groups_ regarding PG funding nationally please do pass on details.

      Thanks again Sarah, I wish you all the best with your PhD, and please do check out my journal http://www.harts-minds.co.uk either to submit an article or be a peer reviewer for us 🙂

      Best
      Jen

  1. 14/01/2014

    […] via Jen Baker, University of Bristol. […]

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