The Ins and Outs of Self-Funding Your PhD

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” — G.K. Chesterton

J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit, is about a hobbit named Bilbo who is thrown into an adventure. When Gandalf first approaches him and gives the first hint that an adventure is lurking, Bilbo responds, “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today. Good morning! But please come to tea – any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Goodbye!” If this is your attitude toward adventure, then the self-funded Ph.D. is not for you.

Self-funding your Ph.D. has a strong connotation of not being good enough to get into a program. A superficial search on the world wide web would discourage one who is looking for good reasons to self-fund their Ph.D. A typical comment like this one on Academia StackExchange is: “Unless you’re independently wealthy I think it is always unwise to do an unfunded Ph.D. program. With the current academic market the way that it is, there’s just no guarantee that you will get a good job with the Ph.D. that will allow you to quickly pay off your debt.”

However, in the humanities, which has the lowest field salary for Ph.D.s, 20% of students used their own resources to complete their Ph.D. Some Ph.D.’s describe the experience as something like an adventure. The definition of adventure is An unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity. Some adjectives associated with adventure are Brave; Courageous; Bold; Daredevil. If you have gotten to the place of applying for a Ph.D., some of these adjectives likely apply to you. As with all good adventures, some preparation is necessary, unless you’re planning to join a company of dwarves who have done all the planning for you. Here are some ways to get ready for the adventure!

WHY, WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, HOW

To help sort out the important questions, we will change the order of the commonly known “Five Ws” (sometimes referred to as Five Ws and How). These questions, according to Wikipedia, “whose answers are considered basic in information gathering or problem-solving” will help to do just that in exploring the ins and outs of self-funding a Ph.D. The order has been changed because self-funding a Ph.D. requires a person to know why they want to pursue the degree and whether they are able to withstand the pressures before they decide on the what, when, where and how.

WHY

Determine why you want to do a Ph.D. People jump into this endeavor for a variety of reasons. Giving up years of your life, a regular income and set hours is an adventure in itself, let alone self-funding a large amount of money in order to do so. Make sure that you narrow down your reasons and do some careful self-analysis. Some good reasons might be:

  • You are ambitious, not about making money, but about challenging yourself to learn new things and complete difficult tasks. You are an achiever. This attitude will be an asset to self-funders.
  • You wish to better yourself. Perhaps you have always been curious and love learning new things. You want to learn as much as you can about a topic in order to be the best person that you can be. Those types of people make excellent researchers.
  • You are suited to it. Perhaps your whole life, you have known that you wanted a terminal degree. You are fascinated with detail and have always been a tremendous reader. Maybe you are good at honing in on certain issues or subjects and learning everything you can about them. You may even have a life-long interest in a particular subject.

Some bad reasons could be:

  • You want to keep your visa. According to The Ph.D. Application Handbook by Peter Bentley, “You must not use a Ph.D. as a method to stay close to your friends or family, any more than you should commit a crime and have yourself locked up in jail. It is not worth it. And jail is the cheapest and easiest option by far.”
  • You have an inferiority complex. Peter Bentley calls something similar to this a misplaced genius complex. If you feel a need to prove yourself but don’t have the talent, be honest with yourself. Listen to the advice of the professionals around you. Especially that of your master’s thesis director or professors that you have worked with. Earn respect in other ways.
  • “I’ve worked in this field, it will be easy!” Working in a field is nothing like doing a Ph. D. in that field. Just like working in astronautics won’t prepare you for going to the moon, doing a Ph.D. is a unique experience. Take the advice of people who have done it; getting a Ph.D. is challenging, grueling and life-changing.
  • People will be disappointed. If you are feeling pressure from parents, friends or a partner to do your Ph.D. but you aren’t sure, take time away to determine what you want. As you will be the one going through the program and not them, doing a Ph.D. to please others will not keep you going when it gets hard. It will also be a temptation to blame them if things don’t go well. Unless they are willing to fund it!

