Financing? It’s Always About Money

The inevitable question.

UK PhDs in humanities subjects are different than I have found anywhere else. They are, in many ways, exactly like a Masters degree. That is, you pay the university large sums of money and then do all the work yourself.

What I mean is that your supervisor is not going to fund you. Your university is not going to give you teaching jobs that cover your tuition (though they might cover your living expenses if you’re lucky). Your university, basically, wants your money, thanks very much.

If you are a home student (or EU) in the UK, you have a certain number of scholarships that you can apply for. There’s no guarantee you’ll get one, but there are enough options out there that you might get something. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get AHRC funding and not have to worry about tuition at all. Not to mention the extra perks of travel funding it comes with. If you are not one of the lucky ones to get this full scholarship, there are a number of smaller scholarships available and do apply for them all.

If you are an international student…well, how much do you want to do a PhD? That’s basically the question. Some are very lucky and they are funded through their governments or current work organisations, but these are few and far between and, I’ve found, mostly from East Asia. If you’re from North America you’re probably going to end up self-funded. There are some scholarships in your home country that will fund foreign PhDs, but not many, and they usually have such fierce competition that well…I decided even applying wasn’t worth the effort because my chance of getting any of these was about 1%.

If you do end up entirely self-funded, and are not a part-time PhD student and therefore working for a living, then you’ve got some tough decisions to make. The last thing you want is to spend your PhD worrying about how you are going to pay your next round of tuition. University is stressful, you do not need to make it worse. If you are going to do a PhD and do it self-funded, make the decision at the beginning to not worry about money until the end and then keep that promise.

If you go self-funded, you basically have two choices: government or private loans. There may be some other options, but these are the main two. Government loans have a bonus in that most have very nice repayment schedules (and some of them will write your loan off after a period of time). Private, or bank loans (usually, unless your parents are going to give you a massive loan), are less nice in that they have very tight repayment schedules and the bank will destroy your life if you miss them.

I am a self-funded PhD. I will be a self-funded PhD until I pay my loan off. I have a bank loan, and it’s a student loan, which is a bit kinder than a line of credit. It means I have a year from graduation before I have to start paying it back. But it’s a bank loan, so I have been paying hundreds of dollars of interest on it each month for four years now. I will be paying that interest until the last penny of it is paid off. That’s a lot of pressure, since I’m still basically unemployed.

But I decided that it was worth the money. I decided, four years ago, that it was worth not being able to buy a house until, well, never. I decided that it was okay to be in debt for the rest of my working career. I decided that the PhD was worth, basically, always having to worry about money.

But I didn’t worry about money during my PhD. I was careful; I budgeted, I didn’t travel a lot, I worked small jobs when I could, I didn’t go out very much, I only bought the things I needed, etc. But I didn’t worry about how much money living was costing me. Yes, every year when I paid my tuition I cried a bit, but it was never not worth it.

It still isn’t. I’m happy with my decision, but it’s one that will effect the next twenty or so years of my life and limit my options in a lot of ways. I knew that. But the PhD opens up other options, and I can only hope I break even on those at the end of the day. A PhD can lead to so many amazing things, and I will have the opportunity to work in amazing places and travel and meet people I would never have met otherwise. And, on the flip side, I will be in debt a long time. But that’s okay. To me, the PhD is more important than a mortgage.

But that’s my choice, and you have to carefully, carefully, weigh your options and understand this is not a light decision.

My best advice is to get a scholarship. It really will make things easier.


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