starting the phd – money matters

It’s rude to talk about money. Indelicate. Unseemly. Well, I’m about to break that unwritten rule. We don’t talk about money and the PhD nearly often enough, in my view.

Why? Well… because at some point during their candidature, some doctoral researchers find their financial situation extraordinarily difficult. They end up going back to their parental home, they live on spare beds in friends’ houses, they squat, they even temporarily occupy 24-hour university facilities. All of this is clearly a huge life problem, as well as making research and writing almost impossible.

Of course, these very difficult situations not every one’s experience. But they are related to generally low levels of scholarship funding, and the competition for temporary work – and these are beyond an individual doctoral researcher and their supervisors to change. They need more collective political attention – and that means talking about it.

But at an individual level, as you start out on the PhD, it’s as well that you consider the worst case financial scenario. What would you do if you run out of money? It’s also helpful to think how you might avoid such fiscal catastrophe.

You see, doing a PhD is very expensive, not only in time and emotional energy. It always takes more money han you think. Even in the most favourable circumstances, it is rare to find someone with a just-completed PhD who doesn’t have maxed out credit cards and some kind of debt to a partner or family, or to a financial institution. All of us have had to make hard decisions about how we will afford to do a PhD.


Because the financial circumstances of doctoral researchers varies, it’s almost impossible to make helpful generalisations about the kinds of money issues you need to consider. For instance, self-funded PhDs and those who have some teaching duties build into their stipends are caught in different kinds of trade-offs than the person who is simply relying on a scholarship.

But here’s a few issues that are important at the start.

You absolutely need to consider your personal expenses. Your rent/mortgage will probably go up during the time you are researching – your food costs certainly will. Travel to and from the university, and parking at it, may well be a significant expense. You may also need new clothes or shoes. ( How do you feel about thrift shops?) And there may be medical/dental/optical expenses. You may have to give up things too – the phone plan, gym membership and the like. If you are paying for child care or after school care, this is likely to be a rising cost. If you have children, are a sole provider and are trying to do the PhD, the potential costs are gi-normous.

You need to think about what is absolutely essential in your life.

And there’s some research related issues too:

  • You may need to buy a new computer, or get a new one as you begin the thesis writing stage. You may have to upgrade your internet, get a new phone…
  • You may need to buy particular equipment. It’s almost always better to have your own audio recorder for example than rely on borrowing one.
  • Your university will probably give you funding for conferences, but they may well expect you to pay this up front and then claim reimbursement. This assumes that you have enough ready funds and/or a functioning credit card. And funding rarely covers the conferences you don’t give a paper at, and usually doesn’t cover all of the costs of the ones where you do. This might sound trivial, but conference costs build up over the time of the PhD.
  • Libraries are great and inter library loans are crucial, but there are likely to be some books that you just want to buy for yourself. Second hand bookshops and conference discounted books become like second homes to most of us during our PhDs.
  • A scholarship may provide some funding for travel to your field work site(s), but this may well be insufficient – the allowance may not take account of the times you have to travel and their various locations.

The truth is that most people end up doing some paid work during their PhD. If they are lucky, this will be within higher education – teaching, research work, or perhaps some kind of administration. But they may well have to go back to the job they are trying to leave – working in temporary posts in nursing, school teaching, clerical work, tutoring and so on. Or they might end up working in a café, bar, parking station, supermarket or call centre just to make the rent and food bill.

It’s as well to think ahead to what you are prepared and able to do by way of work, in case the situation arises.

And let’s not mince words. It’s tough to do a PhD when you are also working at the same time, particularly if it’s shift work. It’s especially difficult to face the last stage of the PhD – writing – when you have serious money worries. It’s a time when you want to have a secure and stable environment so you can just focus on the task at hand.

So it’s as well, as you’re about to start the PhD, to sit down and think hard about money –  what you might need, and what you are able to put in place, for the last long haul. You do need to ask yourself whether doing a PhD is affordable and whether you need to change something about the way your life is organised to relieve potential financial pressures.

Most of us will tell you it’s worth it, but the PhD always costs a lot. Don’t brush those concerns under the proverbial carpet at the start. They won’t go away.


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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15 Responses to starting the phd – money matters

  1. Thanks for talking about this. I only had 3.5 yrs funding for my PhD that ended up taking me just under 5 yrs to complete. I managed to stretch my funding to 4 years, giving me enough time to complete crucial lab experiments, but that still left the writing-up period.