Knowing why you want to do your Ph.D. is the very important first step to deciding to self-fund it. Before you wake up in your 30s having moved half a dozen places with little money and over-qualified for the jobs available, you need to know exactly why you are choosing to do your Ph.D. Loving your subject and having accomplished something that puts you with only 3.27% of U.S. population should leave you feeling very satisfied.

WHO

Who, Me?

Already having identified some adjectives that could describe a person that is cut out for self-funding: Brave, Bold, Courageous and Daredevil, some others could be added to the list: Foolhardy, Rash and Reckless. Any Ph.D. student will feel himself or herself to be foolhardy at least sometimes. Do a self-analysis to make sure that these last three adjectives are not your defining characteristics. You will need all the confidence you can get when things get tough. According to a Times Higher Education article, blog posts show that Ph.D. students are embarrassed to be self-funded. Determine whether you are courageous enough to survive the stigma. Ways to survive the perceived or real criticisms that will come your way will differ according to whether you are more introverted or extroverted. Here are some ways that being introverted or extroverted will help or hurt you as a self-funded Ph.D. student.

 

  • Introverted Ph.D. Students
    • Being Alone – Since introverts prefer being alone, a self-funded introvert Ph.D. student will need to work hard to network and put his/her ideas where colleagues and professors can see them. An introvert will likely have a deep love of the subject they are studying and that will create a brilliance that comes through in their work.
    • Concentration – Most introverts can make a long list of their weaknesses. This makes them perfectionists since they can always find what needs fixing. However, in order to stay confident, a self-funded Ph.D. introvert should concentrate on their strengths and use their perfectionism to improve their study where they will find it to be truly useful!
    • Fear of Failure – Everyone fears failure, but introverts seem to be especially good at it. Beginning a self-funded Ph.D. program leaves no room for a fear of failure. According to the blog IntrovertSpring, introverts “need to use fear as a fuel, because it will not only pump the necessary adrenaline for you to focus but also prove that what you’re doing matters.”
    • Fear of Public Speaking – The fear of public speaking is another common fear. In fact, 97% of people have a slight fear of public speaking (those lucky 3%!).  Most people, though, associate introverts with being quiet and keeping to themselves. Less known is that introverts love speaking about what they are interested in. Use your love for the subject you know about to engage others in the department (or those who may fund you!).

  • Extroverted Ph.D. Students
    • Energized by Socializing – This quality is an obvious asset to an extroverted Ph.D. Student, especially one who is self-funded. Networking with colleagues and professors as well as marketing one’s skills in the funding arena are both made easier by the desire to socialize. Extroverts must make sure not to neglect their studies because of too much desire to socialize.
    • Open and Willing to Share – Though introverts like to share what they know, extroverts like to share everything! Sharing their insights and discoveries will help extroverted Ph.D.’s to excel in their learning department. Keep back, however, the feelings of insecurity about self-funding. It’s important to have a confident front on that issue. Instead, find a close friend for emotional support.
    • Solve Problems Through Discussion – This trait of extroverts is what boosts their creativity, just as being alone boosts introverts’ creativity. Brainstorming is a vital part of the creative process, though extroverts may need to work on spending some time alone to sort through ideas that they eventually bring to the group.
    • Often Described as Friendly and Approachable – Extroverts will do well at departmental parties or in group discussions. However, since a large part of the world are introverts, therefore a large part of the department will be as well. Extroverts can use their friendly, approachable nature to listen to others and gain the trust of those around them. Gaining the trust of colleagues will help a self-funded Ph.D. student to rid himself or herself of the nagging worries of not being qualified.
    • Love to Talk – Nab the quality of the introvert in talking about the things you know. Don’t overexpose yourself to other students and professors who may, rightly or wrongly, already be suspicious of your qualifications.

The verywellmind will help potential students to explore these extroverted signs. Determining your strengths and weaknesses will prepare you more adequately for the challenges of self-funding a Ph.D.

WHAT   

According to Collins Dictionary the whatness of a thing is “what something is; the essence of something.” Merriam Webster includes the word whatness as one of the top ten words that need to be revived. Let’s oblige Merriam Webster and explore the whatness of a Ph.D. and also the whatness of self-funding it.

