Guest Blogger Anna Girling talks about her experience as a self-funded PhD student, and how the system is failing to support self-funded students across the board – including in the wake of Coronavirus.
I began to write this blog post several months ago, before coronavirus had really impacted our lives in the U.K. However, the subsequent fear, uncertainty, and strange busyness of the weeks before and after the beginning of the lockdown meant that I put it to one side – in part because complaining about the difficulties of being a self-funded PhD student seems especially trivial at the moment, compared to what so many people are going through, both in Britain and around the world, and in part because it felt like my brain had largely stopped working. Now that we are all becoming strangely accustomed to day-to-day pandemic life, however, my brain is creaking into action. And the very same issues that affected self-funded (or, more accurately, unfunded) PhD students without private means before the pandemic have only been compounded by its effects, making this post perhaps more timely than ever.
Over the last few months, I have watched with mingled interest and horror the responses of various universities and funding bodies to the unfolding crisis – from the initial move to online teaching, and the amazing efforts of teaching and support staff to manage this, to the ongoing uncertainty, and now seemingly inevitable budget cuts. I have largely learned about the higher education response to the pandemic through Twitter, and it has been sad and frustrating to see the material and mental effects of the current situation on so many people, especially those already worn down by unrealistic workloads, precarious short-term contracts, or no contracts at all. PhD students have also made clear the impact of the situation on their research, and there has been a growing Twitter campaign to demand extensions for all postgraduate research students.
When I first saw tweets about this I felt a spark of recognition; I too will likely need to push back my submission date by a month or two due to the time (and access to resources) lost to dealing with the coronavirus fallout. I quickly realised, however, that the extensions being demanded were to funding, not to periods of study – and it reminded me that for many unfunded students an extension also means more fees to pay, with no related income increase, and that while some universities may waive extension fees in the current circumstances, some may not.
This experience of misrecognition, of not finding one’s experiences reflected in discussions of the problems facing PhD students, and a lack of acknowledgment of the particular challenges and anxieties which face unfunded students, has become familiar to me in the course of my PhD. ‘PGR’ (i.e. postgraduate research student) usually means ‘Funded PGR’ – whether that funding comes from a funding body or a university (and I do recognise the disparities between the financial and pastoral experiences of these two groups) – while those of us who are ‘self-funded’ (a phrase which disguises its own disparities) are excluded in a variety of ways.
Since beginning my part-time PhD (in English at Edinburgh) more years ago than I can bring myself to remember (seven?), various friends and acquaintances contemplating applying for one themselves have asked me if I have any advice. My stock response is now, firstly, that I am the last person to ask, and secondly, GET FUNDING (i.e. apply to multiple institutions, and wait and apply again if you aren’t successful the first-time around). This is what I wish someone had said to me when I – a full-time NHS administrator, with no UK student/academic friends to ask – first contemplated returning to university. I had done my Masters in Canada a few years before (with university funding), and I knew that in North America it was almost unheard of for a PhD student not to receive funding linked to teaching. I, therefore, assumed that even if I didn’t get AHRC funding (the only source I knew of or applied for), that the university would likely rustle something up if I ‘proved myself’. I had no real sense of how competitive PhD funding is in the UK, or of the myriad ways in which being unfunded and therefore part-time would impact me, beyond the obvious fact that I would have less time in which to study. Oh, how naïve (and arrogant) I was…
I started my PhD alongside my full-time job and therefore really struggled to attend events at the university in my first few years. Universities in general may have gotten better at this, but events would be organised and announced at incredibly short notice – on the assumption that everybody was free and available all of the time – so I could rarely organise time off work to attend. There were very few events after 5pm (another contrast to my time in Canada, where a proportion of all classes and social events took place in the evening – to be fitted in around various other responsibilities), and I met very few of my fellow PhD cohort or of the English department faculty (other than my wonderful supervisor – who, I should say, has been incredibly supportive and flexible throughout). I did try to get to know my PhD cohort, and attended a departmental PhD ‘retreat’ in the spring of my first year – but by that point, close bonds had already been formed, and I never really got to know my year group. (This was compounded when, the following year, I had finally carved out time to study in the communal PhD ‘office’; the first time I entered I was aggressively and publicly told off for shutting the door the wrong way – an experience I found so upsetting and isolating that I didn’t return to that office for another year! While, more recently, pre-lockdown, my inability to use the office everyday means that my desk is used by my ‘neighbour’, who has never otherwise spoken to me, as a storage area for various boxes, etc. – just one more reminder of the ways that I don’t really exist for my supposed peers….)
Meanwhile, PhD students funded by the AHRC (via SGSAH), or by bodies such as Wolfson, have a sense of community fostered in them from the beginning, with seminars, workshops and various residential events. I really don’t think that the importance of such events can be underestimated – a PhD is such a difficult isolating experience in so many ways, and it is often the support, interest, excitement, and fellow-misery and anger of one’s peers that makes it bearable. And, like it or not, as the years go by, these groups inevitably form useful professional networks – sources of information, a second pair of eyes for a draft or an application, and someone just to share enthusiasm with; it is easy for those with ready-made networks to scorn ‘networking’ (and yes, networking is an awful thing), but for those of us without easy access to those ready-made groups, it can sometimes feel indistinguishable to ‘making like-minded friends’.
