How to start a PhD with no money

We understand that some Motherland Moguls are working towards a career in academia. It could be because you’re looking to add Prof. before your name or you just want to further your studies. Chances are you’ve looked up the cost of studying a PhD and balked at the price tags.

Because SLA always has your back we spoke a self-funded PhD student. Oreva Olakpe is not only studying for a PhD in international law focusing on African migrations, she’s also an entrepreneur and a hustler. She’s self-funded her way through school so we knew she’d give some great tips.

Why self-fund a PhD?

Finding funds for a PhD is hard. Most of the funding out there is based on the interest of people that have the money. If they are not interested in what you are doing, there’s nothing for you. If you’re from a country that doesn’t have the money to fund research on their particular field. Don’t feel too bad though.

Well, the issue with funding is that it can suck out the creativity of your work. Especially when funders want to dictate where your research goes (and if they can, they will). When you self-fund, your research is in your control and you can go wherever you want with it.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s very difficult to be self-funded. In Oreva’s program, there’s just one other self-funded girl. And guess what, both of them are African. There’s nothing Oreva didn’t do to pay for her living costs. She says, while there is a joy in knowing that your efforts are paying for your research, it’d be wrong to glorify it.

So if you’re ready to walk down the self-funded path, be ready to do all sorts of things to make money…

Save up

First of all, don’t jump straight into your PhD from your masters. Have a year to figure out things financially. Find a 9-5 that pays well and start saving ahead of school.

“For me, I only managed to save up a bit of money. What was able to help me get through the stress was doing entrepreneurial activities.”

Apply for (small) grants

Any PhD student is familiar with the grant application process. Grants can be very competitive and the trick to get through them is to apply for many.

“I got tiny grants from different organisations as opposed to the big funding that most people get.”

Small amounts pouring in from different organisations can come up to a lot. For Oreva, grants paid for all her international flights. For her fieldwork, she spent a couple of months in China and grants paid for all that. When money comes in from different sources, you can take care of annoying things that suck up your funds without you knowing (like transport and food).

There’s no shame in applying for all the grants. Also consider applying for a scholarship. A fair warning though, there is not much out there for Africans in social sciences.

Have a support system

“The most important thing that helped in cases of emergency, was family members.”

Just because you’re self-funding doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for help when time calls for it. For Oreva, family came through when she needed her tooth removed and did not have cash at hand. Her mom and sisters are deep in the entrepreneurship vibe and this supported and inspired her hustle. Oreva credits them as her motivation to try business ideas as a source of financial and intellectual freedom. Friends came through when someone smashed her laptop screen —the most important thing for a PhD student— and she needed to repair it.

Another way family and friends pull through is with connections. If you need to do fieldwork in certain locations, they can help make things easy for you. The important thing is to have a support system, whether its your family, friends or the investment your parents put in your name.

Get your hustling gear on

Oreva has sold clothing (ankara), artwork and jewellery that paid her a lot. In addition, she does a lot of freelance writing and has worked with blogs while also writing academic articles for companies. While she lived in China, Oreva was also an IELTS tutor and French tutor.

It seems if there’s one thing self-funding a PhD will do, it’ll improve your entrepreneurial spirit. Academics are associated more with the library than the marketplace but the truth is entrepreneurship fits into any career. Academics can also be entrepreneurs.

“A lot of the African students I know are hustlers.”

In SOAS, where Oreva studies, there’s a market for students. Maybe it’s unsurprising that most of the people selling at the market are African students. Some sell jollof rice, buns and chin-chin while others sell jewellery, bags, homemade beauty products, soaps.

Find ways to cut cost

“I don’t stay in London but in my family home in Nigeria. This way I don’t have to pay that high rent.”

You don’t have to be physically present at campus for most PhD programs. To cut costs further, you may also consider studying something that relates to you or to your country. Oreva’s case study is focused on Nigeria.

Pick research topics that will be cheap for you. This way your networks will come through. For example, when you have to travel to conduct research in your home country, chances are people will be more willing to help you.

And it doesn’t have to be people you know. It can be local universities coming through because they see the value of what you’re doing.

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About Rafeeat Aliyu

Rafeeat loves food, learning about pre-colonial African history and watching horror movies. She writes weird and speculative fiction sometimes.

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