Drawing of woman riding unicorn.Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter@nataschachtena

When applying to PhD programs, I was often advised to consider an acceptance without departmental funding as a polite rejection. I chose to pursue an unfunded PhD regardless. Partly because I really wanted to go back to school, partly because I really wanted to work with my current advisor, partly because I really wanted to move to the States and this was an opportunity to do so. After securing partial funding from a private institution overseas, I felt empowered, special and, even, unbreakable.

Looking back, I think that more than anything I was delusional. Wearing pink glasses and riding a unicorn, I repeatedly told myself that “everything will be ok.” Some people tried to warn me, but most—especially from within academia—simply fed those delusions. They told me how big an achievement it was to get accepted in the first place, and they highlighted how “confident” they felt that my “excellent” credentials and “past accomplishments” would enable me to get funding “eventually.”

And they weren’t all wrong, actually. I have secured a TAship for the rest of the year and my external scholarship has been renewed. I also love my new life and am grateful for the doors this PhD has opened. So no, this isn’t a story about failure. I am not writing this to convince you that pursuing an unfunded (or partially funded) PhD will be the greatest mistake of your life. I am writing this because I am a firm believer that reality shouldn’t be sugarcoated and struggle shouldn’t be romanticized. Whether you make the “smart” or “crazy” choice, I hope this post will help you make an informed choice.

1. Invisibility: It sounds harsh but if your department is unwilling to fund you, they probably don’t care that much about you OR your project. This means essentially two things: a) you will work under the radar in terms of the departmental/faculty focus and thus most likely will receive limited moral support and superficial feedback to your work and b) even if money does “show up” somehow, nobody will be familiar or interested enough in your work to hand it to you. Of course, if you’re the ambitious type, you might be inclined to use the absence of funding as an opportunity to impress your advisor and show everyone how brilliant you are. Don’t forget, however, that a PhD is exhausting even without the pressure to “blow minds.”

2. Envy: Kaitlin recently wrote about how big a role envy plays in the postgrad academic experience. Envy for that person with the published research, the better advisor, the better supervisor, and the “more awesome” resume in general. No matter how balanced or self-confident you are, that little green monster will strike at some point in your graduate career. Don’t get me wrong, envy can certainly be a good thing: it can boost motivation, admiration, inspiration, and creativity, among others. But if you’re unfunded, on top of this potentially useful envy, comes an envy that I have personally found useless, wearing and, frequently, depressing. It’s the envy for basic human pleasures that you simply cannot enjoy because of your second part-time job, that funding application you are permanently working on, or the extra course-load that you have inflicted upon yourself in hope of graduating early; envy for those students who can take Sundays off, develop hobbies, go on road-trips, cook complex dinners, and build and sustain deep, meaningful relationships.

3. Self-depreciation: Intensity will vary depending on personality and whether the program you are entering is overall well-funded or not. Finding yourself in a cohort of unfunded PhDs who are going through similar struggles can enhance feelings of community and collegiality and make for an otherwise positive PhD experience. But if your cohort is mixed (funded and unfunded) or, even more, if you are in the unfunded minority, you will sooner or later be confronted with feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and self-loathing. Ask yourself if you have the kind of network that will support you in your darkest hours.

4. Psychosomatic Disorders: Time, workload, and performance-related stress are synonymous with grad school, and they’re often more than even the most well-balanced and positive PhD student can handle. For unfunded students, those stress levels are even higher. Now add to that the depression, anxiety, and other emotional burdens related to serious financial stress—how long do you think you can keep going without crashing? Even if you have a family that is willing to support you, ask yourself if you are truly and honestly willing to be supported for 5+ years. After all, what feels fine or “cool” at 25, can be unbearable at 30.

5. Limited prestige: While many like to highlight the autonomy, flexibility, and sense of personal ownership that an unfunded status can enable, the reality of being unfunded carries a stigma that shouldn’t be romanticized or swept under the carpet. Most people will not admire your resilience, determination, or devotion to a given cause or subject. Most people will consider you defective, second-tier or, quite frankly, a loser for paying your way through grad school. It doesn’t matter if your department is the poorest in the country or if everyone else in your cohort is unfunded as well. What most people will see when looking at you (including faculty and future employers) is the popular image of the unfunded PhD, and that image says that you aren’t quite cutting it.

6. Low market value: If upon graduation you’re hoping for a tenure-track position at a prestigious institution, you’d better think twice before accepting an unfunded PhD offer. Getting private, government, or university funding demonstrates you’re able to attract money, something that is highly prized by academic employers. Thus, many jobs ask for evidence of successful funding, and not being able to offer that is going to put you at serious disadvantage within an already exclusive, and occasionally cruel, job market.

Have you pursued or are pursuing an unfunded PhD? What have your own experiences with it been like? What advice would you share with someone considering taking an unfunded offer?

[Image by Flickr user Xeni Jardin and used under Creative Commons License.]


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