According to the website, FindAPhd, “A Ph.D. is a postgraduate doctoral degree, awarded to students who complete an original thesis offering a significant new contribution to knowledge in their subject. Ph.D. qualifications are available in all subjects and are normally the highest level of academic degree a person can achieve.”

To self-fund a Ph.D., a student uses “funds awarded by charities, working whilst studying, or using funds provided by family means.” The definition of self-funding will get us started on the “how” down below.

Along with sheer whatness, knowing what to expect is also a vital part of preparing for the adventure. Many of the basics: long days; extra hours working; not much money etc. have already been mentioned and will likely come up again. But, look at the statistics of the field you will be studying in. To make sure that the Ph.D. is for you, make sure you know what to expect as far as your future income. Especially in Humanities, there will be more people who have Ph.D.’s than there are positions to fill. In some fields, if you love your work, and unless you want the particular challenge of finishing a Ph.D., you may be just as well off financially if you stick with your master’s degree. From the U.S. Census Bureau, here are some statistics with the percent difference in doctorate to master’s earnings:

  • Biological Science – 27%
  • Business – 9%
  • Communications – 30%
  • Computers and Math – 10%
  • Education – 24%
  • Engineering – 7%
  • Liberal Arts – 10%
  • Literature – 13%
  • Physical Science – 20%
  • Psychology – 33%
  • Science and Engineering Related – 30%
  • Social Science – 17%
  • Visual Arts – 14%

With the average being 6%, here is a look from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the job outlook in the same fields:

  • Biological Science – 11%
    • Teaching Biological Science – 15%
  • Business – 14%
  • Communications – 10%
  • Computers and Math
    • Software Development – 24%
    • Computer Systems Analyst – 9%
    • Mathematics and Statisticians – 33%
  • Education
    • Postsecondary Teachers – 33%
  • Engineering
    • Managers – 6%
    • Surveyors – 11%
  • Liberal Arts
    • Historians – 6%
    • English/Postsecondary Teachers – 15
  • Literature
    • Postsecondary teachers – 15%
  • Physical Science – 15%
  • Psychology – 14%
  • Social Sciences – 15%
  • Visual Arts – 6%

To find your exact field, visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

WHEN

Ultimately, when to start your Ph.D. is up to you. To take the advice of those who have successfully completed their degrees, however, is a smart way of adequately preparing yourself. Ph.D.’s are happy to give advice. Listening to the advice of someone who has been there, especially when self-funding, is one of the best ways to get ready.

Save Up

According to Dr. Stephen McGlinchey, writing for E-International Relations, self-funding Ph.D. students should only consider self-funding when they have worked hard for a couple of years and saved up. McGlinchey says,

“The amount of money will depend on your own situation. I would recommend it should be enough to pay all of your bills for at least 1 year if all else fails. This ‘scholarship slush fund’ will save you from money-stress when you need to scale back on paid work to write up…or to handle a personal issue…or if you need to go on an unplanned data gathering trip to rescue your research…or if a part-time job that you are relying on folds for whatever reason (and so on…). It will insulate you while you readjust and realign.”

Wait at Least a Year.

Andy Greenspon, a Ph.D. student in Applied Physics in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, advises all potential Ph.D. students to take a break before they dive in. Greenspon says that the kinds of things that they should carefully consider are whether they are certain about the type of research that they want to do, where they want to live for the next 5 years and whether they are prepared to stay in an academic environment for nine years straight.

“Many people burn out or end up trudging through their Ph.D. program without a thought about what lies outside of or beyond it. A break of a year or two or even more may be necessary to gain perspective. If all you know is an academic environment, how can you compare it to anything else? Many people take a job for five or more years before going back to get their Ph.D.”

This advice particularly applies to those who are self-funding their Ph.D.’s. Taking some time to save up and seriously consider whether the sacrifice is worth it is time well spent.

Don’t Wait Too Long.

