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What I've Learned About Self-Funding a PhD

Christopher Aris is a Dental Anthropology PhD student. In this blog he shares his perspective as a self-funding student, offering some tips, pros and cons for people are thinking of self-funding their PhD.

My academic path began in 2012 when I read for a BSc in Biological Anthropology at the University of Kent. After graduating I studied for an MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology in Sheffield, before returning to Kent and beginning my PhD in 2015. Between taking no breaks between degrees, working multiple jobs, and maintaining a long-distance relationship, the last 5-6 years have been rather hectic.

Applying for and subsequently starting my PhD was no exception. The process of submitting my MSc thesis, presenting my results at my first conference, moving home from Sheffield, and being accepted on my current PhD, all happened over a 4-week period.

My decision to self-fund

All of this meant I would be starting my PhD long after funding deadlines had passed. So, if I wanted to accept my place I faced the prospect of self-funding my PhD. This is ultimately what I ended up doing.

As a result, I have now been self-funding my research for nearly a year and a half. Here I will present what I’ve learned, along with a few pros and cons of this approach to a PhD (yes, surprisingly, there are some advantages to self-funding!).

My tips for self-funding a PhD

The following are three (but by no means non-exhaustive) pieces of advice for anyone thinking about self-funding a PhD. I appreciate that my thoughts may not directly translate to all fields, but I will do my best to generalise, while keeping tips as useful as possible.

Consider your location

After a year and a half of self-funding I can tell you the biggest killer in terms of finances is rent. Home fees for PhD tuition in the UK are actually relatively cheap (at least compared to undergraduate study) but they aren’t all you have to pay.

So, when thinking about where you can study, don’t just factor in the university. Yes, ideally you’ll study at the best of the best institution, but take a moment to consider whether suitable departments and academics are available near home.

University ranking aren’t everything. If there is someone enthusiastic and well-established nearby, take a moment to consider commuting to cut down rent costs (although this does require a generous parental situation).

Ultimately a PhD is a PhD, even if it’s not from Oxbridge.

Don't compare yourself to others

At some point during a self-funded PhD, you may feel like comparing yourself to fully-funded students, or worry that they might be looking down on you. Avoid this. There are a multitude of reasons for needing to self-fund, and none of these make you any less skilled at research.

Ultimately no supervisor will take on a PhD student who isn’t capable of completing their studies and who won’t cut it as a researcher. They stand to gain nothing from you failing and dropping out, so if they offer you a place then you are just as good as any other PhD candidate.

Pros and cons

Now I’ve presented some general tips for prospective self-funders, I’d like to share some of the pros and cons I’ve identified to bear in mind when thinking about self-funding:

Pro #1 – “Begging” rights

In my own personal experience, reminding institutions that I’m self-funded has helped me receive conference bursaries, moved me to the top of the list for extra paid teaching, and even got some rather considerable bench fees voided.

At the end of the day you might not have a large amount of funding money at your disposal, but being self-funded might just help make some costs that come with a PhD go away. If you’re willing to “beg” a little that is.

Pro #2 – Increased freedom

PhD funding is attractive, but it can come with a lot of strings attached. These can take the form of crazy teaching hours, regular mandatory events, etc.

While I’m sure everyone is willing to deal with these in order to get funding, it’s important to remember that if you self-fund these obligations disappear. This leaves more time for research, conferences, paper writing, and maybe even a little bit of a social life.

Pro #3 – Dropping out

Speaking of strings attached. I won’t spend too much time on this as I’d rather keep this article as positive as possible. But if you’re funded and drop out you could end up having to satisfy a disappointed funding body (and likely had to repay some of the money you have received). However, if you drop out while self-funded that isn’t a problem.

Con #1 – You’re not funded

It may sound stupid and obvious but if you’re self-funding you lose a certain safety net. Without funding to bail you out, those moments when things go wrong (flashback to my car breaking down on the way to a conference last year) can be exponentially worse.

Con #2 – Reliance on loans and/or teaching

Self-funding often means relying on other sources of income or support during your degree. While there are plenty of options open to PhD student, these can add to your workload (and by association your stress levels). Teaching is a common option and is often paid rather well (c.£15-20/hour). However, teaching regularly comes with prep and marking, both of which can take up a heavy chunk of your valuable time.

Final thoughts

There’s no denying that self-funding a PhD is difficult: theoretically, logistically, and in practice. However, if you take your time, weigh up your options, and ultimately decide it’s the right choice for you, then it can work. I myself am proof of that, as are the multiple successful self-funded PhD students (and PhD graduates) I have met on the conference circuit.

Editor's noteThis post was previously published on 15/02/18. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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Last Updated: 25 July 2019