The Struggle for Funding (…and other odd aspects of PhD studies)

There are numerous interesting PhD programs available in Europe. However, being able to pursue such a course appears to depend much more on an individual’s financial background than on his or her academic expertise these days. This is at least my impression after sending out several applications to universities in the UK (and a single one to Denmark). Though each and every uni offered me a placement in the end, I was not able to procure sufficient funding. Hence, I had to turn down all offers so far. What surprised me most were once more the huge differences between the higher education systems in Europe, especially when it comes to PhD courses and financial aspects. As usual, I would like to contrast the British and the German models, in order to highlight some rather disconcerting aspects of PhD studies in two important member states of the European Union. To begin with, I will briefly digest the British system – since it is rather simple to explain and less complicated than in Germany. However, my account focuses the humanities and social sciences exclusively. I do not claim to know how the situation looks like in other academic disciplines (e.g. economics, natural sciences, medicine etc.).

In the UK, actually every faculty at university offers postgraduate research degrees. These can either be MPhil or PhD. Sometimes, an MPhil is required before one can enter a PhD course. It strongly depends on what program you wish to study, and at which university. Before you officially apply, it is recommendable to contact a possible supervisor and to discuss a proper PhD project. I spent quite a few evenings writing e-mails to lecturers and professors, explaining them what I am planning to do in my project. Most of them were very interested, even enthusiastic about it. I made some very encouraging, positive experiences at this early stage of the application process. If he or she gives you a ‘go’, it is time to complete the official application form. Most universities have them ready to download on their websites. Once your have completed this, you will need a lot of certified copies and at least two letters of recommendations, written by two former lecturers or employers. After sending it to the institution you wish to apply for, it usually takes four to six weeks before you get a reply. In the meantime, you should think of ways to finance the course – because doing your PhD can be pretty expensive (UK/EU student fees are roughly 3,500 to 4,000 pounds a year). A British PhD course takes either three (full-time) or six (part-time) years; you’ll be accompanied by two supervisors and work mostly on your own. Depending on the structure of the program, you may need to complete a few classes during the early stages of your studies. It gives you a strictly defined time frame, in which you can develop yourself more ore less independently. Altogether, the tightly organized study plan of usually no more than three years and the ‘openess’ for new, innovative approaches make the British PhD courses very attractive – at least from my point of view. Nevertheless, the aspect of funding is extremely problematic, especially for people from the lower, less wealthy social segments of society. Just like myself. In times of economic crisis, it is almost impossible to conduct your PhD studies if you have not the money to pay A) the fees and B) to cover living costs, which are quite high in Britain. There are very few studentships and competition is fierce. You need an A-class degree and lots of references just to be considered at all. For EU-students, there is often an additional confinement: You can get a fee-waiver but no covering for living costs. Only UK citizens or EU-students who have lived at least three years in the UK can get fully-funded awards. Hence, I had to turn down a couple of offerings from London and Liverpool because they would have been fee-waivers only. It appears, that whilst many talented but poor UK, EU and International students cannot commence their PhD studies, less gifted but richer ones can. I do not want to know how much potential for academic progress gets lost due to social inequality and a lack of proper funding.

The situation in Germany is by no means better from a financial perspective but different in many other ways. First of all, the local ‘PhD system’ is still reflecting the same social mechanisms it had a hundred years ago. Though in recent years programs similar to the British ones emerged, doing your PhD in Germany is today often a very ‘personalized’ matter: There are mostly no fixed study plans, little guidance yet a strangely close relationship to your supervisor – who is either called “Doktorvater” (literally translated “doctoral father”) or “Doktormutter” (“doctoral mother”). Both terms speak for themselves, I guess. Defining your PhD topic considerably depends on the research interests of your supervisor. Despite a few exceptions, they are in many cases not really flexible and expect you to adjust or change  your proposal to their ideas, if you wish to have them supervising your dissertation. The relationship between you and your doctoral father/mother appears to be less equal, far more hierarchical than in the UK (or elsewhere in Europe). Moreover, you might have to search throughout the country before you find a supervisor whose research interests match with yours. For instance, I am focusing on transnational political online-communication. There is currently no professor even close to this area of studies at my home faculty; the next one I found works in Munich, some 600 km away. In the UK, supervisors show more flexibility; they are more willing to learn something new themselves and to cooperate with you on a more equal level. That is at least what I have witnessed in many conversations with possible supervisors in the UK. Though money is tight at German universities as well, there are some difference concerning funding a PhD course: First of all, pursuing your PhD is more or less for free, i.e. there are no fees to pay. That is basically a good thing but you still need to eat and sleep somewhere. Most PhD students finance their degree by working as a teaching and/or research assistant. If you are lucky, you can combine your dissertation topic with the contents of your work placement. However, many have to focus on two totally separated  areas; subsequently they need much longer to finish their actual doctoral thesis as they have to concentrate on disparate topics. Many have to ‘serve’ their supervisors as personal assistants, too (making copies, phone calls, organizational stuff, revising written exams and term papers etc.).  Another opportunity is to complete your PhD as part of a larger research project. Here you can get even paid for your PhD studies because your work contributes to the overall outcome of the project -thus, such a placement is considered to be a lucky pull. Self-evidently, these opportunities turn up relatively rarely and competition is tough. There are not always jobs in academia available – not every PhD candidate can work at a university faculty parallel to pursuing his/her studies. Thus, some work in the private sector or elsewhere. Studentships are even harder to get than in Britain, because rewarding organizations set very high standards: A distinction degree is taken for granted, you need to prove additional extracurricular activities in the social and political sector, but also in sports and/or culture. If you have not been trained for these competitions from the first day of your life, it is basically impossible to get one of these awards.

If you would ask me, both the British and the German models have their merits and demerits. Ignoring all financial aspects for a moment, I would (slightly) prefer the British one due to the more encouraging, flexible and innovative intellectual environment. This is a very subjective evaluation, basing on personal experiences. However, German ‘programs’  increasingly converge to international standards (which British PhD courses actually  represent). I have applied now for one more studentship at the University of Hull – one that covers both fees and living costs, also for EU-students. Moreover, I started to look for further places to commence my PhD allover Europe. Nevertheless, I have to admit that my experiences so far have been rather discouraging – and it is even more bitter as I had to turn down all offers due to financial reasons only, even though I was considered for awards (but the wrong ones).

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4 Comments

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  1. Something good will still come out of it at the end of the day. Don’t be discouraged Dennis. You know my story as well… I feel your pain 😦

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  2. thanks for such a details personal review, I have also applied for university of hull (phd program) this year.
    great to hear you are in there though! 🙂

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