Why I... loved the academic challenge of my PhD but won't miss the poverty

August 5, 2005

I only once questioned why I was doing a PhD. My despair was brought about by poverty. And, as the National Postgraduate Committee assembles for its annual conference next week, I thought I would share it - not least because someone needs to put PhD poverty on the agenda.

It was last winter and I had begun to write up my thesis. The ancient Peugeot that my friend had given me had conked out, and I couldn't afford to take it to the garage. I lived with my two dogs in a very cheap house (that I later found out had been deemed to be unfit for human habitation and was being let to me illegally) halfway up a mountain in Snowdonia. With the car out of commission, I had to cycle across the hills in freezing cold, driving Welsh rain, into Caernarfon, to catch the bus into Bangor. At night, I returned to a house that I could not afford to heat. I contemplated living in my nice warm office, but I had the dogs to think of.

That was the worst bit. Despite the depressing statistics and media accounts about students failing to complete their theses, I'm a nerdy type, so I loved the reading, research, writing and publishing. One factor that made it all so enjoyable was that my supervisor treated me like a fully fledged researcher rather than "the PhD student".

If I wanted to do something, I did it. My supervisor stepped in only if he saw disaster looming. The presence of a number of friendly senior academics at Bangor also helped - I didn't have to look too far to find advice and I didn't ever get kicked to one side for being a minion.

Seeing yourself in print is immensely satisfying, and having such a degree of autonomy is a privilege. But it's a strange thing to want to do a PhD.  After the financial hardship of a first degree, you're signing up for more abject poverty while working very hard. My finances were so bad that my supervisor fed me and my dogs on many occasions. My friend kept me out of court by paying my council tax, because my scholarship didn't stretch to such luxuries. Without such charitable people around, my PhD would be still far from done because I would be busy working in casual jobs to subsidise my research.

Just as I began my thesis, there was an expose in the local paper about undergraduates eating the out-of-date food from the bins at a local supermarket. Sadly, the emphasis was on disgusting students rather than on young people living in such penury that they were reduced to scavenging. When I hear government spokesmen talk about "initiatives" to encourage more young people into higher education, I sometimes wonder how they think that university can be an attractive proposition for anyone without a private income, let alone for half the population.

But to go on to do a PhD? Well, you've got to be a little eccentric to live in a semi-derelict house and not be able to afford a hot meal for the honour of adding to the knowledge in your subject area and teaching future students. And I was lucky - I had a scholarship.

But then, oddly enough, I did enjoy it. And now I've really arrived - I'm called "Dr", I'm in a house on a better class of mountain, a house with carpets, a washing machine, a television set and a fungus-free bathroom.

Next week, the NPC will debate figures that show that almost a quarter of students fail to complete their degrees in four years. I think I know why. I loved doing my PhD and want to remain in academia, but being from a working-class background with no family money, I was just so poor. This situation seems at odds with the Government's stated ambition to get more people like me into university. Why make it so hard for us?

Sally Baker, Postdoctoral researcher Research Institute for Enhancing Learning, University of Wales, Bangor

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