    At the age of 25, I had to move back home to Mum’s, in a city 180 miles from my university, to finish writing up because I couldn’t keep a roof over my head. Once my thesis was submitted, I was able to claim JSA*, and then got a part time admin job while I prepared for my viva and completed my thesis corrections. After all that, and battling severe depression and anxiety, I did achieve my PhD!

    However, more than a year after graduating, I am still paying off my overdraft, nevermind the informal debts I racked up with both my parents and my partner. All together, I owe them in the region of £3-4k.

    *UK benefits system means you can’t claim JSA or housing benefit if you’re registered as a full time student, because you’re “not available to work”. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for writing this, Pat. It’s something I’ve recently been thinking about in relation to the honorary doctorates handed out to people who might have contributed to society or amassed a body of work in a field.
    One major difference between the hard-earned PhD and the honorary bestowment of a doctorate is that the doctoral candidate has to put life on hold to some extent and endure financial, work and relationship sacrifice. Additionally, those receiving honorary doctorates have often already been recognised in some way (financially, societally) for the work or achievements that the honorary doctorate is recognising.
    It’s important to consider the whole-life impact of doing the PhD!


  3. Hana says:

    Hi, this was a great post. I have a PhD scholarship which pays all my fees plus a stipend. It has been fantastic and I don’t think I would have been able to do a doctorate without it. I am trying to write as fast as possible so that I can submit before my money runs out! I have been fortunate to be able to get work at the university lecturing, tutoring and marking which helps provide a bit of a buffer but taking on work means less time spent on writing my PhD so it’s sometimes a tough call whether to take a job to get money and teaching experience or whether it’s more important to get ahead with writing.

    I do think universities need a fairer system with submitting invoices/reimbursement. I have a working partner so can manage to pay for things and then get the money back but for others I can see how it would be near impossible.


  4. monrosa68 says:

    Thanks for this Pat. This resonates well with me. I’m now on the final strait and just lost my part-time job and in my field of work, it is really hard to get one that is just 2 days in the week. Really stressed about it!!


  5. MummyScholar says:

    Your posts are insightful, helpful and you deal with real and practical issues – and this is no exception. Thank you. I would add that ‘money matters’ when you also consider international study. For the majority of international students in the UK who are self-funded, fluctuations in their country’s local currency could raise the cost of paying for PhD fees over the years, significantly. From my personal experience, this could rise by nearly 100% in less than three years!
    Political changes and other factors could potentially decimate a nation’s currency. While this is outside the control of a student planning to study outside their home country, it is very important to think about the likelihood of such changes when planning for a PhD.


  6. Charlotte says:

    As mum of 2 young children I needed to do it part time. There is no funding for part timers. So it is self funded for a Part time phd. The childcare that is now necessary for evening commitments is extortionate. Fortunately I rarely have to work in school holidays. I have taught a little alongside it but the childcare has cancelled out my earnings. I am telling my partner we will be rich when I have finished (ha ha ha).


    • pat thomson says:

      In the U.K. there are part time scholarships – but it depends very much on individual university policy. There aren’t very many around; I have a funded part time person starting this year, first time ever.


  7. Jane S says:

    Thank you, Pat, for daring to step out of line on the open secret of PhD expenses, and the struggles to survive, which, strangely, do not appear visible at the start line.
    In my experience, every doctoral candidate is different; one size doesn’t fit all, but I wish someone had outlined the true costs of research at the beginning ~ e.g., hurdles like the ongoing financial outlays, or staying grounded, or the lack of normal social contact and a sense of isolation.
    I’m self-funded, and registered for part time. P/T’s cheaper, and I predicated cash flow on an early submission date. Big error. Like the Mills of God, research grinds exceeding slow, and universities aren’t always geared to the necessities of also living part-time in the ‘real world.’ Three or four years is a long stretch, and if one’s not careful all perspective is lost. As Deb says, it’s important to consider the whole-life impact of doing a PhD. It’s life-changing.

    The things I believe to be important aren’t universal, but I recommend asking for advice from all quarters. There isn’t a ‘best way’ to do any PhD, but insider knowledge of the territory is vital. Know the procedures, the rules and regs, and draw a time-line, what should be done, by whom, and how and when. Filling in the wrong forms, neglecting progress reports, or formatting your thesis the ‘wrong’ way, could cost you dear.
    Approaching the finish line (hopefully), there are more sneaky costs to add on: printing, binding, graduation garb hire and so on. Unprovided for, unforeseen expenses can make you gulp.

