When I tell new acquaintances that I’m studying for a master’s degree, I’m often met with words of praise and congratulations. I thought I didn’t have much of an ego, but this situation has taught me otherwise. Their faces fall however, when I go on to inform them that I’m completely self-funded. The positive comments turn into: “Oh, that’s brave.” and genuine concern. How am I coping? What am I doing? I’m clearly not a trust fund kid, so how am I doing it? The ego boost turns into a mild panic. Oh my god, how am I doing this?

If I’m brutally honest, part of me wishes that I’d gotten a loan. I was too slow on finding scholarships and missed the boat on that. On the other hand, with tuition fees in the UK rising above the £9,000 per year for undergraduate degrees, I do feel a sense of pride that I’m avoiding another £6,000 of debt. Self-funding does take careful planning though. If you don’t have a hoard of treasure stashed away like Smaug, you need to save up at least half of your tuition fees to ensure you can actually secure your course. If I hadn’t spent the previous year in full time work, I couldn’t have done it.

My Dad got his Toxicology PhD in the late 1980s, and was lucky enough to find a job which sponsored this. He had two advantages though: in his day, there were no strict course fees for PhD study, and science courses were more likely to get funding. I’m studying an Arts postgrad in 2016, which means I’m up shit creek without a paddle.

Initially, I didn’t expect to do a postgraduate course. After leaving university, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. I worked for a year; for the first seven months I was in a job which required a 90 minute commute each way. That nearly wrecked me. For the remaining five months, I worked a job closer to home which then allowed me to carry on part-time during my studies. Not all employers will do this, so it’s worth asking up front. In this year of working, I managed to save up enough for my first year of study. This was despite having a terrible penchant for buying teapots and strange musical instruments. If I had gone into the master’s straight after graduation, I wouldn’t even have been able to pay the registration fee.

Part-time study is a great way to go if you’re self-funding. Not all courses offer this option though, and if your course won’t let you study part-time, I would recommend deferring your place and either saving up or seeking grants and scholarships. Most of the time, the cost is spread out over two (or more) years for a part-time course. Some people can work full time while studying, but I knew that due to mental health concerns, I would be better off spreading out the course into more manageable chunks. With working though, you have to balance your time; setting time aside for study has to be your priority, but then you must weigh up covering your bills and putting some savings aside to cover tuition.

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“If you don’t have a hoard of treasure stashed away like Smaug, you need to save up at least half of your tuition fees to ensure you can actually secure your course.”

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Going from a full time wage to a part-time wage also causes its own problems. Re-thinking your finances is immensely challenging, and monthly shopping trips or even buying a new video game can turn into rare luxuries. With no loan or grant to top me up, money often gets chewed up on the essentials come payday. Contact lenses, bills, rent and even stocking up on loo roll mean that I’m sweating with fear the week after my pay check comes through. Being a woman, haircuts are pretty expensive too and have to be left for special occasions. Because I have a pixie cut, a well-meaning friend suggested that I go to the barber’s for a £5 trim to save money. Alas, that’s not how it works, and I would risk looking like Justin Bieber for the sake of saving £35. Even with my cheekbones, I could not pull that off.

Come January, I’ll be working three part time jobs instead of just one. My financial situation will be much improved, but I’ll need to rethink the structure of my week and my hobbies. If I decide to apply for a PhD after this, I’m going to apply for all the grants I can find. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll get a loan. Although I’m proud that I’m self-funding my master’s, I couldn’t do that with a PhD.

Studying abroad is another option for self-funding students. Certain countries in Europe will let you take a postgraduate course for free, or at the very least charge you a registration fee (around €300-€400). I have friends studying in The Netherlands who are paying a mere £1,000 a year for their master’s. If you are a fluent or native English speaker too, many European universities will have courses taught entirely in English. This is a strange privilege to come to terms with. If you speak another European language fluently however, you’ll pretty much be unrestricted in what you can study in that specific country. If you’re considering this option, do your research and think about how you would fund your living costs once you were out there. It’s a sad fact that studying in the UK is becoming increasingly difficult financially, and while the recent introduction of postgraduate loans can help, the lifelong debt is a large burden to bear.

Despite the money struggles, I do have a certain level of privilege in this situation. Behind me, I have financially stable parents. They’re not wealthy by any means, but if I were in dire straits, they could bail me out easily with no time limit on paying them back. Not everyone has that luxury. If it’s hard for me to manage with that safety net behind me, I can’t imagine what it must be like to self-fund without one.

If you’re thinking of self-funding: you can do it. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. My advice would be to take a year out to save money. This will give you a safety net as well as cover the majority of, if not all, of your course. Do your course part-time to spread the cost. Get in early with possible scholarships. Ask your employer if they’ll give you flexible hours around your studies, even see if you can work from home. Universities will often have a point of contact for helping you find funding too, so if you know that you can’t manage to self-fund the entire course, it’s worth booking in a meeting to see if they can help you find a source of funding.

Good luck, and happy studying!

Eleanor Healing

Image: John Loo, Flickr.

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