Advice on Doing a PhD: Funding

Saturday, 10 December 2011


One of the most recurring email topics I get is requests for advice regarding doing a PhD. I get questions like: Should I do a PhD? What’s the process like? How do you prepare a PhD proposal/application? How many years does it take? How do you begin to write? How easy is it to get an academic job when you finish (oh dear, I will have to crush some dreams answering this one)? And so on, and so on. It takes me ages to answer these emails, and I think it might be more logical to start answering the topics raised in these emails here. I wanted to condense all the questions I’ve received into one post, but when I started to write it, I realised how unrealistic that is. Each question alone deserves a single post devoted to it, if not more. So I’m using this post to kick-off what will be a series of posts devoted to advice about doing a PhD. Hopefully, I’ll also include other people’s experiences and tips, besides my own, in future posts.

I do want to point out that while I’m happy to share my experiences and offer any tips I can, everything I write is based on my own personal experiences. Undertaking a PhD is just like everything else in life: a varied and subjective process. There may be people who have done a PhD who will disagree with me, and that’s totally fine. I really don’t claim to be any sort of authority. I’m also no expert, so I suggest that if you want some truly sound advice about what the process of doing a PhD is like, it might be best to contact the department or Graduate Research School at the university in which you are thinking of undertaking a PhD. They will provide you with the most accurate advice.

I thought it would be a good idea to start with the most popular question I get: how on earth do you fund a PhD? Here’s my funding story ...


The only way I could afford to do a PhD myself was because I was awarded two scholarships that acted as a salary while I was undertaking it. I also did some teaching at the university and a paid teaching internship, which helped out a lot. The conditions for these scholarships required that I did not undertake more than 8 hours of extra paid work a week while I was being funded by the scholarships. The purpose of this is of course to make you focus on your PhD and not get distracted. But PhD scholarships, even the top ones, aren’t exactly a high salary – we’re talking minimum wage here (and lower). In some cases, I’m not sure they alone would cover everyone’s living expenses, depending on where you live and what other responsibilities you have in your life. For example, people with children and families, or with high rent, would suffer under the low wage of scholarship money. I only had to take care of myself, so I managed. So even if you are planning to apply for PhD scholarships to fund your candidature, depending on your particular financial and family situation, you might like to consider saving up for a while before undertaking a PhD, so you have back-up funds.

There are two main ways that you can fund a PhD: a scholarship, or your own personal funds. Some people work full-time, part-time, and casual jobs while doing a PhD. This is tough. You have to consider that doing a PhD is itself a full-time job, and it sometimes requires more hours than a full-time job, especially when you get to the later stages. Many people who work alongside doing a PhD have to resort to applying for a part-time PhD candidature, rather than a full-time one. While this gives you more time to complete the PhD and work alongside it, be aware that it will also mean extending the PhD process by a good few years, which can be annoying.

Although the majority of my PhD was funded via scholarships, they are generally only awarded for an average of three years in Australia for full-time students (I’m not sure what the deal is in America, the UK, or elsewhere), with the possibility of about 6 months extension. Nobody that I know has finished a PhD in three years. It would be naive to assume you could realistically do this, unless you’re an incredible genius. I finished my PhD in about 4 and a half years. So when my scholarship money ran out, I lived on savings, and when they ran out, I went back to work. These last few months of working and finishing the PhD were the toughest in my life and I really don’t recommend doing this unless you absolutely have to. Ideally, it would have been great to have more savings, so basically, my advice is, scholarship or no scholarship, save some money before you start!


As for actually getting scholarships, this is often a matter of how good your previous academic record is. Both of my scholarships were awarded based on academic merit, and one of them I received for being the highest ranked student in the Faculty of Arts for the year that I had applied for a PhD. I knew I wanted to do a PhD when I was undertaking my undergraduate and Honours degree, so I worked my butt off to get good grades. When I applied for a PhD, I also applied for the general government scholarships available at my university. I didn’t know this at the time, but applying for these general scholarships also put me in the running for other, privately funded scholarships. I received a government scholarship (Australian Postgraduate Award) and a second privately funded scholarship, based on my high ranking. So it’s a good idea to ask scholarship/graduate administration what other scholarships may be available that you may not know of.

