No money? No problem! Or, How to Survive a PhD Without a Scholarship

PhD students are busy people. We all do a bunch of stuff, and our work takes up a whole lot of our time. The thought of taking on a PhD is daunting enough on its own, so when you face the idea of doing all of it without any financial support it can seem even more terrifying, understandably. Getting through without a scholarship has always been a reality for some PhD students, and with increased enrolments and decreases and changes in funding it is definitely a problem – potential or real – facing PhD applicants now. As someone who has so far survived the first year and started the second year of her PhD without a scholarship, I’m here to talk a bit about the harsh realities of it but also share some tips on how to make it work – because trust me, you can. Read on, Macduff.

What I will say first is simply this: being told that you are not receiving a scholarship for your doctorate is upsetting and frustrating as all hell. You will be angry, sad, bitter, and jealous of your friends who did get scholarships. You will panic, doubt whether you should accept your admission offer at all, think ‘if I’m not good enough for a scholarship then why bother?’, and be generally Cranky Pants for a while. This is completely fine, normal, understandable, and okay. Embrace it. But know this also: you are not alone! You aren’t the first person to not receive funding, and you won’t be the last. Many have gotten through the PhD process without a scholarship before you, and it is absolutely possible. Does it make the whole thing seem that little bit more scary, difficult, and fraught with stress? Sure, absolutely. But did you get into the degree? Do you want this? Yes. You CAN do it.

I spent my first year doing my PhD full-time and working one job on the side at part-time hours. At the moment, that has increased to two jobs: the non-uni-related job I had last year, and teaching for the first time as part of the ‘bigger picture’ of academic training that the PhD involves. Taking on this second job has meant that I’ve had to push my organisation into serious mode, and REALLY get myself sorted. I’m going to go through what I consider to be the four most important things you should get sorted to help yourself deal with doing a PhD, especially doing one while having to work at the same time. These four things, all important to your studies and your health and wellbeing, are: your support network, organisation, prioritising, and self-care habits. Let’s kick off with the support network.

I am the first to admit that I would absolutely not be able to be doing this amazing, crazy thing without the support of my parents, family, and friends. The support I get from these people in my life includes the big ones like financial support, moral support, emotional support, but also small things like having friends who are willing to feed me a few nights a week when shifts at work are scarce or I get sick and cannot go to work. Having people in your life who value what you are doing, who support you, and who you feel comfortable asking for help when you need some is so, so important. Have at least one person in your life that will support, love, and respect you no matter what, and who will help you to tell the difference between really wanting to quit and the natural feelings of self-doubt – these feelings crop up often for every PhD student I know, regardless of their scholarship situation. They can be tough and we all need help to deal with them. This is where the final very important member of your PhD support network comes in: your supervisor. Remember that your supervisor was once a PhD student themselves. They’re a person, and they know first-hand what you are going through. It is so valuable to have a supervisor who is willing to openly admit this fact to you, to discuss it with you, to get to know you, who cares about you and really wants to see you succeed. Finding a supervisor you’re comfortable enough with to talk about your challenges and any personal issues that may arise throughout your candidature makes a huge difference – at least, it has made a huge difference for me. I highly recommend it.

Number two is a big one. GET ORGANISED. I have always loved organisation and found it has a calming influence on my life. Since high school I have been the Queen of Colour Coding. This semester, though, wowsers… my diary is lit up with so many different colours of highlighter ink it looks rather festive! Now, as much as I preach absolutely enmity with all that is Mathematical, when your life is so jam-packed with all the different things, a little basic math can do your mind – and your diary – wonders. When I realised that the first 6 months of this year for me would need to involve a full-time research load, hours working two different jobs, and all the other things that need doing in life that take up some time, the only way I could handle the thought of it all was to sit down and divide up the total number of hours there are in each calendar week into certain numbers of hours per ‘task’. As a rough example, here’s what I fit into my diary each week, based on the realities of my individual circumstances and needs:

  • 35-40 hours of research work
  • 10-15 hours at job #1
  • 10-15 hours at job #2
  • 50-55 hours of sleep
  • 3-4 hours at the gym

