Until I saw my name appear on my supervisor’s homepage with the phrase ‘self-funded’ beside it, I did not realize this fact could be used as a meaningful description for any doctoral student. Then I noticed that most of the other students on the list, particularly international Ph.D. students, seemed to have some kind of full or partial funding. In addition, fewer students appeared to be part-time, another identifier I then did not realize had any implication for my research. However, now that I have been a part-time, self-funded student in the UK for a while, I realize perhaps these terms are not as trivial as I thought they might be three years ago.
I must admit I have been privileged to acquire funding for my higher education until my Masters degree. I completed my undergraduate degree in Canada and a taught Masters in the UK with institutional scholarships. Unfortunately, when it came to my Ph.D., I had a limited choice of universities to which I could apply due to a lack of academics with an expertise on gender in South Asian countries, especially someone with an expertise on urban, middle-class and highly-educated communities in the region. Unfortunately, most research on gender in developing countries like Bangladesh is targeted towards the rural and urban poor communities, and I wish to break away from this dominant theme of research targeting an entirely different group in my Ph.D. Moreover, as an international student I am only eligible for a limited amount of funding, unlike most UK or EU students.
Being newly married to another Ph.D. student who was partially funded meant the best we could do was to at least go to universities in the same region, if not in the same city, to be able to reduce our expenses. Finally ending all dilemmas, I decided to attend the same university as my partner, having found two very suitable supervisors who also made provisions for me to do some teaching for the department, so I could earn my educational expenses.
I then became part of an arrangement which NGOs in my part of the world call an ‘education for work’ program. This essentially means I work for the department in which I am doing my Ph.D., and my earnings contribute to my own tuition fees. My teaching, though rewarding in many ways, does not cover my international fees and living expenses, and thus I had to take up two additional jobs. I must admit, my supervisors played a very important role in helping me acquire as much financial support as possible from both the university (through teaching work) and other sources (through including me in their own research projects). Fortunately, I have survived pretty well with three jobs (occasionally four) and my Ph.D. research. Having my husband with me of course also helped, particularly in terms of moral and emotional support when I needed it in this hectic lifestyle.
Occasionally I do wish I had better funding so I did not have to do so many other things and could indulge in more intellectual activities to build a reputation in my area of research, which is essential for an academic career. However, being part-time helped me progress in my research at an adequate pace, carry out my field work overseas for an extended time, take time to understand an area of study to which I am fairly new, and at the same time keep up with my non academic commitments. I highly appreciate the flexibility and unhurried nature of part-time Ph.D. research. Especially for researchers like me, who are venturing into an area of research as yet unknown to them, as well as an area on which little research has been done previously.
My optimistic attitude does not, however, mean there are no unreasonable policies for part-time students in UK universities, such as us receiving half the amount of conference funding each year! Surely part-time and full-time students want go to the same conferences, pay the same amount of registration fees and travel expenses? I still do not understand how a part-time student is then expected to cover their conference expenses with half the amount provided for a full-time student? Some departments also have funds for field work, which again vary for part-time and full-time students. For me it’s even worse as I have to travel across the world to Bangladesh for my field work, with less money than those who study full-time and do their field work either within the UK or in European countries at a much lower cost. This means I have to pay for my field work from my own income, whereas other students of the department get their expenses fully covered. Clearly such allocations of financial support should be based on student needs as opposed to their registration status at the university.
Personally and professionally I am quite satisfied with my part-time status and have come to make peace with the fact that there are limited amounts of funding for international students, especially those who study unconventional topics. However, I must mention that I have noticed that other students are quite taken aback with my self-funded, part-time status. To some it indicates that my research is not worth funding by any relevant organization and institute, while to others my work appears less important than theirs. I have noticed this attitude more prominently among the international students from developing countries. It is understandable that many Ph.D. students from developing countries have to go through intense competition to acquire funding for their research degrees abroad. Moreover, funding from local governments to pursue a research degree in a Western country is fairly limited compared to the number of such scholarships available for taught Masters degrees. Thus, to those who have survived this rigorous selection process and managed to come to a reputed university abroad, self-funded students from their countries may appear to have put up with fewer struggles and thus somehow appear to be privileged in a negative way. It is negative, as their research did not receive scrutiny by expert bodies and, thus, there is seemingly no proof of how meaningful their research is.
During the first year of my doctoral studies, I noticed the same group of international students refer to my research load as insignificant compared to that of full-time students. They thought being part- time meant my priority is not my research, and I have plenty of time to do other things, something which they lacked. This is possibly because back home part-time status is quite uncommon for any degree and only women tend to study part-time to be able to meet other household commitments. So it was assumed that I was also a regular homemaker, accompanying my husband to the UK, and in the meantime acquiring a research degree on the side!
I would like to end by admitting that even I have become somewhat defensive in my position as an ‘education for work’, part-time Ph.D. student. Especially when socializing with fellow countrymen and women, I often feel the need of hiding my status due to my fear of being judged negatively by them. This is mostly because I worry that my area of work would go unacknowledged if it was compared to research funded by a renowned organization. Equally, I fear that my going to a reputable university and researching under the supervision of two excellent academics would remain unappreciated only because I do not have full funding and do not study full-time.