My thoughts on what a PhD in the UK involves, and whether it is worth doing on the path to FI.
I read a great post by Frugasaurus recently – “Why getting a PhD is a terrible idea if you are on the path to financial independence.” It raised a lot of valid points, and was a very interesting look at what a PhD in Norway involves.
However, one quirk of the PhD is that every country does them slightly differently. I thought it would be interesting to talk about what a PhD in the UK involves. Is it worthwhile, and is it compatible with the quest for financial independence?
This topic ended up being pretty large, so I’m going to split it into two. In this section, I ‘ll start with what the PhD itself involves – the money and benefits you receive, and the work required.
Then, in the second part, I’ll talk about what comes afterwards – will it help you get a job? What will that job involve? Is well paid, interesting, worthwhile, etc?
Show me the money!
Depending on your point of view, the money you get whilst doing a PhD in the UK is either pretty good, or a huge step down. When I started my PhD, the annual stipend was £13,590 and, according to some quick research, has now increased to £15,009 (apparently it increases roughly with inflation). This is tax-free, so at the time it was equivalent to earning ~£16,000 per year if you factor in paying tax and national insurance.
Coming straight from my undergraduate degree, this was huge! I had previously been living on a combination of the maintenance loan (about £3,500 per year, from memory), savings from my gap year (which I believe were reduced to zero by the time I finished my undergraduate degree) and the very generous Bank of Mum and Dad. Suddenly I was loaded!
Things became even better when I realised that you could also pick up some work here and there at the university (demonstrating in the labs, marking undergraduate coursework, outreach, tours of the university) that paid a little over £10 an hour. Considering I was going to be in the university anyway, this seemed like a no-brainer. All told, I earned between £2-3,000 extra per year during my PhD. This was well below the personal allowance (around £8,000 at the time), so again, that was all tax free.
All this, and I was still classed as a student! This meant I was still eligible for student discount at a range of places, still had a huge overdraft at my bank (which I used extensively, but only because I had my money sitting in a savings account earning some interest) and didn’t have to pay council tax. Council tax is typically £100 per month, so over the course of a year this saved me another £1,000.
So, to sum up, I was earning ~£16,000 per year, tax free, and still had the benefits of being a student. I’m sure you can see why it was great at the time! However, if you’re considering starting a PhD after working in the real world for a few years, I suspect that will be quite a drop in salary.
All told, it isn’t a terrible wage… But it doesn’t compare to the numerous graduate schemes out there. From what I can see, the average graduate scheme right now seems to pay around £18-24,000, with some up to £40,000! So, in the first few years at least, the PhD seems to set you back financially compared to your peers.
As an aside, one downside to everything being tax-free is that I wasn’t making any national insurance contributions (NICs). This meant that, by the time I finished my PhD, my friends who had started working straight from university had accumulated four more years of contributions than me. Of course, no one knows what the state pension will look like 35 years from now, or how the rules determining if you can receive it will change. Still, the fact remains that I have about 3 years of NICs, whereas some people my age will have 10+. Probably nothing to be worried about if you expect to be working until the normal retirement age, but something to consider if you intend to retire early.
What does the PhD involve?
There’s a lot of misinformation surrounding the PhD. Whenever you tell someone outside the academia bubble that you have one, the responses are usually something along the lines of:
“Wow, you must be very clever to have a PhD!”
“I was done with learning by the time I finished undergrad, I couldn’t stand another four years at university. I don’t know how you did it!”
I’ll be the first to admit that the first response serves as a nice little ego boost whenever I hear it, but… It’s not true. At least, holders of a PhD are no more intelligent than anyone else I’ve met. The only requirement I think you need to successfully complete a PhD is sheer bloody-mindedness. It is a long, long slog, with many ups and downs. The main thing that kept me going was my own stubbornness, and refusal to give up. I’d never failed anything before, and I wasn’t about to start! Of course, support from friends and family also played a huge role. If you’re reading this and struggling with a PhD, my advice is, get out of the office/lab, make some friends outside of work, and take some time for yourself.
As for the second response, a PhD is very different from an undergraduate degree. In a normal degree, you attend lectures, do the prescribed coursework and take the exams. You then get a grade based on how well you did, and that’s that. Not so with a PhD; in the UK, at least, you don’t have to attend any lectures. You are of course welcome to, if you want a refresher on a specific subject relevant to your research, but it’s not expected. There’s no coursework and no exams (apart from the big one at the end, but I’ll come back to that).
Instead, a PhD is essentially a fixed-term job. It has a fair amount of flexibility and freedom, but it is ultimately a job. Your PhD supervisor has applied for some funding from a government body or from an industrial partner. This money is so that they can hire someone to research a specific topic. This is where the PhD student comes in. Your supervisor wants to find out the answer to a question. It’s your job to answer that question.
This usually involves lots of research over a period of three years. Whether that’s using specialist equipment (most sciences), gathering statistics from questionnaires (social sciences), or working on a new theory using pen and paper (maths, economics), the process and end goal is the same. Come into the office/lab, work from 9-6, go home, repeat. In that sense, it’s no different from most other jobs! The biggest difference is that, in order to pass the PhD, you have to write a thesis on your research. This is a book of around 200 pages. You can try to write it up within the initial three years, but it has become the norm to take up to a year afterwards to write it up, whilst continuing to do some work for the university (training your successor, writing papers, etc). You then have to defend that work, in a process called a viva voce, or simply, the viva.
The viva differs from country to country. In the UK, the viva is a 2-3 hour oral exam. You, an internal examiner (someone from your uni), an external examiner (someone from a different university) and the chair (someone else from your university) all sit in a room. The chair simply sits there silently, usually doing some of their own work/marking. Their role is to make sure that the correct procedure is followed, and to offer you support if necessary. They obviously will not answer any questions for you, but they will allow you to take a toilet break, or step in to defend you if an argument is getting heated or abusive. I’ve never known of this to happen, but better safe than sorry! Meanwhile, the two examiners, who will have read your thesis prior to the viva, will simply work their way through the thesis and ask you any questions that occur to them. Their main aim is to check that this is truly your own work, and that you know what you’re talking about.
Once you’ve passed the viva and received your PhD, you feel like you’ve conquered the world! Some perspective is necessary, however; the end result is best described by Matt Might, who wrote the Illustrated Guide to a PhD. I strongly, strongly recommend taking 2-3 minutes to visit the site, the illustrations do an excellent job in showing what you end up with once you’ve finished a PhD.
That’s all for part one. In part two, I’ll talk about what comes next. Now that you are a Doctor of Philosophy, how do you get on in the real world!?
In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear if any readers took any postgraduate qualifications, and their experiences. Or, if you shunned postgraduate study, what were your first steps after university?