Last spring, I sat down to blog about my experiences as a self-funded PhD student. In a fit of metatextuality, I want to compare and contrast the frame of mind I was in then with the position I am in now. Difficult decisions have been made, demands on my time and mental health are often overwhelming, but I can now look back on this rather more maudlin perspective, and frame it as positive.
Here begins the excerpt:
Perhaps the best example of what life as a self-funded postgraduate is like comes from real life: when I saw Nadine’s tweet about the opportunity to share my experiences, I jumped at the chance. That was on the 27th of March 2013. Today it is the 26th of June 2013, and I have only just found the time, confidence and space to sit down and contribute my thoughts. My use of ‘space’ here denotes not only the physical space at my desk, but also the mental and emotional space needed to objectively write about what is effectively my day-to-day life.
Time is a commodity that both fully-funded PhD students and their self-funded counterparts feel is precious. Confidence is also something that is useful to both – I would argue it is both utterly integral to the self-funder, yet also entirely elusive.
I would be lying if I said that the self-funded experience is one that is ultimately happy or easy. As I see them, the key positive factors are as follows, replete with my instant abnegation.
We do not have to adhere to the strict remit and demands of an outside funding body, thus allowing us freedom that we would otherwise be denied. I have yet to meet a humanities graduate whose funding body participated actively in shaping their rubric and/or altering their final project.
We learn life skills, such as budgeting, time management and arguably, a sense of responsibility that would not be necessary were we in receipt of full funding. I have yet to see this as anything other than a statement of something that unavoidably happens in life, rather than something which fully-funded students would envy.
We follow our career paths because we truly want to, rather than because we simply can. This is a key point which I will return to – this drive to achieve what we so deeply wish, at any cost, can be the most thrilling and the most devastating aspect of the self-funded psyche.
When we say self-funded, we are talking about a vast range of options. Some may find full parental support, some may find none. I myself am in the middle ground, cards on the table: I receive enough charitable bequests each year to cover two thirds of my already subsidised fees, at best. I work at least one job year round, and at times I take on additional work to supplement this minimum wage income. I have a generous mother who assists me with my rent each month, and a partner who is earning a low yearly salary and is infinitely understanding of my precarious financial position. My student loan from my undergraduate years is outstanding, my overdraft swollen and nearing the end of its precious student status.
By no means am I the worst off. Conversely, by no means am I the most fortunate.
Indeed it was terrifying, and it is probably unsurprising to many that I am now a part-time student. Many factors contributed to this decision, and it was far from easy. There exists to this day a prejudice about the part-time lifestyle, particularly in the fiercely competitive job market, where zero-hours contracts pit intellectual against intellectual for a share of the limited teaching. It is a prejudice I’m aware of, one that I disagree with, but one that I live with. I have given up on the notion of a full-time academic job, like so many of my peers, but at my strongest, I hope to utilise my part-time status to my ultimate advantage.
In many ways I am lucky: I have secured a contracted position at my job, which allows me the lucrative prospect of guaranteed hours and work perks. My mental health is vastly improved: following a suspension of studies last summer, the movement to part-time has released a lot of the anxiety and tension I felt at the sheer magnitude of the project and the limitations on my time. I enjoy my job, unrelated to my thesis though it is, and I relish the prospect of paid holiday, Christmas bonus and practical professional development. Last semester, I was lucky enough to submit a successful application to my university’s hardship fund, which further helped remedy my finances. I was horrified to discover that last month’s payslip saw me unwittingly place my first futile £11 back into my student loan. (The irony of repaying this, whilst still paying through the nose for my postgraduate degree was not lost.)
Yet there remain doubts. My ‘paid holidays’ are taken up with conferences that are still hard to afford, even with a regular wage and the aforementioned bequests. I am permanently tired, with a nagging sense that I should be doing something other than what I am – at university, I should be at work, and at work, I should be studying. A sense that I am subordinate to other full-time postgraduates slinks along behind me, and the anxiety of whether or not I have made the right choice is not a worry I can always dismiss readily. The worries I wrote about last year, and the sense that I have no right to be here because nobody is financially backing me, are still prevalent. Even now, I still don’t believe it’s impossible to be a full-time self-funded PhD student – I just believe that I wasn’t capable of it, for a number of reasons. This is something I still struggle with.
One of the things I feel most passionately about, given my own experience, is the necessity of talking about these issues that postgraduates face: financial hardship, mental health worries, impostor syndrome, time management and the juggling act of all of these. A friend and I had spoken about these issues so often, that we decided to put our plans into action – we formed the project ‘No More Blue Mondays’ and held our first workshop in January this year. We are now looking towards our second instalment, aimed at new postgraduate researchers in the school and the challenges they may face. The current Zeitgeist of interest in mental health issues, propelled by stimulating articles from the Guardian, and blogs such as Nadine’s, is very valuable. It’s breaking down the barriers that prevent people from progressing on with research, and encouraging a dialogue about what has often been an unspoken burden.
NMBM aims to envelop this, and provide a forum for researchers to air their concerns and share their experiences. We hope the project will grow well beyond its current institutional purview, and encompass other universities and departments. For now, we will fight the good fight on our home turf and promote awareness in the best ways we can. For me, at my strongest, that’s definitely something positive to which to hold on.