    I did purchase a new desktop PC ~ in hindsight, a wise decision, given the amount of work I’ve done on it. Also, as my research topic is a narrow abstruse niche interest, the cost of academic books became increasingly more prohibitive. Thank goodness for specialised libraries, Amazon 2nd hand and Abebooks, *et al*. Although JSTOR’s provided for, via the uni., the subscriptions to the specialised societies of my academic field, vital resources for research, are not.

    Watch out for the finishing straight. I can see the goal posts looming, faintly, but I’m exhausted, as is my depleted ‘PhD fund’ and indeed my patience. I’ll be glad to abandon my desk. However, whilst the edit and recheck of the thing’s been a plodding nightmare marathon, and I do whinge about demands, in many respects these years have been some of the richest and happiest of my life. I try to remember this when the anxiety neuroses impinge.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. lenandlar says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Just this morning I was telling my wife that I cannot start a PhD soon because of the 2 little boys. I cannot live on a PhD scholarship alone: not with 2 little boys. It’s really about money. I want to focus on a PhD if I ever do and that would mean some sort of financial stability or at least enough for family to live on. Not going to leave what I currently have for 3 years of barely surviving lol


  9. This is such an important post. Once upon a time I had to give up transferring into a doctoral program direct from masters after experiencing extreme financial distress, so money is always something I try to raise with students considering further study. It’s especially true for students considering international PhDs, but it affects everyone.My mantra is if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford to do it (now, or at a particular institution… not necessarily *ever*!). Finding yourself in a position where you are buying groceries with coins you find in the street isn’t conducive to the kind of focus you need to achieve and maintain to do yourself and your project justice in a postgraduate degree. Period. I fear not enough academic colleagues take this pragmatic issue seriously, whether in courting and accepting students, or later on in supervisions, evaluating ‘progress’, setting deadlines, etc. (But on the other hand, while acknowledgement and sympathy at that point are emotionally helpful, it’s a bit too late to start having those discussions once crisis hits.) My gut feeling is that institutions also don’t take this seriously: they set penalties for failing to meet deadlines, submit on time etc., but don’t so much in the way of making sure that the students they accept can put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Having financial conversations first – while scoping out the project/candidature – would certainly go a long way to reducing the problems and their impact, even if you can’t ever plan for all eventualities.


    • Jane S says:

      “My gut feeling is that institutions also don’t take this seriously” – I agree. It’s the elephant in the room no one mentions. Do HE institutions take it as a given, that if you’re there of course you can afford it? Or is it simply, as Pat says, a taboo subject in polite circles, like religion and politics?
      Actually, starting the PhD wasn’t when I over-debated finance. It was such a buzz, finding a supervisor for my topic, and the figures indicated it could be done, if I finished within a certain time …
      Except life tends to intervene, even without any ‘fiscal catastrophe.’ Plus expenses increase year on year. The Canadians call this ‘eduflation,’ but we must meet demands or be de-registered by Deanery or ARC. I mutter that I started so I’ll finish. If close enough to submission, at best an extension may be granted. However, any kind of worrying distraction is inimical to research and writing.
      Pat’s questions are very relevant. I suspect the problem bears comparison to the visible tip and the unseen submerged part of an iceberg.

      Liked by 1 person

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  11. Hayley says:

    Committing to a PhD is not a decision to take halfheartedly! I have just submitted my thesis and am awaiting my viva and my God it’s been a hell of a journey! I’ve summarised the top 5 reasons for and against doing a PhD based on my experience (including money matters!) here- Great post by the way-very helpful for anyone just starting out!


  12. Yunying says:

    Money is really an obvious roadblock for a PhD. (but for other issues I think money does matter too.) I feel PhD’s difficulty from the commencing of my academic work. This is the first year of my PhD. In order to ensure a rather secure life at the beginning of my study, I have to postpone the date of my official study so that I could have more a half a year to earn the initial fund. Plus the emotion distressed, one might feel confused deeply (like me). Possibly I would try to seek more help from the Internet, supervisors, librarians, families, friends around and other PhD students nearby etc. I hope I can settle the problem with determination and motivation. I believe now that I determine to start a new life via PhD, impossibly for me to give it up on a halfway. I am sure that I can finish it even money is an inevitable issue for everyone.


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