Paying for a PhD – The Cost of Self Funding |
Posted on 5 Jul '18

Paying for a PhD – The Cost of Self Funding

First of all, a little about me: I’m a part-time PhD student, I’m five years into my project, I’m hoping to submit in my sixth year. And I’m self-funded.

The five years of my project have brought many challenges (as any PhD does). Some of these are specific to my situation as a self-funding student. I’d like to share my experiences with you: introducing some of the things which actually need to be paid for during a PhD, explaining how I’ve been doing that, and saying a little about the impact my self-funding status has had on my personal development.

Counting the costs

Self-funding a PhD comes with several costs, some obvious and others not so much.

Course costs

First and most obvious: tuition fees. Yes, we postgrads have them too! PhD fees are not nearly as high as those for undergraduates, coming in around £4,000 per academic year. You will be able to earn enough to cover these during a PhD, but that’ll leave a dent in both your income and time.

As a part-time student, my fees were essentially halved. This was good but, still, trying to accumulate enough income to pay for the necessities makes that extra £2,000 for tuition a bit more cumbersome.


Secondly: rent. As an undergraduate in the UK, you may not have worried too much about rent, particularly if you had access to subsidised student halls and / or a maintenance loan to help cover living costs.

Take a quick jump into the graduate world and rent is not only your single biggest outgoing, but also the least negotiable one. You have a few accommodation options available as a postgraduate, and it pays (perhaps literally) to look into these in advance.

Some regions of the UK are more expensive than others and it is worth looking into accommodation a little beyond the immediate location of your university. Rent can often drop quickly beyond city centres, for example, and public transport is generally good enough to make commuting viable. Personally, I've found that St Andrews is quite an expensive area, which ups the ante a little bit on that account.


Thirdly: typical bills. Nothing much to say here. Food, power, tv, phones, internet. . . nothing out of the ordinary. But you will have to cover them as a PhD student. And, if you’re self-funding, you won’t have a bursary to help you do so.


Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly: council tax. Yup! That’s right: I pay council tax. "But wait!" I hear you cry. "Students are exempt from council tax". Ah! Yes, full-time students are indeed. As a part-time student I am not eligible for that exemption and, whilst I get a 25% discount for living with full-timers, I do indeed pay the brunt of council tax.

. . .and covering them

Taken together, my standard outgoings amount to roughly £700 per month, not including food. That’s approximately 21 hours per week at minimum wage.

So how have I dealt with all these necessary outgoings? I was very fortunate to have acquired a job shortly after starting my PhD and have managed to pay for the essential bills each month with that income. I also spent the first few years with my then partner so when things were a little tougher we had a communal pool to pay for the household outgoings.

Finally, as well as my regular job, I’ve been fortunate enough to have held teaching positions in three different departments. Whilst this is not a sustained income year-round, it is well enough paid at the time that I am able to build some savings in case of a rainy day (or worse).

How this experience has shaped my PhD journey

So, what has five years’ experience self-funding a PhD brought me? Let’s start with the negatives.

The negatives

It’s tough, simple as that. A PhD is a difficult thing, but I’ve found at times that researching by day and working by evening has been a burn. Trying to maintain the necessary commitment during long days is very draining and grating on your well-being.

Having never done a funded PhD, I can’t really comment on the comparison, but the situation is at times incredibly difficult and that can sap your determination. In particular, it’s been a strain to budget the time (and mental resources) necessary to get things done.

The concern is that this impacts on the quality of the work you do: It’s one thing to commit to multiple responsibilities and it’s another to maintain them well. Keeping track of everything hasn’t always been easy (and, in fact, still isn’t). It has also been difficult to mentally separate everything and I’ve found it all too easy to be thinking about research at work and vice versa.

Lastly, after getting on top of commitments it has been very difficult to maintain the energy to support the other aspects of life. I love playing my guitar and have recently taken to blogging/reviewing and story-writing but these other “for me” interests are difficult to sustain when other more immediate concerns are pressing for your energy.

The positives

It’s not all bad, though, and the positives are largely the flip side of the negatives. I’ve (relatively) quickly developed time and mental space management skills. To excel at my job as well as my research (and teaching) I have had to learn how to separate these roles into different mental compartments such that I can work on one at a time.

This has given me some useful transferable skills, but it’s also proved handy during the PhD itself. I’ve become better at 'switching off' during my down time, which means I’m not worrying about other things when I’m relaxing, reading, or writing for pleasure.

I’ve also learned what is (and isn’t) a reasonable amount of work to expect of myself in a given time. It’s very easy to just want to achieve everything and be disappointed when you fall short, but my experiences have helped me to identify achievable goals in the short and long term. This also helps me manage my time and head space – developing some good habits in the process.

Lastly, my part-time status means I have greater flexibility and time to get things done at my own pace. I don’t want to be researching my PhD forever, but knowing that I’m not counting down to the end of funding or a short submission deadline means I have the freedom to take some me time or simply take longer working through things.

I find myself a little more confident in my thoughts now and I don’t think I’d have reached that point in the same way were I to have been full-time (and thus done by now). So, overall, I’ll hopefully be a better and more balanced researcher because of it.


So that’s about it. Self-funding is tough but manageable and pushes you to rapidly develop skills which are useful in every aspect of life.

I would still choose this pathway if I could go back to the start again (though, if you asked me 2 years ago I’d have said no) so it’s not all tough. For the most part, the efforts are worth it.

Thanks for reading!

Ben Turnbull is a PhD candidate in Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews. He writes about his experiences and reflects on the transition into PhD study over at his personal blog.

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Last Updated: 05 July 2018