Being a PhD student is an opportunity that can change one’s life for the better, however, it is no walk in the park. There are countless problems that PhD students come across, some very unique to each candidates project and some are quite universal, for example, the challenge of being financially frustrated. Before I became a PhD student I was not aware of the financial challenges and limitations that can exist in the 3 years of perusing a PhD because no one I knew had faced the challenge I have come to face in my PhD journey or rather no one has ever spoken to me about such a challenge. I was aware of other “mountains to climb” such as expensive equipment, unreasonable supervisors and the long wait for ethical applications approval but running out of money was not one of the mountains I anticipated I would have to climb.
How my financial problems began
In 2015 and 2016 the university students in South Africa embarked on the fees must fall campaign. The goals of the movement were to stop increases in student fees as well as to increase government funding of university course I too was in full support of the campaign. What I did not anticipate was how this action was going to affect me as a PhD student. In 2017 I applied for the National Research Fund (NRF) Free Standing Bursary and I received it which meant that I was able to register for my PhD In 2018. Previously NRF awarded students R120 000 for a PhD study but because of the fees must fall campaign (this was the explanation I received from an NRF consultant I spoke when I wanted to understand why the funding had been reduced) the bursary fund had been cut down by 30 % so the bursary was reduced to R70 000. This was obviously a shock to me. In my first year, I was obviously very determined and I said to myself “well I will make it work”. However, during my first year, I did not have to buy equipment, travel and budget for data collection activities, therefore “making it work” was not much of a tight financial squeeze.
Now that I am in my second year I am realizing how little this amount of money is because actually, it has run out literally between rent, food and other expenses including transport. To fill this financial gap I now depend on my father and my twin sister for everyday living expenses. Between food and taxi fare their financial assistance takes me through half the month. Fortunately, I also have a blogging contract with SAYAS where I can earn R250 at the end of every month, which I have to spend really carefully to get me to the next month. I sometimes wonder how other candidates in my situation who do not have a support system like mine are coping. I never anticipated that my biggest concerns would be whether or not the food I have will last me the entire month or how will I be able to afford accommodation come January 2020. Agreed a PhD is not all about money and bursaries and one’s reasons to do a PhD should not be solely based on getting “bursary money”. However, once you have made up your mind that you will embark on a PhD having money to support you throughout your journey does make easier and also makes it easier to focus and be creative about your work the opposite is quite frustrating.
Often students who are uncertain about whether they should embark on PhD studies or not ask what advice I can give them before deciding whether they want to do a PhD or not and I usually give the following advice.
Do not be shy to look for funding
Firstly, make sure you secure enough funding to carry you through your PhD. My mistake was assuming that I would have enough money and little did I know that funding was going to be cut by 30 %. Make sure you are certain of the details of the funding so that you avoid having to look for a side hustle just to keep afloat during your PhD studies. I have actually lost count of many bursaries I have applied for, potential sponsors, individuals, companies, deans of faculties, you name them, I have emailed or called them looking for additional funding and I won’t stop until I get it because I am determined to complete my studies.
Do not be afraid nor ashamed to hustle
I have decided to look for a part-time job in order to finance my data collection after realizing that the bursary money will not carry me through the entire process. Truth is, working towards a PhD does not really change anything nor does it make a person special. I have spoken to people who even after completing their PhD’s have had to go from one office to another begging to do even the most minimal of jobs just so they can afford to buy food at the end of the month. That was when I learnt that the title “DR” does not exempt me from looking for work anywhere where I can find it just to feed myself. If you find yourself having to sell and bake muffins do not be shy if it pays the bills do not be ashamed of your hustle. The most important lesson I have learned from all of this is sometimes you just have to put your pride aside and feed yourself regardless of the title you might have or might be working towards.
Last but not least
Be certain of your reasons of why you want a PhD because, in times of difficulty where you have to choose to forgo certain needs because you must have enough transport money for the month or there is certain equipment you must buy, the initial reason for you to want to pursue a PhD will keep you going.
2 thoughts on “The other side of being a PhD student”
I completely agree with you. I have resorted to tutoring primary and high school kids to earn extra money. The financial challenges are harder than the actual PhD.
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This is such a relatable post and it is something that has to be discussed. Every year expenses go up and funding stays the same but our outputs are expected to increase, it is such a broken and toxic system that impacts the mental health of many students!