The Resilient Researcher: Self-funding your research

Jessye Aggleton is a second-year PhD candidate in Archaeology and Anthropology, and is a self-funded student who juggles a part-time job with her full-time PhD. While she has experienced setbacks to her funding, she has found her optimal work/life balance — but not without building up her reslience along the way! Read about her experiences below, and (hopefully) feel encouraged in your decisions to fund the work you love!

When I asked family and friends about undertaking a self-funded PhD, the resounding replies were along the lines of, ‘Can you do that?’, ‘Why would you?’ and the more-popular response, ‘Are you crazy?’

It does seem baffling.  Why would anyone consider paying for what one would hope to be a supported and salaried position?

Quite simply, it’s love. Love of your work, being a researcher, and discovering new things – despite the barriers, and a fair amount of heartache and failure.

With top grades from the University of Oxford in my subject, I made the mistake of thinking PhD funding would be easy. I applied during my Master’s degree to Bristol after meeting my now-supervisor, and discovering she specialised in my chosen area of research. But despite my predicted grades, I was unsuccessful in my application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and I knew I needed another plan.

During the summer, I entered the FindAPhD competition. In between my summer job shifts, I made a short stop-motion film about my research proposal. Although I didn’t have the money to make an amazing movie, I had two things – time and effort.  It paid off; I won £500.  A great start, but I knew I needed a whole lot more to fund my PhD.  Subsequently, I was fortunate to receive a one-off runner-up bursary from the Graduate Arts and Humanities department – not quite the amount the official Award offered, but none the less it meant that I can now pay the majority of my tuition fees for the next two years, for which I’m extremely grateful.

I realised I was going to have to go it alone for the foreseeable future.  I’d been funding the first year of my PhD through the saved remnants of my undergraduate student finance loan, plus my earnings from summer jobs.  How does a doctoral student earn enough to live and save, whilst working towards a full-time PhD?  I didn’t know anyone who’d done a self-funded PhD, so I did what any 20-something does when they’re stuck –  I looked on the internet for help.

I was heartbroken to be initially faced with a wall of forums saying that no-one in their right mind should attempt an unfunded PhD. It took me a while to realise I wasn’t alone.

I reached out to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, who provided me with an astonishing statistic: in 2014-15, approximately 84% of doctorate students at UK institutions (84,315 people) were not funded by a Research Council. While these figures don’t account for those initially enrolled on a Master’s course who then transfer to a PhD, the implications are still astounding. Additionally, arts funding is notoriously low, and funding outside of research councils can be limited and specific (especially to those who are in their first year).

Handaxes Madrid

Handaxes from Madrid

I applied again for Research Council funding; I made it to the interview stage but fell at the last hurdle. At the time, I was struggling to love what I was doing, especially when those around you seem to be doing so well.  But there’s one thing you learn as a researcher, and that’s to be resilient.  Remind yourself you are capable, you are worthy and you may be unlucky – or you may need to learn from the mistakes.  Keep trying, because that’s the only way to make discoveries and progress – both academically and personally.

Did The Bride give up in Kill Bill 2 when she was buried alive? No way. And neither should a researcher – even if six-feet-under for us is a metaphor for funding rejections or lab malfunctions.

Luckily, after many unsuccessful retail job applications, I managed to land a part-time job at the University as an administrator, where I currently work.  This position allows me to pay for my rent, living costs, and occasionally travel to visit my partner who lives and works abroad, whilst saving a bit every month to support me in the next few years.  While it’s not enough to provide for any new lab-based ideas, my supervisor ha s been a wonderful support. Talking to her has continually inspired me, and she has pointed me in the direction of sources and arranged opportunities for me in order for me to get my data without forking out of my limited pocket.

The journey towards funding and my PhD has only really just begun.  I’ve sent out lots of enquiries to charities about application and eligibility for small-scale funding, and I’ve discovered three potential large funding sources for my specific subject with deadlines coming up over the next six months.  For external funding databases and advice, I found the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding, FindAPhD, and Research Professional all useful tools.  I’ve also learnt about funded possibilities of doing part of your research abroad, and I’m exciting to have been accepted to present a poster at a large conference this September. Being self-funded is all about balance; now, I head to the lab after the office, I read articles and compile notes on my days off (as well as make time for relaxing!), and I love the sense of achievement I feel after a productive day.

While I have definitely felt episodes of defeat, tiredness and isolation, I know I’ve already come so far on my PhD journey. I’ve learnt to prepare for the unexpected, optimally organise my time, and know how much coffee I need to be properly productive!

Truthfully, although it’s tough, being self-funded means that now I feel confident in the challenges that will inevitably come over the next few years.  And though I’m still hopeful for external support, it’s empowering to know I’m achieving my goal by working hard for what I love.

Finite Element modelling in progress

Finite Element modelling in progress

One Reply to “The Resilient Researcher: Self-funding your research”

  1. Hi, there’s not much to say but after reading this it helped me reassure myself that what I’m planning on doing is all the worthwhile. I’ve been told, in a similar manor, “why should I do something that’s self funded” or “where are you going to get the money” And so in and so forth. And for awhile I was contemplating if this is really something i want to go for and if I do what am I going to do if I don’t achieve what I’ve dreamt as a child and I’m still thinking if this is something I want to do, seeing all my friends make it big and here I am still at rock bottom I became stuck but then I decided to look for something to reassure me if this I something I want to do and I came across this article and I read it and like I stated above it did. All I wanted to say was thank you and I hope to meet you in the foreseeable future.

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