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.
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9 thoughts on “To self-fund a PhD or not? That is the question…

  1. This is probably going to come across as a bit more forceful and harsh than I really mean, so please don't take this as a personal judgement of your decision to do a self-funded PhD, Liz! With that out of the way…I really, really hate the idea of “self-funded” PhDs and I think, like almost all unpaid internships, they need to stop. Graduate students are doing WORK for the university and should be paid a reasonable living wage.

    At the University of Alberta, in the BioSci department, nobody gets in unless there is guaranteed funding for the entirety of their program. That means either the university is going to support you through a teaching assistantship that, while not exorbitant, is at least enough to get by on provided you don't have dependants or major crises (last time I checked, it was about $20 000/year or more), OR you're going to be supported through some kind of institutional, provincial, or federal scholarship that you applied for, which will also pay enough to live on. For international students it could be a bit trickier, but the department used to cover the additional costs that international tuition caused (although this may not be the case anymore). Regardless, personal funds are simply not considered an option at the UofA, and I think in other Canadian universities as well.

    Look, getting a PhD is a wonderful thing to do and I wouldn't trade mine for anything and I would DEFINITELY never dissuade someone from trying for one if that's what they want to do. But I would strongly, super strongly advise against going into major debt during grad school – the job opportunities for many fields, if you don't have an obvious industry stream, are just not good enough for the debt you could rack up, especially when you also consider the lost earnings compared to your peer group's careers. This isn't a criticism of anyone who has chosen to go this route, but rather the systems and institutions that make us think this is some kind of reasonable choice to make.

    Part of the reason I hate the idea of unfunded thesis-based research and unpaid internships is because they unfairly exclude people without massive financial safety nets. You shouldn't need what essentially amounts to a private sponsor to get a PhD – that's bad for students, and that's bad for science. And like I said before, the university benefits from your labour if you're publishing papers, generating data, etc (not to mention teaching!), and they should be paying for that labour. Grad students might not be the same as experienced employees, but neither are they the same as course-based undergrad students. We need to stop eating our own young.

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  2. Thanks for commenting Victoria. I largely agree with what you said, and I think that it shouldn't happen, but for some reason (at least in the UK) it seems to be not as uncommon as it should be, so I get asked the question a lot. And that is why I generally don't recommend it without seriously thinking about it and knowing that you can make it work. For me, it was possible because my husband had good funding for his PhD, and now has a decently paying post doc.

    I completely agree that you should not do it if you have to go into a lot of debt, which is why I didn't start one at Bristol with 0 funding. It wasn't worth it to me. I've managed to make it work ok now without having to go into debt, and have received only minimum help from people thanks to some savings, some work here and there, and a lot of frugal living.

    However, at the time, I didn't feel like I had a lot of choice. It was either do that, or don't do a PhD, which wasn't something I wanted to do. I had already moved to the UK, had a PhD project to do, and needed some funding for it. I've done ok with it, but I know a lot of people who haven't, which is why I say don't do it expecting to get funding part way through.

    I agree that in general it shouldn't be done, but for some people there isn't a lot of choice. If I hadn't decided to do it, I likely never would have done a PhD, which would have meant a lot of time spent to get to that position just to turn around and have to do something else, as there aren't a lot of job opportunities with a MSc in palaeontology.

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  3. Yes, I'm definitely not in a position to critique anyone's decision to do or not do a PhD, so please don't take this as judgement of your (entirely reasonable!) decision to stay in the UK for your PhD. I'm more angry at an educational system that doesn't provide reasonable funding for research-based grad students, something that also seems to be the case in some places in the US as well (and maybe Canada, just not ones I've heard about?).

    But just to address one other point: there is always a choice, and choosing not to do a PhD because you aren't going to receive fair wages is totally, 1000% acceptable. Returning to Canada is an option, seeking a position at a different university is an option, working at a job that you like and which doesn't require a PhD is an option, and taking a funding situation that isn't ideal but moves you in the career direction that you want is an option. I just wish more students (and more people in general) were willing to walk away from objectively bad pay situations, because humans are worth more than that. I also wish there wasn't this constant battle over basic things like pay.

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  4. I come from a slightly different angle to Liz, having started my self-funded PhD in my late 40’s, part-time whilst running my own business. Without the option of self-funding I wouldn’t have had the chance to do a PhD at all, coming from a background where university education wasn’t ever really discussed as an option, and higher degrees were not even spoken about at all. Ever.

    As Liz mentions, self-funding means you have a certain degree of freedom that funded students might not have and although time is an issue, I wasn’t overly stressed about it at the beginning. It does become an issue when problems arise that are outside your control and delays occur, but as I am paying to do my research I would expect that to be fixed by the institution. Universities are not run like businesses however much they think they are and still have a lot to learn about making sure we all get value for money, as well as being treated as people who bring money into the institution (as we all do, self-funded or not).

    For me the real issue with self-funding are the extras you have to shell out for. This probably equals the fee cost on a yearly basis and if you want to go to major conferences, then it’ll be more expensive than your fees. I’ve had to severely limit my travel this year due to cashflow and although my fees are secure, everything else isn’t. As I am also a couple of hundred miles from my university then curtailing travel can be an issue, however although remote working is perfectly feasible there is no doubt I feel isolated from the group.

    Finally, people choose to self-fund for a variety of reasons. I don’t see them as like unpaid internships and have never been made to feel like I was an unpaid intern. To deny self-funded PhDs would be to exclude a large number of people who might otherwise never have the chance to do research at this level, and have something to contribute.

