I recently blogged on the topic ‘Should I do a PhD’ for students in the Arts & Humanities, and was pleased to see a healthy response by people reading, sharing and giving me their thoughts via Twitter.
This new blog comes via two related questions. First, the funding question. One of the biggest challenges facing a potential PhD student is to work out how to pay for the degree, whether through scholarships, part-funding grants (such as fee scholarships) or through self-funding. In my blog, I advised students to be cautious about the self-funding option, because it can be difficult to strike a balance between studying and working, and because this usually extends the time it takes to complete the PhD.
The second route to this blog comes from question the of what to do after you complete the PhD. I also recently blogged about the post-PhD job market, with suggestions for what students can be doing to try to stay in academia, and some alternative suggestions for related careers by early-career authors, Teresa Phipps and Rebecca Browett. This activity prompted a response from Rhiannon Sandy, who is currently studying part-time for a PhD here at Swansea University while also working full-time at the university in a non-academic post. Rhiannon wrote: ‘I don’t have to panic about not getting a job when I finish my PhD, because I already have one’. Her tweet struck a chord with me, since I certainly DID panic when I finished my own PhD!
Rhiannon agreed to write a blog on the subject, responding to the questions in bold. I hope current and potential future PhDs might find it an informative guide to what potential routes you might take in your studies and your work.
When did you first think about doing a PhD, and what made you want to do it?
I handed in my MA dissertation in September 2014 with no intention of continuing to do a PhD. By the time I graduated the following January, I was already several months into a job as a hotel receptionist, but it turned out that my terrible sense of humour makes me ill-suited to a job in hospitality (a fact made patently obvious when a guest asked me “is that room free on 29th March?” and I replied “no, it’s £149”). I realised what I missed most about being a student was the opportunity to do my own research, and I started giving serious consideration to continuing the research on apprenticeship indentures I’d started for my undergraduate dissertation. I knew that this was a topic which has had very little academic scrutiny, so my research was sure to be original, and I really wanted to pursue it further. Despite what Charlie wrote in his previous blog on titles not being a good way to make the decision, the fact that I could call myself Dr Sandy and graduate with a fancy hat on may also have influenced my choice. I emailed my MA supervisor to ask whether he thought my project was worth undertaking, and he said he was happy to supervise me and would look over my thesis proposal (for which I will forever be grateful).
What did you think your options were with regards to funding/scholarships etc., and how did you navigate these?
Before applying to Swansea, I looked into funded full-time PhDs on various projects but found there were few which appealed to me. One helpful piece of advice I was given, by someone who had already done a PhD, was not to apply for a project I wasn’t sure about – if I wasn’t certain I was interested in the topic at the start of the PhD, there was a risk I’d really, really hate it at the end of three years. I also looked at funding from elsewhere so I could study full time. Admittedly, I probably should have spent more time on this, but I’d already missed several application deadlines for 2015 and I was loath to have to spend another year dealing with miserable hotel guests, so I had to accept that I might have to study unfunded. Wanting to stay in Swansea meant some options weren’t open to me – the Arts & Humanities Research Council had recently decided to focus PhD funding on universities grouped into consortia, and Swansea wasn’t in one. I did consider applying to Cardiff (which is part of a consortium) and commuting, but as my supervisor had already agreed in principle to supervise me, I didn’t. In the end I decided to study part-time and pay my own fees, get a job to cover my living expenses, and apply for funding as and when I could. I was very fortunate in my second year to receive a generous bursary from the Economic History Society, without which I really would have struggled to afford to undertake any real research – my salary pays my rent and bills, but it doesn’t leave much to cover the cost of a 5 day trip to London.
One of the first emails I received from my supervisor when I initially approached him about doing a PhD warned me not to expect to get a permanent academic job at the end of it. I realised that studying part-time gave me the opportunity to forge a non-academic career at the same time. I was on the University’s temporary staff register for over a year, and eventually I was in the right place at the right time to apply for the role I was covering – I’m now a permanent member of staff, with a salary, a pension and a job I actually really enjoy. Luckily, I had a reasonable amount of administrative experience before I started applying for jobs to go alongside my PhD: I worked in a factory office and then for Swansea Council before starting my undergraduate degree, and did a summer of sales admin between my BA and MA. The approach I’ve taken to fund my PhD might be more challenging for anyone who hasn’t got as much applicable experience, so for anyone considering it I would strongly recommend taking advantage of the work placement schemes run by the careers service at your university, which at Swansea is called the Swansea Employability Academy.
How do you manage the balance between your job and your studies? What helps and what gets in the way?
Being employed by the University definitely helps in terms of juggling working and studying. Working regular hours rather than shifts means I’ve been able to set up a bit of a routine, which is very helpful. I’m fortunate that my line manager is happy to let me having supervision meetings during work hours, and as I work in the library, I can just pop downstairs to pick up books. A lot of my annual leave is used for conferences and research trips, and I do take days off sometimes just to do some writing and catch up on my research. I don’t struggle to balance my job and my studies so much as my life and my studies: I’m always conscious that my non-work hours need to be used for my PhD. Housework is a secondary concern, and if I’m in a really work-intensive phase I’m heavily reliant on the slow cooker otherwise I’d either subsist entirely on cheese on toast or bankrupt myself buying takeaways. I also devote a lot of my weekends to my studies – which has led to me sitting outside with my laptop and a pile of books if the weather is really nice, otherwise I might never see daylight! Although I try my best not to cancel social plans for the sake of study, I have had to give up playing roller derby because I couldn’t commit to training two or more nights a week.
What are your ambitions for after you finish your PhD?
While I have had to make sacrifices, and although sometimes it feels like an interminable slog, I think I made the right decision by going about my PhD the way I have. Once it’s over, if I do struggle to find a job in academia, I know I will be able to fall back on several years of administrative experience. I also have the option to abandon the uncertainty of short-term academic contracts entirely, and find a more secure job in a non-academic role. As for what I want to do once I finish my PhD, I don’t know yet – I haven’t had time to think about it!
If you would like to hear more about Rhiannon’s PhD and career journey, you can follow her on Twitter, or post below in the comments section. As promised, I will be writing more soon on what else History students and students in the Arts & Humanities might like to do as an alternative to PhD study. Contrary to what some might tell you during your MA, getting onto a PhD isn’t the be all and end all: you can probably earn a lot more money and have just as much fun doing something else! Look out for this and other blogs in future weeks.