Thursday, 19 November 2015

To self-fund a PhD or not? That is the question...

I am a (partially) self-funded PhD student. As such, prospective PhD students often ask me if I would recommend going into a PhD without secure funding, which is a bit of a complicated issue. Doing a PhD self-funded has it's ups and downs, and pros and cons, which I'm going to try to summarise here, as it's something I think a lot about.

To start, I'll explain my situation a bit. As many of you know, I'm a PhD student at the University of Southampton in the UK, however, I'm originally from Canada, which complicates things. I have just started my 3rd year of a 3-4 year PhD on pterosaur biomechanics. As I'm not from the UK, yet doing a PhD here in the UK, funding has always been difficult. Before starting at Southampton, I had intended on doing a PhD at the University of Bristol, where I did my MSc. Unfortunately, I was unable to secure any funding, and was looking at the prospect of ending up approximately £80000 in debt at the end, assuming I would be unsuccessful of finding any funding (which, indeed, was an unlikely event). With this daunting prospect, I decided to try for a PhD at the University of Southampton, where my now supervisor was confident I would secure something. After interviewing fairly well, I ended up being given an offer that was suggested to be quite good for an international student: the graduate school would cover half of my tuition, and I would receive a Research Training Support Grant (RTSG) of an unknown amount (at least £1100 per year), and I would be responsible for the rest. No stipend, still responsible for about £9000 a year of tuition, and a lower RTSG than students funded through research councils like NERC. 

Seeming like a much better offer than nothing, I accepted, confident I would eventually manage to find some more funding. At the end of my first year, I successfully was granted an NSERC award from the Canadian science funding agency, a hearty sum of $21000 CAD per year. My supervisor was also able to secure some additional research funding for me in order to cover my CT scans (of course I chose a project that isn't cheap), and I've since managed to get some funding from external sources to cover travel or research trips (thanks to the Palaeontological Association and Geological Society of London, and one of my supervisors - Mike Habib). However, I have applied for far more than that (nearly 20 if I counted correctly, since my MSc, and I'm not telling you how many were successful). In fact I don't know of any other PhD student that has applied to the same number of grants/scholarships/awards as I have, and while I have definitely improved over time, it's still just as depressing when you get that "sorry, you weren't selected" letter. The reality is that as an international student, even if the university covers half of my tuition, I'm still responsible for £9000 a year in fees, which is barely covered by my Canadian scholarship, and I have nothing to cover my living expenses. In fact, if it wasn't for my husband's PhD funding (and now job) and some help from both of our fathers (thanks Dad and dad-in-law!), we never would have been able to make it work. 

This sounds pretty unpleasant and unappealing, so what are the pros of doing it on your own? There aren't a lot of advantages, but I would argue that there are some major ones. First of all, you don't have the same kind of pressure to finish. In the UK, PhD's are funded for 3 years, with the possibility of extending it to 3.5, but rarely 4. As I've started my 3rd year, this means most of my friends are aiming to finish by the end of this year, or the middle of next year. I, however, don't have that rush. I've been surviving without my living expenses being covered for 2.5 years now, and an extra year isn't going to kill me. I am able to focus on the problem at hand without massively stressing over getting it done by this time next year. The other advantage is that I don't have a funding agency breathing down my neck, directing my research. Because I am self funded, the project is more-or-less up to me. Of course my supervisors give me suggestions and help, but what I do and where I go with it is more up to me than those who have been given funding for specific projects. These two major advantages of left me pretty happy with my PhD project and where I'm going.

However, would I recommend it? Not unless you have something to fall back and catch you if you can't find funding. Don't go into it expecting to find full funding in your first year, especially if you're not from the country you're doing your PhD in. So many funding bodies don't provide funding to people from outside the UK/EU, and they don't give funding for tuition or living expenses. It's pretty easy to find funding to cover conferences or research expenses, but a lot harder to help out with your dinner and to put a roof about your head. 

There are also a lot of problems that pop up and that you wouldn't expect, and I can think of 2 examples of things that have happened to me. First of all, it makes the possibility of extensions a bit terrifying. If something happens to you and you need to suspend your PhD, you can get an extension to go beyond the normal 4 year limit. It may seem like a good offer, but it's a bit of a trojan horse - if you don't have funding, and are barely living day-to-day, that extra few months may kill you financially, and there is no funding agency to ask for help, even if it would help your project. Another problem I've had is funding for Open Access. I am a big proponent of Open Access publications. However, did you know that in the UK universities will only cover the fees if you are funded by a UK research council? I didn't... I've been able to get fee waivers for both of my papers published with PLOS ONE, but it wasn't easy. And I don't have the money to throw around for a PeerJ subscription either. It makes it just that little bit harder to do than for people who can just ask their uni to pay.

So, my advice? Don't start a self-funded PhD unless you know that you can finance it yourself if need-be. Everyone assumes they'll find funding later on, but it's really hard to get once you start. You might get lucky and get some, or you might not, so be aware of that before you start. And to supervisors and academics: for the love of all of us self-funded students, don't promise money that you don't have! I've heard countless stories of people starting with the promise of funding from supervisors that just doesn't appear. If you want a student that badly, find money for them without lying or promising something you don't have, even if you're doing it out of the goodness of your heart and are positive you will find money. Sometimes, you don't, so don't say it until it's in your hands! It's much harder to realise a year into a PhD that you can't afford it when no funding appears than to just hold off in the first place and wait for secure funding. And finally, if you're going to do it, make sure it is something that you truly want to work on and that you are happy with. Don't pay to do a PhD that you will end up hating. It is absolutely not worth it.

After posting this, I realised that I should really add this: I am fortunate because I am not fully self funded, but I know a number of people that are, with varying degrees of support. While I have some tuition covered, I still pay more than anyone else I know for a PhD (with the exception of one other self-funded person I know). Other people have fees waived, but less RTSG, and some still pay fees, or have no RTSG, or both, but none with a stipend. There are varying branches to the self-funded tree. and I can only truly comment on the one I am on: I have a fairly large amount of funding, but not nearly enough to cover my fees or living costs.

Any other self-funded PhD's out there who have comments, please leave them! I'd love to hear other people's opinions.