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.