However, Greenspon also points out that waiting too long may not be a good thing either. If you are out of the academic environment it may be a difficult transition to come back into it. However, doing a research job for a year two would be ideal. It can help you to focus your interests and give you an advantage over the competition when you apply. It can also help you to decide whether you will enjoy full-time research or an alternate career path that could be still in your general field. There are four main employment options for a doctoral researcher:

  1. Academic – working within higher education
  2. Alternative Academic – working within higher education, but branching out into non-academic areas such as careers advice or fundraising
  3. Research, Publishing, and Consultancy – researching in your area but working for an outside group like the government or a private company
  4. Professional – working in a sector where you use your skills but not your area of expertise

Taking time, but not too much time, to consider which employment option best suits you will help you to develop a focus area.

WHERE

Location, Location, Location

Location, location, location is the real estate agent’s mantra. Because choosing a home means that you will live there and where you live is even more important than whether the bathroom in a home needs renovating. How does a real estate slogan apply to choosing where to do a Ph.D.? Don’t forget, you will be living there.

Contrary to what you may imagine, Ph.D. students don’t sit at a desk or in a classroom 24/7. There are many things to consider when choosing the location of where you want to do your self-funded Ph.D.

Your Interests

According to Andy Greenspon, the first thing to consider when choosing where to do a Ph.D. program is, “Is there research at this university that I am passionate about?” One of the main reasons that people self-fund a Ph.D. is because universities will only fund certain topics. In order to keep a department well-rounded, not every marine biology student can the effects of harmful plankton on farmed fish health.

Stephen McGlinchey, who self-funded his Ph.D., soon realized that he would have to bend his original topic to “suit the categorizations in effect for the major funding bodies in the application processes.” When he considered why he would go through all the work of completing a Ph.D. and end up studying something that didn’t interest him, he decided to self-fund.

“In the end, I decided that to spend nearly 4 years of my life on something, it needed to be something that I fully owned. Being self-funded gave me the freedom to mold my topic/question over the first 6 months of the Ph.D. – and not be locked into something that I was being paid to produce on spec by a funding body.”

Support

Department – Because of the possibility of limited moral support or a lack of in-depth feedback from the faculty or department, if a supportive department and supervisor are available, this should be a big factor in deciding where to do the Ph.D. According to FindAPhD.com, “It helps a lot during a Ph.D. if you like, or at least respect, your supervisor and other colleagues, so bear this in mind when getting to know them and making your choice.”

Surroundings – Other support you may need is from family, friends, your religious group and even nature. Do you love city life, or do you relax better in nature? Are you a homebody? Try to imagine living in the area of the university and see if it appeals to you. Think about the activities you like to do outside of your studies, are there opportunities for these? No matter how exciting the programs look, if you are not in a place you feel comfortable, there may not be the opportunity to mitigate the inevitable stress that accompanies pursuing your Ph.D.

Finances – A third support you will need is financial. Where you live can grant you even financial support. Unless you are independently wealthy, funding a Ph.D. program will make for an awfully thin pocketbook. Looking at the cost of living at the universities you are considering is important. For example, the monthly rent for 900 square feet in Boston, MA is $2,855 whereas the cost for the same square footage in St. Louis, MO is $1,046. That extra $1,500 a month could make the difference when it comes to finishing your Ph.D.

Reputation

The reputation of a university is not as important as the reputation of the specific department that you will be joining. Joining a university that has a reputable department in your field will give you the best collaboration, teaching, and professional connections that will stay with you throughout your career. When you interview for a job, prospective employers will be looking closely at the people that you worked with and at your department as well as at the research you completed.

Visit the University

Take the opportunity to visit the university and the department that you are considering for your Ph.D. You may be asked to give an interview during the selection process. If so, take the chance to tour the school. While you are there, ask questions about:

  • The working norm at the institution
  • The frequency of group seminars
  • How many Ph.D. students are in your field
  • Whether there are internal discussion groups or presentations

HOW

When considering the option of self-funding your Ph.D., “How” is probably the first question that comes to mind. But if you’ve already decided that you are not ready for that step by asking yourself the questions before this one, then you don’t have to spend the time stressing about how to finance the Ph.D. A self-funded Ph.D. does not necessarily mean that all of the money has to come out of your own pocket. There are many other options to pursue. It may be time-consuming to look into other options for funding but it very likely will pay off, and you will learn the valuable skill of marketing yourself and your work.

