Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#BLOG – A challenging but fruitful journey: Tips for those considering a self-funded PhD

By Lucy (Xiuqi) Zhu

When I was asked about my experience as a self-funded PhD student, there were complicated feelings emerging. Pain was probably the first one because I am feeling frustrated to see my bills and I am worried about things other than my thesis and papers. Personal growth is what comes next, as I actually achieved quite a few things during this process that I would not have achieved if I had been fully funded, even though the process per se might start with difficulties. The third feeling is actually gratitude. I realized how much help I received from my family, university, friends and even strangers. I appreciate the diversified experiences on this journey. This is not me sweet talking. I am a task-oriented person so without the main purpose achieved I tend to give less credit to the process than it might deserve. The above three feelings are still valid even with my task-oriented lifestyle, so I am not trying to camouflage the difficulties of self-funding. Below is a summary of my experience and also some key tips for any candidates who are planning to do a self-funded PhD. 

You might have heard the metaphor that doing a PhD degree is like a long-distance marathon. But doing a self-funded PhD is like doing it without knowing exactly when and where you’re going to get water or energy drinks. You start with a determined spirit, whatever your motivations are and then you head off on this journey with almost no retrieving option.  

“Doing a PhD degree is like a long-distance marathon. But doing a self-funded PhD is like doing it without knowing exactly when and where you’re going to get water or energy drinks”

Luckily, it is not a purely mysterious journey ahead with solely dark fogs, as when you start a new game with the whole map unexplored. There are supply stations and relatively sustainable income here and there. Here we can discuss a few, so that the anxiety pertains to financial burdens for anyone who can rely on no one but themselves for such a long and challenging journey can be released a little bit.  

Let’s first start with the easy ones. One of the most reliable source of income, aka supply station, is invigilation (not available at the moment as online are held online). There are two major exam periods across the university for every academic year. One is around January, the other lasts a bit longer, from May to about early July. For such exams, shortlisted PhD students get trained and then allocated to either big or smaller exam venues (some are even 1 to 1). You usually get an email ahead of the exam periods asking if you are interested. Hourly payment is a bit above minimum wage. If you can manage your time right, you can earn a small fortune during each exam period. In addition to such exams, schools also have their own demands for invigilators sometime in the middle of the term. Just keep yourself visible and do a good job when invigilating and it’s likely that you will be asked to do more invigilating in the future.  

The second most common source of income is from the job vacancies published on the university jobs website. Many of them are open to PhD students, including hourly rate or extra benefit. Liaison work at the gym’s reception or being a sub-warden for a student hall are good options. Sub-warden are offered free accommodation and food for their work, but no stipend. Hence, even though you don’t actually get paid, your living fees are almost entirely covered. Although finance is probably the main reason why you are surfing the vacancy website, such jobs with team work, compared to other less skilled part-time jobs, could provide you with more social network opportunities which could potentially benefit your well-being and maybe even future working opportunities. Also, having a contract with the university is a relatively stable and low risk source of income.  

The third income stream is teaching. However, it is probably more beneficial to your CV than your bank account. It is not always a highly paid job and might depend on your department/school (some seem to be really well paid). But as a PhD student, you might want to add some experience and skills to your CV which can lay a foundation for your future job hunting while having some income from it. Therefore, although it might not always be financially attractive, it is still a source of income worth considering.  

Of course, if you have some extra skills that you could use to earn some money, just go ahead. Simply remember to manage your time properly. Always remember the priority is to finish this long marathon and all these water stations (aka sources of income) you’re trying to get are serving this purpose and hopefully your future career after this journey. So, don’t get lost while searching for such supplies. Plan around the main task that finishing your PhD is.  

The difficult part is always the tuition fees. There is a wide range of funding opportunities summarized in website designed for PhD students. There are also workshops from the Doctoral College which specifically help PhD students to look for funding. For non-EU students, the challenges are much bigger. I still feel very lucky that my family supported me with a large percentage of my tuition fees. Although I can cover my living expenses and a small amount of my tuition fees, I would probably have postponed my decision of doing a PhD when I checked my financial situation at the beginning. In short, it takes a lot of courage to get yourself into a situation where you are struggling with bills. It is certainly a good thing when you are confident, determined and hard working. But also, it is important to be realistic about your financial situation when deciding to do a PhD or not. After all, the main purpose is to get the degree, and you don’t want to have to quit when your budget plan fails half-way through 

Doing a PhD is a project I am passionate about and is a decision I will never regret. Being self-funded is a challenge but with a good plan it is a manageable one. Stay positive, stay appreciative, and stay confident with yourself. One last tip for new PhD candidates: it is a long and sometimes lonely journey, so always remember to take care of yourself, listen to yourself, love yourself, and also take positive actions rather than emerge in miserable thoughts. Life is more than a PhD.  

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