Of course, students directly funded by universities don’t get to experience events organised by other funding-bodies either, although they at least have the time to attend those events which take place in the university, and too to spend time in the shared study spaces. But, nevertheless, it feels that there is an ever-widening gap opening up between funded and unfunded students – a two-tier system that is exacerbated by the increasing pastoral and developmental role played by regional (or other) funding bodies. Even during my time as a PhD student I have noticed a shift in emphasis, from university-organised ‘extras’, to those organised by bodies such as SGSAH. I can see the rationale of such a centralising move, and I know that some of the SGSAH offering is open to all students at eligible institutions, but I feel very strongly that such a shift risks exacerbating all kinds of inequalities, and has cemented the gap between funded PhD students, who get the best of everything, and unfunded students struggling to even pay their fees, rent, etc. (let alone buying books, a computer, travelling for research, or conferences).
I wonder if it would not be ‘fairer’ (whatever that means in this context) for the money that would otherwise be spent by funding bodies on residential workshops and social events, professional development sessions, internship schemes, archival research abroad, etc. to instead be allotted to universities to be spent on all of their doctoral students – or even to fund more students? Certainly, the sense I get is that universities, under ever-increasing pressure, even before coronavirus, have been only too happy to divest themselves of all but the bare minimum of pastoral and professional-development responsibility for their PhD students – safe in the knowledge that the ‘good’ students are getting support and opportunities elsewhere. This means that the programs of support and development which used to be provided by universities for all enrolled PGR students increasingly matter less, and are in effect being hollowed out and left for dead by the support provided by funding bodies to their students.
In recent years, for example, SGSAH has set up an internship (with funded extension) for its students – like the funded archival trips to US-archives for AHRC/SGSAH-funded students, these are amazing opportunities which have the potential to sow the seeds for exciting postdoctoral projects, or to provide experience which will set individuals apart on the job market. Yet, and it is hard to say this without sounding bitter, these opportunities are going to students who in many cases are already the beneficiaries of myriad privileges and advantages (those students who didn’t have to work throughout their undergraduate degrees, for instance, who don’t have ongoing caring responsibilities, or even just those with the self-confidence that often comes with social capital) – a fact that is masked by the idea that the allocation of doctoral funding is a meritocracy.
During the second (?) year of my PhD, in an attempt to find a bit more time for reading and writing, I moved to a 3 day/week role in the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine at Edinburgh, supporting various schools’ Athena SWAN applications (Athena SWAN is the gender equality accreditation scheme for UK universities). This was an eye-opening experience in a number of ways, and spending over a year crunching numbers about things like the gender pay gap, the attrition rates of female staff and students, the near-total absence of black staff members and students, and the various ways in which academics tend to replace themselves in their own image, made clear to me the in-built biases and prejudices which shape universities as we know them.
Sally Davies, then Chief Medical Officer for England, spoke at an Athena SWAN event in the college, and told a story about her early days in the role, and the beginnings of Athena SWAN as a mandatory exercise. She described the response of the heads of various medical schools to her charge that they lacked women in senior medical academic positions; they had suggested that change would happen naturally, as growing numbers of female medical students filtered through the system. However, as Davies told us, there have been more female than male medical students for the last four decades – more than enough time for these women to reach senior positions. The fact is that there are barriers embedded in the system which force women to leave the medical academic route at every stage – and, I soon, realised, the same could be said of many other groups, in many other subjects, with the same assumptions made that a fairer system will somehow ‘filter through’.
A quick look at the figures for English, for instance, is even more stark; if I remember correctly, c. 80% of undergraduate students in English are women, but women drop out at a far greater rate than men at every stage (meaning that men are essentially over-represented at the Masters level, at PhD level, among funded PhDs, among postdocs, among the permanent member of staff, and among professors). When I started my PhD for example, there was (I think) only one female professor in the department, and a significant majority of permanent staff were men. All were white (and, I think, still are). Data is not collected about socio-economic background/class beyond UG level, but my informed guess is that, as with race, the situation is dire – and grossly unfair, with privilege begetting more privilege. (My friends and I observed, for example, that those students who were the children of academics tended to have the best funding packages, such as Wolfson.) Clearly gender is not the only, or even the main, issue here (even if Athena SWAN still drives decision-making) – but my time collecting and analysing data around gender drove home the many ways in which academia, which I had previously assumed to be somehow ‘better’ than many other industries, is in fact just as riven by structural inequality and bias as any other, even as it often thinks of itself as fundamentally more progressive. I am deeply aware of my own privilege, of the many helping hands I have been given, without which I may not have even contemplated doing a PhD (and certainly wouldn’t have stuck with it) – and, as I have become hyper-aware of the ways in which this privilege has helped me overcome various hurdles, I have also become increasingly aware of the hurdles themselves.
