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 by Chris Garfield
, posted on 23 Nov '17

Should You Self-Fund a PhD? - Thoughts and Considerations

Self-funding all or part of a PhD can be relatively common in some fields, but it's important to go into the process with your eyes open. In this guest post, Chris Garfield offers his perspective on the issues students should considering before committing to covering the costs of their own doctorate.

You’ll probably have noticed that websites like Find A PhD list plenty of PhD projects for self-funded students. And many people do study in this way.

But is it a good idea to pay for a doctorate yourself? Is the burning desire to gain an additional qualification (and be able to call yourself “doctor”) worth the obvious financial drawbacks faced by self-funded postgraduates?

My own insight on the matter comes from a lot of work, which helped me get into a funded PhD programme. I then tried to help other people do the same, University classmates initially and information-hungry prospective students over the internet in the long-term. Not surprisingly, dilemmas regarding self-funding arise frequently when talking to these students.

In order to help with this dilemma, my advice is always the same: You would be wise to think long and carefully before embarking on a project like this.

I’m going to explain why in this post.

The practical aspects: what’s it going to cost?

Let’s take a realistic look at the economics of paying for your own PhD: You’ll need to set aside money for:

  • Tuition & research fees
  • Living costs

How much will these be? Calculating the exact cost of a PhD is tricky, but we can probably estimate the following rough figures for students in the UK:

  • Tuition fees in the UK: 5,000 pounds/year*
  • Living costs in the UK: 15,000 pounds/year

*This is a guideline for UK / EU students. International fees will usually be higher.

So at a fairly conservative estimate, 3 years of PhD study, could set you back around £60,000. The question now is how you’re going to pay for it.

On top of this, a hidden 'cost' that can easily be overlooked is the increased salary that 3+ years of active employment could have offered you. Whether the PhD itself will eventually count as work experience after graduation depends on your individual case. You will find some tips on this below.

Taking a loan: is it feasible?

So, the ‘bad’ news is that a 3-year self-funded PhD will set you back several thousand pounds. But for the determined ones, the ‘good’ news is that the UK is introducing new doctoral loans, also worth several thousand pounds.

Which then begs the question; do the benefits of the degree outweigh the drawbacks of a significant amount of student debt? Let’s take a look.

A reasonable argument is that by taking a loan you will be investing in yourself. Later, this can lead to increasing your market value after you graduate.

The counter-argument is that there are other skills you can acquire to raise your intrinsic value, which are easier and far less stressful than doing a PhD and accumulating debt.

But, in either case, will a PhD realistically result in a higher salary?

It depends on your discipline, but some data is available and I would recommend doing your own research on the matter. Compare the salaries for entry-level positions for Bsc / Masters / PhD holders in your discipline. This should give you an idea whether a higher salary later on can help you offset a loan (or whether you'll enter repayments).

One thing to bear in mind with PhD loans is that the £25,000 you can borrow is a lot less than the £60,000 or so it could cost you to actually get through a PhD. It’s important to bear that in mind. The reality is that a PhD loan may need to be topped-up with other funding, or supplemented with additional money of your own.

A PhD loan will obviously help you make it through a doctorate (and the money you borrow is only repaid when you’re earning enough) but, on its own, it’s not a full-funding solution.

What about working?

One way to top-up a PhD loan (or other partial funding) is to work alongside your PhD.

Let’s say you’re a keen, highly-motivated student (as I once was!). You might feel you can handle a part-time job alongside your research.

While I believe nothing is impossible, this may be close to it. For many students a full-time PhD is a full-time job – and then some. Obviously, a part-time PhD is different and exists largely for the purpose of working part-time.

You may well find yourself working at least 40 hours a week. In some fields, or during very busy periods, you may be looking at 50-60 hours a week. So, I would urge you to be cautious and consider taking extra work only after you find out what your PhD workload will be.

This isn’t to say you can’t work during a PhD (many students do). But, like a loan, this isn’t a simple solution to paying for a PhD.

Will a self-funded PhD harm your employability?

On the plus side, funding your research yourself will most likely have no impact on your employability.

Some people may argue that it looks bad on your CV and will hinder your efforts to find employment after you finish. My view is that if you have done well and have had a productive PhD, the funding details shouldn’t matter.

It’s true that securing funding for your doctorate can showcase that you possess desirable qualities (some funders, like the UK Research Councils only support the most promising students).

But, if your PhD itself is good enough (and appropriate to the position you’re applying for) the funding it did (or didn’t) receive may be comparatively insignificant.

Of course, all of this assumes that you’ve succeeded in earning a high quality (and relevant) doctorate. If you don’t have a lot to show to your potential employer, a self-funded PhD might exacerbate an otherwise weak CV.

What if you're determined to do a self-funded PhD? Or there's no other option?

This post isn’t designed to completely dissuade you from self-funding a PhD. But hopefully it’s convinced you that the decision to do so shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Self-funding can (and probably will) make a PhD more challenging. And you should be aware of that.

But there are some students for whom this is less of an issue:

  • You have a wealthy family who are willing and able to support you through your PhD.
  • You possess a different source of your own, steady income and want to earn a doctorate for your own satisfaction and intellectual fulfilment. (This can actually be a great reason to study for a PhD).
  • You are absolutely, totally, and utterly in love with only this particular PhD project. In my experience, the only way to be so sure about a project is to have experience in a similar area. Otherwise, you might be setting yourself up for trouble when later you will find that the project isn’t quite what you thought it would be.

If these apply to you, then self-funding may be worth considering.

Closing thoughts

I am fully aware that my advice may be disappointing for some readers. However, this can be the reality of the modern-day self-funded PhD and you should have all the information, discouraging as some of it may be, before deciding.

If you choose to go for fully-funded research only, there are some great projects out there and I would recommend you invest your time in figuring out how to successfully apply for one of them.

Ultimately the choice is yours and I truly wish that you will make the best one for you, then go on to work hard and produce something excellent out of it.

About the author: Chris Garfield is a current PhD student who also maintains a personal blog. There he offers his own perspective on postgraduate research, including advice on whether studying for a PhD is right for you.

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