PhD students 'embarrassed' to be self-funded

Blog posts reveal a lack of ‘socio-academic’ confidence among doctoral students paying their own way

May 2, 2013

Self-funded PhD students can feel “less worthy” than their peers who receive studentships, experiences outlined in a new blog suggest.

Posts published on Brains, Time, Money: Part-Time and Self-Funded Postgraduate Study, which was expected to launch on 2 May, discuss “socio- academic” embarrassment, feeling the need to hide funding status and dealing with the financial and time pressures of part-time study.

In one of the first two posts, Nazia Hussein, a PhD student at the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at the University of Warwick, writes that other students are sometimes “quite taken aback with my self-funded, part-time status”.

“To some it indicates that my research is not worth funding by any relevant organisation and institute, while to others, my work appears less important than theirs,” she says.

Meanwhile, Andrea Nevitt, a part-time PhD student at Keele University, says that admitting to working full-time to afford the PhD “feels confessional, [like] admitting I’m not really ‘good enough’”.

Nadine Muller, the blog’s curator, said the assumption that only those who were “good enough” secured funding was obviously untrue, given that getting funding was as much about fitting in with funder or departmental priorities as it was about quality.

“A lot of self-funded students still seem to worry about whether or not they’ll be worth less in the job market, despite being told by senior academics that to an interview panel it really doesn’t matter how you funded your PhD,” she added.

But the posts also highlight some huge benefits of being self-funded, including students becoming more “resourceful and creative”, being free to progress at their own pace and having an increased “sense of ownership” over their thesis, Dr Muller said.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (11)

