It’s that time of the year again when final year students who have an appetite for research begin applying to PhD programs. This is a self-selected group of scholars who most likely succeeded academically and see value in dedicating at least 3-4 years to becoming world-class specialists in a niche field. They love learning, but ultimately their goal is to make a small contribution to a vast ocean of knowledge.
The choice of pursuing a PhD, the journey itself, and earning the title of ‘Dr.’ does come with its costs—some apparent, others not.
For any form of education, the most pertinent cost items that come to mind are tuition and living expenses. For most PhD students, tuition is typically not a factor as it is usually funded by research bodies, government agencies or university scholarships. These financial awards also allow for a living stipend, ranging between the equivalent of £15-25 K per annum. For context, in the 2021-22 academic year Clarendon Scholars are expected to receive £15,609, while Rhodes Scholars will receive £17,310 per annum.
The use of the living stipend varies between individuals. In major cities, like Boston, New York and London, students frequently cite housing as their largest expense item. Even for PhD students living outside of major cities, their expenditures on necessities rarely go past £20 per day on average.
As for me, here in Oxford, I have my own set of life hacks. I take a 20 minute scenic walk to my lab at 9am every day, thereby eliminating transport costs. I rent one room in a four-person house share, the cost of which ranges from £700-1000 per month, and my landlord covers all household bills (electric, Wi-Fi, water and gas). This arrangement is a rare find and most students who rent out of college often have to split their household bills with housemates.
It’s only after being here a while that I realize how much students communicate over WhatsApp or Messenger, so my year long contract with O2 of £14 a month probably wasn’t a good idea. As someone who cooks for six days and would eat out for one day a week, my groceries amount to £120 a month. I have a pre-set menu of meals for every day of the week. I don’t have to think about what’s for dinner and purchase ingredients in bulk. Organizers of department-wide seminars tend to order more food for catering than needed and the leftovers are often enough to serve as filling meals for many students.
I don’t have time to binge Netflix and I have never played video games in my life. The college gym is good enough for me and so I have zero subscription costs. Plus, nine to twelve hour workdays don’t offer the time to enjoy such luxuries.
If you find yourself short on funds, Oxford is hardly short of opportunities for individuals to make small amounts of disposable income. In the sciences, students are often paid at least £10-20 an hour or per session to demonstrate experiments, take notes or invigilate exams. Some colleges also offer opportunities to lead tutorials or serve as junior deans, which come with a stipend, free meals in hall and on-site accommodation.
This life of austerity is the reality for most PhD candidates. One of the largest hidden costs of doing a PhD is maintaining sound mental health. Times Higher Education found that 4 in 10 UK doctoral students are at high risk of suicide “due to loneliness and intellectual insecurity.” From my experience, problems arise often as a function of one’s perception of research progress and frictions in the supervisor-student relationship.
Another major cost is the narrowing job prospects you might face after defending your thesis. The academic job market is dismal with more applicants than spots. Racking up postdoctoral experience (2-3 years each) may no longer be enough.
Others realise near the end that academia is not for them and because they committed all their time to research, they may find themselves lacking requisite skills to transition into other fields. PhD students are often viewed as too specialized, overqualified and expensive-to-hire for some attractive entry-level roles. However, some consulting firms, banks and research functions hire exclusively for PhDs in related areas.
This piece was not written to be a horror story bumped out of the Halloween issue, and I hope you’re not about to discard your application. Rather, I hope you still submit your application and think before you commit. A PhD will open some doors and close others. At the end of the day, you have to be content with the combination of open and shut doors in front of you.