Around all of these easily quantifiable tasks, I fit in the rest of my life (or some weeks, a few extra hours on any one of those tasks, depending on circumstances). I’ve found that figuring out a rough guide for myself of how many hours per week these important tasks take up has been SUPER helpful in making sure that I achieve them, and that I am using my time as best I can – with this much going on, ‘wasting time’ or writing off entire days is a luxury I’ve had to seriously cut back on. If such a system doesn’t work for you, find something that does. When you’re taking on a ‘to-do list’ as epic as this each week, knowing when and for how long you’ll do each thing you need to do each day is a lifesaver. Also important in figuring out how long you’ll need to do each ‘thing’ for is honesty – be honest with yourself. You know yourself, your study habits and techniques, and how things work for you. Plan your schedule accordingly.

That brings me to thing number 3, closely related to organisation – priorities. When planning what you’ll do on any given day, week, or even month, you need to prioritise. The best, and slightly amusing, example of this from my own schedule is that in order to make sleep a priority for me, I have reinstated a bed time for myself. I am almost 24, living over 1000km away from my parents, and I have a ‘bed time’. It’s written in my diary each day and everything. Sounds funny, huh? But here’s the reality that we ‘grown ups’ seem to forget or ignore so easily – sleep is actually super dooper important for our physical and mental health. With a schedule like mine, can I afford to be not only tired all of the time from not enough sleep, but also feeling unwell more often? Or worse, can I afford the triggering of my anxiety and depression that happens very easily if I have poor sleep habits for too many nights in a row? Nope! Definitely not. Prioritising is also important for dealing with the situation of being offered an extra shift at work – how badly do I need the extra money that week? Have I done enough research work that week to justify losing a few hours from that task to a different one? I have to evaluate these questions every time I get the phone call.  It’s all about learning to prioritise, separating my ‘needs’ from my ‘wants’, and importantly being honest with myself. That’s a really important habit to get into, too, and brings me to the grand finale: self-care.

A lot of this one ties into stuff I’ve already mentioned, like getting into good sleep habits and dedicating time to exercise every week. I hate exercise, I really do. But I do it because it’s important and it’s a need, therefore my lack of ‘want’ is irrelevant to the situation – sorry future me, you’ll thanks me one day. As PhD students we spend a lot of time living in our heads, and focusing on our mental faculties as where we do most of our stuff. I love my brain, but it has to live somewhere. Not only is regular exercise good for self-care for the obvious reason of it is physically good for you, I find it does a lot for my stress levels as well. All the good things! (as much as it irks me to admit it)… I won’t bang on here about nutrition, because if I do I’ll start to feel like a preachy weirdo on one of those nutri-bullet infomercials. Plus, the idea of surviving this PhD thing without EVER having a coffee, or some vodka, or chocolate, or cake, or all four at once, is completely incomprehensible to me. If you are reading this and you somehow are managing a PhD existence without any of these things, you are a magical unicorn of wonderment and I applaud you. Your support network is also, of course, a very important aspect of your self-care. It’s important to remember to switch off now and then, have ‘a life’ outside of your PhD – whatever that may mean to you. See your friends and family, spend an entire day in your pj’s every once in a while, go on a holiday. Work your butt off, and be committed to what you do, but don’t become a total hermit and let it completely consume you.

It seems stressful, maybe even scary, and if I’m honest it can be, but the important thing is to stay excited. You have to want to be doing this, and if you’ve gone to all of the effort of applying in the first place I think it’s safe to say that you do. That’s the biggest step already taken. Jump into doing what you love, enjoy it, be excited by it, and the hard parts and extra hurdles that pop up will seem a lot easier to manage – and totally worth it! Working my way through my PhD with no scholarship is hard work, it’s tiring, and often stressful, but here’s the kicker: I love my thesis. I love research. I am excited every day to wake up and work on my project, and to keep living this exciting adventure of awesome. I love myself for taking this on, and I hope you will too 🙂

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