Guest Post: Funding Nightmares

Kristy is a fellow PhD student (or I’m a fellow former PhD student). A few months ago I asked some of my colleagues if they wouldn’t mind writing about their own experiences with the PhD, or an aspect that they have found particularly difficult. Here is Kristy’s reply to that request:


Ever since a friend and colleague asked me to contribute to her blog, I have been thinking about appropriate topics. What words of wisdom could I offer you, the reader, about life as a PhD student. I thought about how to handle coursework, being a distance student means I have the freedom to… shall we say ignore (?) my homework until that email comes in that I’m due for a chat with my advisor. I thought about offering advice on choosing your program… after all that’s the number one question people ask me: “Why Leicester?” But none of those inspired me into a writing frenzy (although I feel that a caveat is necessary here… does anything spur a writing frenzy when you are mid-PhD?) so back to the drawing board I went. What I decided on for this post was a cautionary tale of how to approach funding your PhD.

Since I was a little girl I had planned on a PhD. I remember a conversation about how I wanted to be a doctor like my grandpa, but I didn’t want to go to medical school (keep reading and you’ll discover a bit of irony here). I wanted to be an archaeologist, share the stories of the past through the material culture of by-gone eras. Turns out you can be a doctor in just such a subject and without medical school! Well by nine I was sold on the idea, I didn’t care much for school but I was going to be a doctor someday no matter what it took. Fierce determination or a stubborn Scot, either way my mind was made up. By age 15 I had a part time job at a museum and was loving it. My 12 years (yes 12!!!) at the “Farm” (as we lovingly called our museum) gave me the solid foundation I needed to build my career. It was the best of all worlds, I could play dress up and pretend I lived in the 1880’s from 9 to 5 during the summer, I lead archaeological digs, summer camps, winter outreach programs and learned an insane amount of party tricks like putting up a tipi by myself and starting a fire with flint and steel. Not to mention I honed my ability to cook with fire so in the event of that forecasted Zombie Apocalypse, I’m set. Ah but I digress…

When I finished my BA in Anthropology I took over as site manager at the museum and discovered that there is a world of untapped programs and audiences for museums large and small. Over the past decade I have worked with community organizations and museums to build partnerships for audience development and inclusion. I mention this 1) because this idea of fostering community involvement in museums is really interesting and I’ll have to write about it later; and 2) It’s worth noting that I have worked in the museum sector since day one of my working life, I have little private industry experience and my bank account proves it (which causes sleepless nights when paying thousands in tuition bills every year).

Fast forward to 2012, I graduated with one of the first classes out of Johns Hopkins’ new Museum Studies MA Program. I could go on about this program but only 2 things are important now 1) it renewed my interest in academics … remember that dream to be a “doctor” and 2) it was a distance learning course, meaning I didn’t have to set foot on campus until I walked in graduation. But it was not a show up in your pjs and study part time type of course, this program does it’s university proud requiring all the rigors and discipline expected of any other JHU master program. I walked away with a passion for museums and creating spaces that inspired the same passion for all the visitors that walked through a museum. I waited almost a month after graduation before I started talking about PhD’s and what an acceptable topic of research would be. At the same time life surprised me in one of the best ways. While on a trip to Canada I met a funny and talented man who, it turns out, makes an amazing husband 😉   And here begins my story…

In 2013 my contract ended at the organization I had worked with for five years, I was sad to leave but excited to embark on some grand adventures. C and I had picked a wedding date and we decided I should immigrate to Canada, because we weren’t sure how long it would take to get my residency and find a job I also decided to apply for a PhD program. I had researched and researched what school would support my interests and agree to this radical new idea of “museum therapy” and settled on two. One a Museum Studies program at the University of Leicester and the other a Medical Humanities program at the University of Toronto (yes folks, the irony is I am actually working on building a bridge between medicine and museums, which requires me to spend lots of time working with patients in hospitals, Grandpa would be proud!).

By July 2014 I had moved to Toronto and received my acceptance packet for the University of Leicester. I was so excited to get started that I called just about everyone I knew and then quickly emailed the school back with my intention to start study in the fall term. Then the most horrible thing arrived in my mailbox: The Tuition Bill!

I remember someone once telling me that I needed to learn to dip my toes in the water instead of just jumping in. This would have been an instance where I should have dipped… or at least researched the commitment I was about to make. But alas, I had assumed that this program would work like my masters program (as this too would be distance learning so that I could stay in Toronto), and didn’t put too much thought into funding. After all I had received student loans with a very acceptable interest rate which I paid off early and was sure that it would be a matter of weeks before a museum in Toronto reviewed my CV and would offer me a job.

Nothing could have been further from that dream if I had tried to make it so. Two years into my program I’m self-employed and am taking odd contracts for cultural institutions, as a new resident in a foreign country I am not eligible for tuition loans (actually I was not eligible to open a bank account or even a credit card until I had my first paycheck), nor does the school I chose to attend recognize or accommodate the loans I applied for through the US Department of Education. In a few short months I learned that although the school was overjoyed with what I could bring to their long list of accomplishments, I was not actually going to get any financial support from the institution… not even the confirmations of enrolment required for my US loans. This left me devastated and with a bright red account balance. I thought about quitting… I still think about quitting when I lay awake at nights wondering where I’m going to get my next paycheck. But I won’t, I can’t, it may sound cliché but I have come too far. Last fall I got a punch to the gut. The school was going to suspend my studies because of an outstanding balance (a minimal outstanding balance, mind you), and after six months of emails with a paper trail of appeals for help that would probably go to the moon and back, I was not further along than when I first asked for help in finding a funding solution. That’s when my motivation took over; I was not going to let this institution take an opportunity away from me, one that I worked so hard to get. I picked up odd jobs, and am still working odd jobs to keep the finance office off my back. It’s stressful, depressing, and fully affecting my ability to study, but I’m determined to keep going because there is a larger community at stake. My patients, and all the patients in the future that will experience the joys of museums and the memories they inspire need me to finish my research. I have learned to accept that I am now in a unique situation, but I hope I’m not alone.

**we should take a moment to breathe**

This experience has opened my eyes to the stories I’ve heard from others, but just couldn’t believe, how could a school not take the time to support its student body, especially the graduate students that are forging their careers and will carry their alma mater with them on their professional journeys?   I don’t have an answer but I do have words of encouragement. It’s worth it… all the blood, sweat, and tears… they are worth it. When you get to write and research about what you are passionate about, it’s worth it. When you walk into a patient’s room or a memory care ward and you get to discuss a museum, an exhibit, or an artifact and see their face light up, it’s worth it. These raging whirlwinds of ups and downs are all worth it. In the end, like many of you reading this, I will be a doctor. I will have created a foundation for hospitals and museums to use to bridge the gap between health care and museums. I will help patients and their families create memories and positive health care experiences. In the end I know I am already making a difference in my community, I see it every day.

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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.