By Fraser Raeburn |

Roseanna’s recent post about self-funding prompted some reflection on my part about how I made my own decisions – in particular, the decision not to self-fund and to try again a year later instead. This entry is therefore something of a response – certainly not because I think Roseanna was wrong about anything, especially as I know she took a year off herself. I definitely don’t think self-funded PhD students are in any way less worthy, dedicated or brilliant than funded ones, a view which has been amply supported by my experiences of the first six months in our PhD programme. It is however a question a lot of potential PhD students will be grappling with in the coming months and there’s more than one way to skin a cat. If by ‘skin’ you mean think about and by ‘cat’ you mean starting a PhD.

phdcat

This cat has experience with both PhDs AND being skinned! Source: Time

 To clear the decks from the get go: I was fortunate enough to secure funding for my PhD this time around. I wasn’t offered funding the first time I applied though, and I chose to take a year off before applying again instead of self-funding. It’s a choice I’d recommend to most people in my position.

It wasn’t the easiest decision. I’m slightly older than many new PhDs, enough so that the prospect of losing another year from my career made me a bit wary. More to the point, said time out of academia was a terrible, terrible year, the mere mention of which makes me go pale, even now. Both of these factors were actually less important than I had thought. For the first, I plan on making up for it by finishing the PhD on time (says every PhD student, ever). For the second, well, exposure to the “real world” was enough to convince me that I was in fact pursuing the right career after all.

Being certain about an academic career is really important, especially nowadays. It’s no secret that it’s getting more and more difficult to break into academia, as permanent jobs dry up, tenure becomes a fairytale and senior staff stay in their positions until officially classed as vegetables. At best, it’s an uncertain career choice, with no job security on the horizon for the first few years or more. My point is, taking an extra year out is worth it to see if you are really, really sure about making this potentially risky investment.

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I love how this is the second image that comes up when searching ‘academic careers’. Source: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/eps/journal/v4/n3/full/2210039a.html

And it is an investment. PhDs aren’t free, even before factoring in living and research costs. If you plan on working to support yourself, that’s all well and good, but as Roseanna pointed out, each hour you work is an hour you could be doing research, and, even more importantly these days, doing the extra things that might make you competitive in the job market like publishing, going to conferences, writing reviews, volunteering or composing obscure blog posts. If you happen to have the money to pay your fees up front, good for you, but otherwise you could be looking at substantial debt, possibly on top of a couple of degrees’ worth of pre-existing student loans. Combined with the uncertainty about your career trajectory, a PhD can easily end up being a really terrible financial decision. Of course, we aren’t doing it for the money. Most of us, though, have ambitions like starting a family, owning a house, not dying alone, homeless and unloved, etc. Being vaguely financially solvent helps with all of that. I guess my point is, being sure that this is what you want to do is important, whether you’re funded or not, but especially if you find yourself needing to make financial sacrifices on top of those that an academic career already involves.

That’s enough of the depressing talk. There are other upsides to waiting a year beyond getting a head start in soul-searching. If you applied initially during your Masters, waiting a year (or even two) means that you’ll be applying with all your marks – especially for your dissertation, which often ends up your strongest suit. Not only does this make your application more convincing, it makes you look like a better prospect compared to the applicants with a handful of essay marks to their name (which could well be why you missed out the first time). You can also use that year to make your application stronger. Do some research work for your supervisor, learn a relevant language, volunteer in a museum, attend conferences or try writing an article. Not only does it improve your CV, it shouts ‘Look at me, I’m dedicated!’ to funding committees. Even if it doesn’t work and you end up self-funding anyway, you’ll hopefully be better prepared and more certain that you’re making the right decision. I definitely was.