Financing a PhD: The Realities of Being a Self-Funded International Student

A few weeks ago I came across a post on Twitter asking people how many jobs they’d had since they first started working. It got me thinking. I’m currently twenty-six years old and I got my first job when I was fifteen. After doing the maths, I realised that in the eleven years since, I’ve had no less than eighteen jobs. Five of those have been in the two and a half years since I started my PhD.

I’ve been around enough self-funded academics to know that I’m not entirely alone in this scenario. You don’t get five jobs in less than three years because you want them. You exist in the never-ending circle of search, apply, interview, work because you really have no other choice when you’re self-funded, stipend-less and savings-less. It’s a burden that I’ve found is often overlooked in academia.

Because I’ve worked alongside my schooling for eleven years, I’ve found myself normalising my hectic schedule. It’s become almost second nature to work two, sometimes even three, part-time jobs at the same time, on top of my PhD. One pays for groceries, another for rent, another for bills with just enough to let me live a life outside of my studies. Throughout my entire PhD, I’ve never had the opportunity to worry about or focus on just my academic work. I didn’t realise how wild this was until I received a four-month funded extension from my university.

As I stared at the email detailing the amount of money I’ll be getting each month starting this October, I realised a few things. First, that this amount is more than I’ve made monthly even with two jobs in the past three years. Second, that because of this, I won’t have to work on anything besides my academic work for those four months. Third, that I wish I’d been able to have an opportunity like this for my entire PhD.

A messy desk, with items crowding the work area.
An accurate (albeit slightly cleaner) representation of my desk when I’m juggling three jobs with my PhD. Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

I am not so naïve as to believe that even those PhD researchers who receive monthly stipends don’t still struggle with money, especially those who have un-paid caring responsibilities. But I can’t help but wonder what my PhD experience would have been like if I hadn’t had to also juggle several jobs. Would I have been able to say ‘yes’ to more academic opportunities? Would I have been able to attend that expensive conference I had to turn down because I’d already used my college’s research grant for something else that year? I know that the grass is not always as green on the other side of the fence as we think it is, but I do think it would have been just green enough to change my experiences.

As a non-European international student, I wasn’t eligible to apply for funding from most funding bodies when I started my PhD in 2018. I understand that this has changed in the past year. I hope that this change to the rules (even though it was brought on by events I don’t necessarily agree with) will allow students from more places across the world the opportunity to experience a PhD in Scotland that isn’t ridden with more financial worries than they already have to deal with. For example, did you know that the average price for a PhD student to apply for a four-year student Visa (NHS Health Surcharge included) is currently over £2000? And that’s a fee funding doesn’t always help with, regardless of who’s eligible.

Despite the extra work and financial strain, I can’t regret doing my PhD in Scotland. My time here has quite literally changed the trajectory of my life and I’ve made connections that will last. Still, connections don’t always pay the bills. And I’m looking forward to the four months I’ll be able to spend with just my thesis, even if it will be almost three years too late.

Feature Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

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