I started writing this while I was waiting to hear about the outcome of my applications for Ph.D. funding. There were many emails pinging back and forth – I was being told how strong my project is, how well suited I am to it, how enthusiastic the department are about me, how well I fit into both the department and the university. It’s exciting. But I’d heard this before, from my current institution. I’ve had people tell me my project is a winning proposal only not to be put forward for the funding after all. I was making preparations for studying and working – thinking how I’d do my field work, manage my time, and successfully integrate into a department whilst working full-time.
As a current self-funding (Master’s) student the prospect of continuing this way felt onerous and heavy. I experienced the anxiety of it as a palpable, physical pressure exerting itself over the whole of me. I knew I had to keep going, but I wasn’t sure how. Then I was told by my top choice university that I’d won an ESRC award for the 3 years of my Ph.D. So my first piece of encouragement is that it’s never over: if you want (or need!) funding, keep plugging away at it. Not every project will be suitable for every department or institution; a lot of it is about fit. A rejection from one university doesn’t mean automatic rejection across the board. Spend time finding your intellectual home and listen to the recommendations of others. Remember that you can reapply during your Ph.D., and you’re not limited to applying to your current institution.
I want to be realistic in my assessment of self-funding, and I certainly don’t want to make it seem easy. I feel incredibly privileged and, frankly, lucky, to have won Ph.D. funding. I’m still convinced they’re going to take it away from me. Conversely, I think self-funding – especially for a Master’s – can be a sensible, practical choice. I’m currently self-funding my MRes in Sociology and Research Methods. It was a pragmatic decision: if you want to stand a chance of getting ESRC funding for your sociology Ph.D. then you need an ESRC approved Master’s. For sheer just-getting-it-done logic, a year of hell (and it often has been hell) is doable. For me, many of the problems I encountered were practical – being on a taught course and fitting employment around midday classes is tough; not ever having a day off because you need to write every weekend is tough; having no money because you’re paying fees, keeping a flat and trying to feed yourself on a part-time salary is tough. More than this, I found myself envious of others’ free time – of friends who didn’t have to work and were able to do so much more reading than me, or able to go out after class because they didn’t have to grab writing time wherever they could. I’ve made some excellent friends during my Master’s, but I’m not going to lie, I have on occasion resented their freedom. I think this disparity is something to be aware of, and it’s not always about funded versus self-funded; sometimes it’s simply about the differences in how people are able to self-fund.
This isn’t to say that everything about self-funding a Master’s is a trial. For a start, there’s no shame in it: I’m aware that there’s a perception that being self-funded for a Ph.D. is somehow a marker of lacking prestige or value. This is clearly a ridiculous thing to think about self-funded students at all, but fortunately it doesn’t particularly carry over into Master’s study. The occasional student will have 1+3 funding, but it’s rare. You’re likely to find yourself among people in similar situations to you regarding ‘status’. It’s also an excellent preparation for Ph.D. study: I’m relieved to have ticked the box marked ‘methods courses’ before beginning my thesis, and my Ph.D. idea was significantly shaped by an early core module on social theory. Moreover,
I met people during the course that have exposed me to completely new perspectives, and their influence is now tangible in my work. I’ve seen so many inspirational studies taking place, attended talks on sociology well outside my research area and have seen some beautiful and important Ph.D. proposals developed by friends. Don’t underestimate the value of this to your progression as an academic, and as a human, too. I’d have never written my successful Ph.D. proposal without the experiences of my MRes.
I want to end this by highlighting what I see as some oddities of the funding/self-funding opposition and offering some practical tips on being self-funded. I’d like to tackle the assumption that it’s automatically better to have funding than to not have it. My anecdotal evidence tells me that many friends have thoroughly enjoyed their self-funded Ph.D. There’s a level of autonomy that just isn’t available when you’re answerable to a funding body.
To end, here are my tips for surviving as a self-funded Master’s student:
2) Listen to other people’s experiences: know that you’re not alone and cherry-pick and emulate their survival strategies.
3) Get out there and present your work somewhere: remind yourself that you’re doing something valuable and worthwhile. Positive feedback from conference presentations really helped me to keep in mind that people care about my work.
4) Map out your academic work and employment: know when you can write your essays, take chunks of holiday, and just use it to be a ‘proper’ student. This has been essential to me in managing my stress and anxiety.
5) As far as possible, try to join in with things in your department. Be visible. Do extra-curricular things. Not only will this enhance your experience generally but if you’re struggling to maintain your identity as an academic whilst working in a non-academic job it will also really help keep you positive.
6) More than anything, no matter what degree you’re self-funding, remember that what you’re doing is contributing to academic knowledge; you’re doing it for a reason – keep that reason in mind.