Funding Options

Work – Working at the university could later apply for a scholarship. Working a side job is difficult but it has been done and there is advice that can be found from people who have done it. There may even be people in the department that can connect you with the right job.

Because you are doing a Ph.D. you should be qualified for something that pays more than minimum wage. When you are intensively working toward a terminal degree, time is money and making as much as you can in as little time as possible is optimal. Some students have successfully completed their degree working full time. Financially, this would be the best option. However, the time commitment is equivalent to two full-time jobs. Below are some options for part-time jobs that would keep you in your field and pay fairly well, along with their average wage per hour.

  • Tutoring – $17.28
  • Consulting – $42.97
  • Grant Writing – $24.11
  • Security Guard (though this doesn’t pay well, it often allows you to get some studying in at work, as long as you stay alert!) – $11.07
  • Part Time Teaching – $29.52
  • Your Own Business – $25 – $40

Charitable Institutions/Other – Look into charitable institutions or trust funds that may fund your field of study.  Some charities are general and will have a wide interest group that they fund. The applications are generally short, so it may not be as time-consuming as it sounds. Try to be creative and persuasive. Hone your writing skills and your self-advertising. Start with the charities listed on the website of the institution that you plan to attend and branch out from there. Also, consider talking to the postgrad officer in your school. There may be some unique options that you haven’t thought of.

Government Loans – Although government loans are an option for completing one’s Ph.D., they have to be used carefully since they can turn into a huge headache down the road. Carefully analyze your potential salary, realistically, before turning to government loans as an option. Three options for graduate school loans are:

  • Federal Stafford Loans
    • Students may receive up to $20,500 per year of unsubsidized Stafford loans with a limit of $138,500 which includes loans borrowed while obtaining an undergraduate degree. Interest begins accruing as soon as the loan is disbursed, and while the rate is fixed, the amount is based on when the loan was first disbursed.
  • Federal Graduate PLUS Loans
    • Graduate students may borrow up to the cost of attendance for the year – which can include some living expenses – minus other aid received. There is no annual or aggregate limit to graduate PLUS loans. There is a mild credit check with the option of an endorser. Interest accrues from disbursement and payments are due six months after you become less than half-time or graduate. There is an origination fee.
  • Private Loans
    • Private loans have higher payments and fewer forgiveness options. This option should only be considered as a last resort for small amounts.

“If you live like a lawyer when you’re a student, you’ll live like a student when you’re a lawyer.”- old saying

Budget – A penny saved is a penny earned. According to World University Rankings, 15% of students find the biggest stress during school is to be financed, which make finances equal in stress to exams for most students. Do some serious number crunching and budgeting, once you have your financing lined up, in order to save every penny. Do what you can to lower your standard of living. Remember all a person really needs is food and shelter…and a Ph.D.

  • Use a budget app
  • Live below your means
  • Identify the biggest expenses like housing and transportation and find creative ways to minimize cost
  • Ask people who have done it!

If you decide to go ahead and self-fund your Ph.D., keep your eyes on the goal. Reaching it, like Bilbo, you will come home with your treasure, richer and wiser for the adventure you chose to go on. You will also have gained years of work and life experience that will make you, in some ways, more qualified than funded Ph.D. students. In the words of blogger Stephen McGlinchey:

“The flexibility that I had in my self-funded Ph.D. was liberating…I’m very satisfied with the end result, and it has been very profitable for me intellectually and career-wise. I can honestly say, if I had to do it again, I would not do it differently. The mistakes I did make were all part of a rewarding learning experience.”

Reverse cannot befall
That fine Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior —
As soon — Adversity – Emily Dickinson