If your aim is a scholarship, my general advice is to do the best work you can before even undertaking a PhD, and deliver good grades and marks. There really aren’t any shortcuts with this. So many people leave these considerations to the last minute, scrambling to catch-up on their grades in their last semester as undergraduates or Honours. I worked hard right from the first year of university, and got my act together during the second semester of my first year as an undergraduate. This may sound too early, but honestly, it’s not, and it does pay off in the end.

Like I said though, the situation regarding funding and obtaining scholarships may be vastly different in other countries, and my own experiences are based specifically in an Australian context. But I hope this helps. If anyone has anything to add with regard to this topic of funding, feel free to do so in the comments section. I’d be interested to hear other people’s stories.

P.S. Getting funds to undertake research overseas, at museums, other libraries/universities, etc., as well as funding for attending conferences (a big part of doing a PhD for some), is a whole other matter, and will be addressed separately in the future.


Image credits: all images are from the legendary PhD Comics by Jorge Cham.


Sundari said...

PhD's seem crazy-hard! You have done well here to inject some humour into the discussion of funding which is usually so 'blech'. I don't know if I would do a PhD purely because of the field I work in but I think a Masters would only be slightly less stressful and scary than a PhD. But what would I know :)

Niina said...

It sounds about the same as here in Finland except we apply for (usually) private funding when doing Phd. I concur it takes a lot of work and you should do it full-time observing closely R´s work (he will defend his dissertation next Summer). Here in Finland it´s a lot easier to get funded for Phd than post-doc reasearch and it seems the bottleneck comes after Phd. How´s it in Australia? Are you now doing funded research or working in the university or what? By the way this was very interesting post although I have no such plans in my mind.

heleen said...

This post is another prime example of why I adore your blog - you cover such a wide range of subjects!
It's interesting to hear your (academic) point of view and the down-to-earth advice you have to offer. I'm afraid many young people are naively enchanted with the idea of the 'creative genius' (in all artistic domains - writing, film, theatre,...) without considering the socio-economic consequences. I think this series on doing a phD will help many people in considering their goals from a more realistic perspective. The advice you offer here doesn't seem exclusively relevant to doing a phD, it could apply to all sorts of future dreams one wishes to accomplish (e.g. prepare yourself, save, WORK for it).

Sasha said...

I'm hoping to go for a Ph.D. I'm already frantic at the thought of it and I have some time ahead of me. I was told that I should try to bulk up on internships and research opportunities as it could put you above the competition (in the US at least) when looking for fellowships, etc.

I'm sure this series will be much appreciated!

Anthea said...

Good advice! I've got my PhD and I think that the means of paying for the entire process is different everytime for everyone. I'd add to be flexible, think out of the box, do as much research as possible about funding, and be prepared to think out of the box about paying for the time that you need to get the degree.

andrea said...

Thank you so much for these series, Hila. I'm just starting one now, with no funding. Although I live with the parents and work part time to get some cash. I'll let you know how it goes!

The above fore-mentioned. said...

I really wanted to do my PhD in 3.5 years! But I am now 18mths in and I know just how unrealistic that dream was. Everything takes longer than you expect and often the hold up for me has been waiting on other people. I also thought I'd have chapters and chapters written by now, but this first year and a half has been taken up with research, interviews, prospectus presentations, confirmation etc. etc. and as such I have one (only one!) chapter written.

CloudyKim said...

Wow, thanks for sharing this! You're completely right with everything you said; I'm earning my MFA in creative writing right now and, even though it's lower than a PHD, we jump a lot of the same hoops. The scholarships, internships, low wages... yep. Teaching is pretty tough along with coursework, but it's nice not to have to stress too much about tuition. Everything else is another bucket of fish entirely, haha.

