Recently I made a post about the cost of living crisis, offering some suggestions about how you might be able to ease the burden during your research while costs increase. In that article, I pointed out that, outside of any external economic crises, the stipend is less than minimum wage.
However, it has been pointed out that the article doesn’t tackle the fact that, in real terms, the stipend has actually decreased for most us. Some found that the article was out of touch, and that it looked as if SGSAH, as a funding body, were palming off PhD researchers by putting the onus on us to manage our finances better, rather than tackling the diminishing nature of the stipend itself.
In this week’s article, I wanted to come back to this topic and clear up a few things.
SGSAH and the SGSAH blog
First of all, I thought it might be useful to explain the SGSAH blog, its relationship to the funding body, and the role of the blogging intern. Please note that I can only speak from personal experience and can’t comment on the experience of those who ran the blog before me. However, it’s important for me to point out the nature of the relationship.
SGSAH employed me to undertake the internship based on my experience of managing blogs before. I spoke to Mariam Jack, the Media and Communications Administrator, and Vesna Curlic, the previous blogging intern. We discussed the general scope of the blog and ideas on how to run it, but both were clear that it was up to me to oversee it as I saw fit. Since then, SGSAH has had zero editorial influence. I personally choose the topics and themes, put out calls for guest posts, and edit them for uploading. There is, in fact, very little communication with SGSAH during this internship, because there’s rarely any need for me to discuss the blog with them. Mariam and the rest of the team are incredibly helpful and are on hand if I need them, though.
I choose topics based on my own experience, and within the ethos of the blog, which is effectively peer advice. SGSAH never, ever choose the topics and, so far, have neither edited posts on my behalf, or prevented me from discussing a topic. Rather than being a mouthpiece of the funding body, the blog is offered as a platform for SGSAH-funded researchers to have their say.
In August and September, we’ll be opening up the blog to two specific themes, Women in Research and the Race Equality Charter (and associated issues) respectively, and this is being led by two interns from University of St. Andrews, Amy and Gyasiwa. I’ve advised both that they should feel comfortable to speak freely, raise whatever issues are pressing in those communities, and not worry about calling truth to power where necessary.
The point here is that the blog is actually a free space for expression and is merely a platform provided for our funder by them, but run by us. So we choose the topics, and the content, never the funding body itself.
While it’s true that the stipend is under minimum wage at the best of times, and is decreasing in real terms due to the cost of living crisis, and that it’s important to discuss and lobby on these matters, my intention in writing the blog about managing our funds was to share advice based on my own personal experience.
I’m 43 and have all of the costs associated with that. I live on my own, so there is no second income. I have carried out a lot of paid work during the PhD in order to give myself a better standard of living, but that does not come without it’s own costs to health and wellbeing, and there are times when it’s simply not possible to work extra.
That’s why I decided to take a look at my own finances, budgeting and getting rid of non-essential items (saving £120 a month by getting rid of non-essential subscriptions, for instance). This was an important step in managing my way through this crisis. Does this mean that I think these actions replace an increased stipend? No, not at all. I personally think that even if the stipend is increased, I am still in a position where I have to be increasingly realistic about where my money goes, and how I can make savings.
I grew up working class, in a household that always had to very carefully manage money, but I had to learn for myself later in life how to do this better. But that childhood gave me an awareness of what it’s like to live on meagre means and to have to go without at times. And in my adult life as a nascent freelancer, I spent 5 years on subsistence wages while I tried to build a portfolio and client base.
So, my tips aren’t coming from a place of detachment from reality; rather, they are serious suggestions that come from my own personal experience.
You might see them as meaningless. However, they are genuine actions I’ve taken to mitigate the increase in (particularly) energy costs and allow me to continue to put food on my table and keep a roof over my head.
You may find them useful, you may not. However, the article was in no way intended to act as a cover or mask for the very real issues that surround the stipend. One does not preclude the importance of the other.
SGSAH and its role in the stipend
During lockdown, SGSAH were instrumental in lobbying AHRC to provide extensions to student funding for those who were affected by the crisis. For full transparency, I’m one of those students who gained an extension, because the pandemic had a knock on effect on my living situation and other areas of my life that got in the way of my research.
Now, with the cost of living crisis looming large in our minds, it’s understandable that we should question SGSAH’s role in helping with this. I spoke to SGSAH Director Prof. Claire Squires about this issue after the previous article had been discussed online. She advised that the DTP Director’s Group (of which she is a member) is currently involved in lobbying the AHRC for an increased stipend rate. They are aware of the issue and, like they did during the pandemic, are actively pushing for change in this area.
Is that enough? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe SGSAH haven’t communicated that fact clearly enough to researchers. Maybe it’s not transparent enough what’s actually being discussed in those meetings. Having already pointed out that the stipend is less than minimum wage to begin with, I certainly don’t feel compelled to say that SGSAH 100% understand the situation, nor that I know for sure what is being discussed, with whom, or when we might expect to hear about real-world outcomes from those meetings.
Neither am I going to sit here and suggest that the real humans who work for SGSAH are doing nothing in this regard, nor that they haven’t achieved results in past situations with regards to finance (specifically their lobbying around extensions, which they did update us on regularly in their newsletters). As with most things in life, the reality is more complex, and maybe the funder and the research cohorts need to discuss this with each other more.
Ultimately, this post is designed to make it clearer for our readers who we are, what we’re doing and what our relationship is with the parent body. As current intern, it’s my sole decision what gets discussed here (including this article) – if you disagree with the content, that’s fine, but please don’t assume that the blog content is shaped or designed by the funding body that provides the platform, or that the funder would actively try to efface the issue of the value of the stipend with money-saving tips.
Running the blog is a great opportunity for researchers to increase their skills, grow their network, share some of their own research, discuss pertinent issues around study, and open the platform up to others. I’d hate to think that people might be put off applying for the post in the future because they somehow think they’ll be a mouthpiece for the larger organisation. It’s simply not the case.
As I say in nearly every post, though, if you have something you want to say around this or any other article, it would be useful to engage me (or whoever else is running the blog in the future) and have a conversation about it. I’m always happy to chat! There are times people will disagree with the blog, its content, with me generally, and that’s fine. Sometimes, like now, these issues will compel me to refine my thoughts or perspective or to try to offer more insight on a subject.
And if you have a particular perspective on the stipend or any other issue with funding and you want to talk about it more, why don’t you drop me a line and pitch me a guest post?