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.

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Reader's comments (5)

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.
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.
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.
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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