That's so great that you were able to finish your PHD in such a time; some of my friends in the department have been at it much longer with theirs. I think the funding is extended a bit in the US, but I'm not sure by how much. It's common that most everyone doesn't finish PHD's in three years... so I'm curious now. I'll have to ask :)

hila said...

sundari: I went straight from honours to a PhD, so I honestly can't say what masters would be like. I'd imagine though that it's like a mini-version of a PhD, and hence, pretty stressful too :)

niina: that's really interesting - so you guys have no government funding? If we had to rely on private funding here in Australia, I suspect no one would do a PhD as it's not exactly an area that private companies/individuals generally donate money to. If I did sports, well, that's a different matter ... :)

To answer your question, I'm working on a funded project now, with a few colleagues.

And yes, I totally agree: getting funding for a PhD is much easier than getting funds for post-doc positions, which seem to be non-existent these days - at least in the arts.

Good luck to R!

heleen: thank you :) and yes, that's pretty much sound advice for a lot of things in life: prepare, save and work hard.

sasha: the US system sounds convoluted to me - is it generally difficult to get accepted into grad school? for us it's mainly based on academic merit.

anthea: yes, I totally agree with that.

andrea: oh that must be hard! good luck with it and I hope my tips are actually useful.

the above fore-mentioned/fiona: yes, my first year only yielded one chapter. There's so much to do, that 3 years just isn't realistic. I had overseas research, an internship, teaching, conferences, etc. That adds to the time it takes you to write the thesis. I naively thought I could finish it in 3.5 years when I started too, but that dream quickly disappeared.

cloudykim: yep, I'm familiar with all those hoops, and all the damn paperwork that came with it! I know people who have been doing their PhD for 7 years or so. I would seriously be having suicidal thoughts if I had to do my PhD that long.

Niina said...

Hila: To be precise/honest not all money is private. There´s a few researching the arts that get Ministry of Education´s funding. But here the situation is so that your education (from candidate to master) is free (no stipends!)and after that you pretty much rely to private sector to continue. And there´s only a few (less than ten) foundations to apply. So it´s the same here, no big money for culture and research. And usually you only get one year at a time so it might be stressful.
I´ll give R your greetings ;-)

hila said...

niina: one year at a time! that's so annoying. well, the 3 years funding here is dependent upon annual progress reports, so that's sort of similar I suppose - i.e. if not enough progress is made, funding is cut. But you'd have to be doing absolutely nothing for that to happen, I've never heard of anyone having their scholarship taken away for this reason.

sherryyo said...

This is such an interesting post! I look forward to future posts on the subject of earning PhD's.

I'm finishing a master's in fine arts in computer graphics. My program is a bit different in that it is housed in computer science, so fortunately for us, we do get more funding than the art department. I hate watching my very talented friends in this department struggle so much. Not that any of us are remarkably funded, but they definitely have it worse than us.

In my program, there are some departmental assistantships that require some amount of work whenever it arrives (office work to small projects). The benefit is that there may be times when a student has no work requirements but will still be paid. The bad side of this is that the funding is spread across so many students that it is necessary to take on loans or an additional job to make ends meet.

When I started the program, the funding was being rewarded to only a select few and I wasn't given anything. I was open to any type of job, and luckily, in my first week, I was notified of an opportunity and I interviewed and was chosen for a job at a campus grants office doing office work and website maintenance. This job has provided me enough to live on and is usually renewed every year (some jobs are always in danger of being cut).

I got lucky! I was prepared to enter the program without funding and in hindsight, that was just unrealistic and not wise. I strongly, strongly urge anyone considering a master's or phd to only pursue it if you have funding. If you are willing to find work outside of your department or doing work that may not directly reference your studies, then you will have more opportunities. Let everyone know that you are looking for funding/jobs - I have been able to find assistantships for two of my fellow students in my office. Another person in my office scored her assistantship after contacting department heads asking if they needed any technical writing editors and she was hired. Ask around! Opportunities open up year round.

As for the amount of time it takes to finish a degree, I agree with what everyone says about things taking longer than you would think, and waiting for others to get back to you is an unfortunate and true part of that. My degree advertises itself as a two year program but it takes most 3 - 5 years.

I hope I can share a website source here: This former professor talks about what it is really like to be humanities scholar these days. A professor of mine sent me this link recently and it really opened my eyes. Hope it can help you all too.