There are courses at my Graduate School about 'Managing your Motivation'. There is a course on 'Managing your Supervisor'. But there definitely isn't one about 'Managing your Finances'. And there most emphatically should be.
When you commit to doing a PhD, you commit to not earning any real money for the next three-four years. Either you are very lucky and you get a grant, in which case you might be earning up to £1200 pounds a month (this is the amount you get if you are studying in London; bear in mind that your rent might be upwards of £700), or you do not have a grant, in which case you are probably working part-time, and you might be scraping together about half that.
This is all fine. Lots of us intellectual types pride ourselves on being able to live on very little. (What amazing values we have! How different to the people who put money above everything!) And the PhD may well bring with it other rewards, which in themselves seem to make up for the low salary: the fact that you can work from home, arrange your own hours, be free at odd times of the day to go for coffee, do your shopping mid-afternoon. Have the time and freedom to go to the gym. Not have to commute to an office on rainy days. Freedom and joy. There are plenty of people, plenty of friends and acquaintances and housemates, who are jealous of your routine, because they would gladly trade in their own long hours and dreary commute for the simple freedom you are experiencing; the freedom to be flexible and to organise your time as you like.
However, when there comes a time when the PhD goes sour, when you lose your motivation and your will to carry on, when you've hit a dead end and you're not sure how you're going to get yourself out of the tangle, when you start to feel like a bit of an impostor - the money thing, which initially seemed like a little bit of an annoyance but didn't bother you that much, suddenly starts to bother you a lot more. You don't seem to have so much free time any more, because all of your time is spent on trying to rescue the PhD by frantically following up avenues of research which go nowhere. You feel that if you worked harder, you would surely produce better results. You start to beat yourself up about any time spent away from the PhD. All of a sudden, the joys of the PhD seem few and far between. The message that pops up on your mobile, from a happy PhD colleague inviting you for coffee at three p.m. - the end of her working day - only serves to piss you off, because it reminds you that other people are managing their own time and their own PhDs much better. The tempting invitations to come out and play, which once were exciting and were celebrated as part of the flexible PhD lifestyle that is rightfully yours, may suddenly start to feel like a bit of a burden. (If you haven't experienced this, congratulations. If you haven't ever felt resentful of everyone else who is having fun while you are burdened by this impossible PhD, well done. But then again, if you haven't been through the period of PhD doubt, you are probably not typing 'I hate my PhD' into Google, and therefore you are probably not reading this blog right now.) (Why am I even bothering talking to you?…)
It is at this time that doubts start to appear about your decision to do a PhD. And, alas, the money thing starts to niggle at you as well. You tell yourself: 'Why am I doing this?… I'm not enjoying this. I'm not even any good at this. And it's not like it's a job where I'm getting paid lots of money to do a job I don't like. I'm being paid absolutely bugger all. I'm being paid next to no money to work twelve-hour days in a job I hate!'
This is where you might start looking around at people (corporate flatmates, money-savvy Siblings, best friends who are zooming ahead making a fortune in their own exciting careers) and start to feel like you've made a bit of a mistake. This is, in short, where you start to Hate your PhD.
Unfortunately, how much you earn and how well you are doing at your PhD are both things which impact on your self-esteem. If you are earning bugger all, and your earnings don't go up over time, as is the case with a fixed PhD bursary (and meanwhile, rent and bills and food costs are going up in line with inflation) you may eventually find yourself thinking that you and your skills are simply of not much value to the world. If you find yourself floundering with your PhD project (having presumably been a bit of an academic star all your life, which I guess you must be if you made it this far) you may start to think of yourself as worthless and stupid. How much you earn, and how well you do at your job, both play a part in how you think about yourself. This is one reason why, I think, doing a PhD is such a hard thing: when it starts to go wrong, unless you have self-esteem of steel and you have learned the art of patience and self-confidence, it's difficult for you not to start feeling very bad about yourself.
What to do?…
Here are some of my ideas.
- It would be good if all of us thought really carefully about our finances before starting our PhDs. It would be great if we all sat down and wrote ourselves a budget plan. This is how much I will have coming in; this is how much rent and bills and travel will cost me. This is how much I have left over. Am I content to live on this much (or this little) for the next three years?… It would be even better if we then sat down and took a good, honest look at our monthly expenses from the previous year or so. If we regularly like to spend £20 on meals out and £40 on dresses, then let's be honest; are we really willing to give those things up and live happily within a PhD student's budget? If the answer is no, consider not doing a PhD. You don't really want to.
- There are books out there on writing a PhD. There are also books out there on managing your money. I think the two should go hand in hand. I can recommend Kate Northrup's 'Money: A Love Story' (which, true to its title, is a bit sickly sweet and annoying in places, but actually makes a lot of sensible suggestions when it comes to maximising your budget and cultivating a positive attitude to your money. I wish I had read this book when I started my PhD.) I also quite liked 'Overcoming Underearning' by Barbara Stanny. The first book gets you to curb your spending and enjoy saving; the second gets you thinking about how much more you could actually be worth in terms of salary, and how to eventually get there.
- Apart from that, I would say: try to keep up the sense of gratitude you felt in the beginning. Be grateful that you can do a PhD at all. Do not let a bad spell destroy your pleasure in the small things. Your life is happening right now. Enjoy your food, listen to good music, see friends, make time for yourself to just sit and do nothing. Go for walks or go to the gym. Look after yourself. Don't beat yourself up about work you didn't do. Regroup your energies for a better day tomorrow. Talk to people about how you feel. Be careful how you talk about yourself and your work: talk in terms of what you're committed to doing, not in terms of what you failed to do. Try to remain upbeat about the opportunities that are still out there for you.
- And finally - try looking at things this way: 'I am not getting paid very much for the work I do on my PhD, and therefore I won't kill myself by working twelve-hour days'. It is possible to do a PhD by working for three or four hours a day, and then having the rest of the time free to recover, enjoy yourself, and take care of any small chores you might want to get done. You don't have to be working stupid hours to complete your PhD; it is possible to do it and earmark plenty of spare time to enjoy yourself.
I could have done with some advice, when I started the PhD, along the lines of: you are going to be poor for a while. Your earnings won't change, but the cost of living will steadily rise all about you. You will watch your friends getting promoted and earning more and more money, and going on nice holidays. You will experience that low-level stress of when something expensive breaks and needs replacing, or when a friend gets married and there's a trip and a hotel to pay for, and suddenly you are a hundred quid or so out of pocket.
But it is possible to stick with your project and still be very happy, and live a great life on a PhD salary. If you can just manage not to forget why you are doing it in the first place, and hold on to the positive thoughts about why your (flexible, intellectually-fulfilling, relaxed) life is wonderful.
Because, really, the best commodity that money can buy is - time, and the flexibility to make use of it. That's really all the wealth we can ever have, I think, and the only wealth we really want. Your PhD can potentially give you this. Do not let a bad moment ruin your trip. Commit to your leisure time. Stick to sensible working hours. Do not let your PhD thesis take over every single hour of your day, and invade every corner of your life. And do not let money worries stop you from enjoying and appreciating what you do already have.
I think we just all need to tell ourselves once in a while 'I'm doing great; I have a perfectly lovely life. There's really nothing to worry about.'