If being white, male, middle-class, and privately-educated makes you statistically more likely to be a funded PhD student (when compared to the numbers of undergraduate students in a given arts/humanities subject), then why is it that life-changing funding and career-shaping opportunities are overwhelmingly offered to these very same students?
In the third year of my PhD, with the end of my fixed-term role in the medical school coming to an end, I moved to a part-time project manager role in the history department. There was various internal administrative wrangling over the project and I was briefly placed on what I would now call ‘furlough’ – for a short glorious period I was able to experience life as a ‘full-time’ PhD student, with ‘funding’ (i.e. my salary). I started going back to the dreaded PhD office, was able to attend reading groups, lectures, and seminars – in many ways it was the beginning of my intellectual life as a PhD student, and it was also during this time that I made the close, essential friends whom I think of as ‘my’ PhD cohort. This period did not last long – my contract came to an end, and since then I have survived on a financial mishmash of temporary part-time jobs (often minimum wage, always exhausting), housing benefit and jobseeker’s allowance, emergency hardship grants, and various incredibly-welcome part-time jobs in the English department – but it laid the foundations on which I have been able to build my research ever since. It also made me realise just what I was missing in terms of sustained, intense research time (I feel like my thesis didn’t get started until this point), but also in terms of academic community and the ‘extra’ activities which expanded my field of vision, and enabled me to see beyond my thesis.
The effects of constantly scrabbling for and worrying about paying the rent (and everything else, including being in debt) cannot be underestimated. Even applying for hardship funding is time-consuming. The flip side is that, for me at least, a ‘proper’ responsible, busy job, even part-time, left very little mental space or energy for my research – in order to do the work of my PhD I needed to give up the income which had initially allowed me to contemplate becoming a self-funded student. It may not have been the right decision, and in many ways my life would be a lot easier if I still had a regular income and a ‘proper job’, but I also don’t think that I would have been able to do any of the things that have made academia exciting and rewarding for me if I was still also trying to manage a large NHS project, for instance.
‘Funding’ is obviously about more than just the money, however – and even during my short time as a ‘funded’ student, I still always knew that I was in effect a ‘second-class’ student. Funding is about esteem, prestige; it bestows confidence (even if it also rewards confidence), and those of us who have never received funding know that we are seen by some (including, often, those funded students) as hobbyists, doing it for love or passion – not ‘real’ research students. This in turns becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – not least because we can’t afford the research trips which are laid on for funded students – until you become convinced that: there are no jobs, especially not for you, so why even bother applying? And, if you’re not doing a PhD for ‘love’ of the subject, then why are you doing it? Such feelings are pernicious – meaning that, I suspect, self-funded students often self-select out of opportunities without even applying. Certainly, I know I feel guilty when I apply for anything that requires a reference – sure that I am wasting my supervisor’s time on a reference for an opportunity that I am clearly not going to get. It is hard to know how such ephemeral issues as self-confidence, and the perception of a student’s ability by supervisors, selection committees, etc., can be addressed by funding bodies – perhaps, however, we need to begin by talking more about the ways that these are affected by such material matters as funding?
It should be obvious, but is perhaps also worth saying: unfunded students are far less likely to have impressive publications, conferences, connections, event-organisation, and teaching experience under their belt than funded students – not from a lack of brilliance or drive, but because they lack the time to devote to such activities, alongside their thesis and the (multiple) jobs they need to support themselves, and – increasingly – because they lack the easy access to such opportunities that funding bodies provide. Again, it would be nice to think that selection committees take such realities into account – otherwise it feels like that initial failure to secure funding will inevitably always lead to permanent failure to ever ‘catch up’.
This has turned into a longer, more personal, and probably more rambling discussion of my feelings about being a self-funded PhD student than either Chiara or I expected. I am aware that none of this matters in the scheme of things – or, rather, that the problems I have tried to identify and to explore the personal impact of, are just one small part of a huge rotten tottering edifice (neoliberal higher education, the UK, white supremacy, global capitalism) and that there are wider issues around access to education and educational achievement that go right back to the preschool level.
A few years ago, I heard Tabish Khair speak about human rights and was struck by his comment that ‘any just claim for rights has to be universal’ – otherwise you’re just fighting for your own self-interest. The ‘rights’ of unfunded students vis à vis funded students are of course as nothing in the greater scheme of things, but his observation is nevertheless applicable, and I wonder what it will take for unfunded students to be included in demands for ‘fair treatment’ by the wider PhD community. If we accept that the system by which funding is allocated still tends to replicate and indeed to exacerbate existing inequalities, then any fight to increase that funding to existing recipients simply further entrenches those inequalities. A better model is surely possible – and it doesn’t just involve blanket funding extensions and more money for those students who already have funding. Maybe we should be looking further afield, to Germany, or various Scandinavian countries – where postgraduate education, like undergraduate education, is free, or nearly free, to all (including international students), funded by the state, rather than being seen as one more income stream for our increasingly underfunded universities.
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