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  5. But I'm not criticizing the decision by students to self-fund if there is no other option – I'm criticizing the fact that there's no other option. You say that without the option to self-fund you wouldn't be able to do the PhD at all, but I see that WITH funding you would probably be able to do your PhD more easily, PLUS it's the ethical thing for universities to do since they benefit from your work. I'm not saying we should exclude people without funding, I'm saying we should fund more people.

    I'm also not sure I totally agree with the sentiment that self funding gives you more freedom, because in my experiences at the UofA students with TAships (i.e. university funding) were just as independent as those with external scholarships. Perhaps the situation in the UK is totally different, but at the very least it's not a unique benefit to being self-funded.

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  6. I agree, in an ideal world, the education system would be made in a way that this wasn't necessary. Part of the problem (in my situation at least) is that I chose to do a PhD in a country where I am not a citizen and that charges a lot for tuition. Returning to Canada, while an option, wasn't an ideal option for me as it would have meant A) leaving my husband here to do a PhD (a situation that you of course understand is not ideal), and B) working on a very different project than the one I am doing because there are few pterosaurs and even fewer people working on them in Canada. I worked as a receptionist in a job centre for a year while looking for funding, and it was terrible. There weren't any jobs for stuff I wanted to do in Bristol at the time, and the right decision for me (in my opinion) was to do a PhD without full funding. I don't regret my decision, but I do wish I knew some more things about it before I agreed to do it. It's not easy…

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  7. Now that I think about it, I think that the idea of more freedom in self-funded PhD's comes from the difference in systems between Canada (and possibly the US) and the UK. In the UK, you almost always apply to PhD projects that have already been determined. Funding is often in place for a specific project (sometimes coming directly from a supervisor's grant, or from the university), and you apply to that project. My understanding is that in Canada and the US, you contact a potential supervisor with project ideas, and you start a PhD in that field, based on what you want to work on. In the UK, this is not always (or often) possible for fully funded PhDs. If you bring your own funding, or self-fund, then it is more possible. Does that make sense?

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  8. I am a self-funded PhD student at the University of Bristol in my 4th year (so for those of you following this thread, means that after some final analyses I will start writing up my thesis). Liz is not only a colleague, but a dear friend and she knows like I know the pros and cons of being partly or fully self-funded at a UK institution. Now, before I continue I would like to throw it out there like Victoria and Stu previously mentioned that everyone's journey is different and sometimes very difficult financially. My journey started off the beaten path; unlike most of my peers, I came from a completely different field of science before jumping off the plank into Palaeobiology, not necessarily following a normal “Geologist” route. A bit about me and why the situation is different is that I believe in the concept of broadening my horizons through global educational experiences. [A decision not made lightly, but considered thoroughly.] I would like to state that I am funded thanks to the US Department of Education through student loans. My mom is one of those SuperParents (she's a single mom/a widow), she raised a dreamer and of course my dreams could never have been a reality without Federal Aid like many college students in the middle class. Yes, we need to change the system…and yes, I have and will have student loan debts to pay off once I have graduated, but I am not alone as there are so many people out there in the same situation or worse. But, you do what you have to in order to make your dreams a reality. My dreams led me to great places and I got to meet a lot of awesome people and contribute to science as a researcher along the way first at RIT (my dream school), where I did my bachelors, then the University of Sydney where I did my masters, and even now in the UK to do my PhD. A huge factor in my decision besides funding was that most colleges in the US and even in Canada and I assume other countries require formal tests scores/results from your undergraduate GPA, GRE and/or GMAT. Since I attended a taught-masters course in Australia, I never had to take the GRE and so I would have had to prep and then pay to take the test before I even began an application to be considered for a PhD position. Also factor in the timescale it takes to complete a PhD in the US is 2-3 years longer than in the UK. Some pros: Freedom to challenge/question and sometimes even disagree with your supervisors/research panel, and a sense of accomplishment in the smallest revealations which is one of those life lessons you have to figure out on your own and I think when you are funded people are or can be blindsided by this or steamrolled into making decisions that are not their own and that often hinder the overall progress of the project. Some cons: stress can be a bit heightened, self-doubt (that imposter syndrome, thinking that since you are not paid like others are to do research makes you feel like you or that the project you work on are not good enough or is in some way unequal to people that are funded, who have multi institutional support etc). There are several others pros and cons but ultimately I think it depends on how you deal with the situation you've been dealt. You can cry all you want about it (and believe me in the beginning I did) or you can do something to change it. Tips: Apply to as many grants and scholarships as possible (every little bit helps), learn to accept rejection and not take everything personal, time manage and drive yourself. It's quite a tall order and won't happen overnight, but in the end or at least for me, it all comes down to finishing what I started 3 years ago (I made a committment) and I want to see it through to the end, and I know that when I am finished it won't matter if I was self-funded or funded. The only thing that will matter is what I learned and that the knowledge I gained can be openly shared with others. Liz, thanks for posting the topic and for engaging me, keep up the good work.

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  9. You're certainly correct in saying my PhD would be easier if had funding, one can dream… 😉

    In practical terms this could never happen in the UK given how far down the road governments have gone in loading debt on our students in the past twenty years. With austerity biting deep across society I don't think funding for people such as myself to pursue higher degrees would ever be forthcoming; I doubt the discussion would be entertained in the current climate. If I had to apply for funding would I even have been able to apply for my PhD given my lack of academic qualifications? It’s hardy ideal I agree, but it is a way for some of us to do research.

    Self-funding does mean I own my own research. My data (which will of course be published and shared, OA) is mine to do what I wish with, not the universities. If I had to stop now or change institution I could still publish and not have to worry about upsetting third parties or ownership of my research. That is good to know during times of uncertainty.

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