Advice on Doing a PhD: Funding

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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 ...

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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!

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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.

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