It's now 6 hours since I got an email telling me my funding application was unsuccessful. I'm totally distraught, and feel wretched.
I am yet to come across a British slef-funded PhD student at a British university. Truth is that there are lot of funding options and opportunities available for British and EU students, not that many for people from other countries. They end up either working for university and there by becoming a "staff candidate" or ask for money from parents.
I self funded my phd. Mainly because it was a last minute decision to apply and all the funding deadlines seemed to have passed and I didn't want to wait another year before starting. I think self funding successfully is quite an achievement. I worked as a GTA one day a week, a driving instructor 2 days a week and spent two further days a week working on my phd. I handed in within 3 years and am graduating this July. I'm quite proud.
I started the PhD naively assuming I would get funding, as I figured my research was innovative (Older women and sexuality) and I came with a good knowledge base and qualifications. And yet not only was there no funding for me, but I was charged overseas student fees as I had come from Canada, despite being British from way before 1983 when the regulations changed. To top it all off, although I did TA one year, by the next year my supervisor seemed no longer interested in my research and I was passed over for the TAing, while they did hire a student who had told me herself she only had a 2-year BA and no training in Research Methods, the subject of the course we had both taught the year before. Even getting these jobs seems to be easier for some PhD students than others.
@Jane Weir Don't give up, like the article says it is often about how your project fits in with funders priorities. try again - don't give up!
Re Annika Coughlin's comment: In other words, it could have something to do with politics - sexual politics, minorities lacking power, or other groups gaining power and having their priorities listened to. I gather this scenario (of embarrassment) doesn't apply to work-related returns-to-education which would be funded or hold the promise of a good return for money spent, so at the end of the day, if it is a student continuing on to a PhD program in this era of increased competition in the workplace for decent jobs, and all they have is their academic credentials, it is going to be the ones who have personal financial backing of their own, from friends and family, who hold the advantage. Of course it's going to be embarrassing or even humiliating for students who have worked hard to pave the way to do the PhD, only to see people go on whereas they could not.
Hi Ravish - hello, I'm one! *Waves* I think my position's different to the other commenters so far on this piece, as I didn't assume I'd get funding (the AHRC don't give money to my institution, really), and it wasn't a last minute decision. I made the decision (I think right at the beginning of my self-funded Masters at a Russell Group Uni) that I'd pay my way through a PhD. I don't think it's entirely accurate for the assumption to be made that something always 'happened' at the last minute, and people have to 'make do'. Some people make the conscious decision to do it. I had two options, do the PhD and pay for it myself, or don't do it and probably be miserable. I'd rather be relatively broke for 4 years and doing something I love than be in a decently-paying job I don't really enjoy. I'm currently a few months away from submission. In my situation, I've been extremely fortunate to great some really fantastic employment and volunteering opportunities alongside my PhD. If I'd been fully-funded, I wouldn't have done these, and my CV would be the poorer for it. It's been hard, I can't deny that, and I've felt pulled every 'which way' at times and had some very stressy moments, but generally it's been great. Ultimately, I believe that self-funding is what you individually make of it. I'm not 'making do', but trying to make the most out of the opportunties I'mn presented with, and it's been a really rewarding process. I'm still on track to submit my thesis within 4 years, so it's all good. I don't think that the contrasts between self/fully-funded PhDs really need to be made or are useful. Funding systems are not about individuals or their capabilities for research, they're about types of institutions. It's not an appropriate yard stick to judge the quality of students against, and being denied funding (like I was, from the AHRC) isn't something to get depressed about. I'm not remotely embarrassed about being self-funded. I wrote a blog post about the self-funding process last year, and while researching the subject talking to a load of people on Twitter, the most frequent comments that came up were very positive. People saw self-funded PhD-ers as determined, full of grit, super-organised, etc. (Not to say that fully-funded PhDs aren't, by the way). I think it's fairly nonsensical to feel embarrassed about it. Why feel humiliated that you relied on yourself for 4/5/6/7 years? It doesn't quite add up. My blog post frm last year, if anyone is interested in seeing it, is here. Any and all comments welcome! http://shakespearescholarinprogress.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/self-funding-musings-and-insights/
Thanks all for the interesting comments. And please do read the blog - it brings out many of the points that Anna makes - that many people find self-funded/part-time PhDs to be extremely rewarding. In a coming post one student even describes failing to get funding as the best thing that ever happened to her!
I looked at Anna MacKenzie's blog post. I have never dealt with my personal academic experiences directly on my blog, though I have indirectly, on topics related to sex and social inequality (and Wikipedia and the Montreal Massacre). Anna concludes, "Self-funding a PhD is hard, but good employers, a supportive supervisor, and the right work-ethic can make it easier.' We would agree, I'm sure, that the employment itself is an important aspect of doing a self-funded PhD. Even grants include working as a TA part of the funding contract, so seeing TAing as being 'employment' is not entirely accurate. You don't get to TA if you're on your way out. And not everyone has access to jobs that would pay the bills, or the youthful vitality that would ensure one could continue the pace and make friends in the right places. I'm not sure what Anna means by the "right work-ethic." Starting the PhD while young has an advantage over doing it later on, unless one has the economic, academic, and family/social support to make it happen. I sense an air of "the world is just" in Anna's post. If one works hard and has the right attitude, all will be well in the end. I'm doing what my education has led me to do, though not in the way I expected. But in my blog, Sue's Views on the News, and my websites, starting with the S A McPherson website in 2001, I write about what I know, or have experienced or read about, and try to understand it. I see that as not either "making do" or waiting to get funding. I waited ten years in England for those with power and authority to see the light, and that was a waste of time. Not getting funding wasn't the best thing that happened to me, and I'm sure it hasn't been for many students. Taking one piece of anecdotal evidence (as Gibney intends) can show the possibilities out there, (as my narrative research on older women and sexuality would have) but in itself, without a socioeconomic - cultural - analysis, it doesn't really explain anything.
I quite enjoy being a self-funded PhD student. When people tell me I have to take on unpaid work to "give something back", I point out that I'm already paying thousands of pounds in fees, not to mention quite a bit of tax.
Catherine, I believe the article was aimed at students who have not yet had the opportunity to prove themselves, either in the workforce in in academia. To have to pay one's own PhD fees, without having worked and gained that all -important cv and references, could be taken as a sign by some that one's research isn't worthy, or worse yet, that the student is lacking in some way. If you're already "paying back", then I gather you have already had a career or have gained self-esteem through engaging in other equally as worthwhile endeavours and have had them recognized, even if only by that paycheque.

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