Can you earn as you learn?

Before you commit yourself to postgraduate study, be aware of the sacrifices involved. Working throughout studies can highlight your skills to prospective employers
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The Independent Online
Approaching the end of your student days can seem like the ultimate horror. No surprises, then, at the ever-increasing numbers of undergraduates who scan half-heartedly through job ads and stare longingly instead at the offers of further research options. No surprises either at the almost obligatory response from friends and family: if you think paying a small percentage towards your tuition and/or living expenses of an undergraduate degree has been hard work, don't even consider postgraduate study. Your university department will certainly be quick to inform you that financial assistance is rarely as easily available as students anticipate.

Nevertheless, report a surprising number of postgraduates, having to fund yourself - at least to a certain extent - has its benefits. It can, for instance, be an excellent way of ensuring that you don't choose further study simply as an attempt to opt out of the more foreboding real world. Rather, it can make you more motivated than you thought possible, thereby furthering your career options swiftly. Indeed, agree an increasing number of experts, the way in which your postgraduate study is financed can have as important effect as the qualification itself.

For Helen Saunders, who completed an MA in Journalism three years ago, the struggle of finding the pounds 3,000 tuition fee turned out to be an extremely positive experience. "It made me work harder than I ever had in my life and forced me to reach my full potential," she explains. Helen was surprised to discover that for most students on her course, fees and expenses were paid by someone else - usually parents. "The difference really showed in the grades we came away with," she says. "For me, after all, it was about needing the qualification rather than just putting off work for another year. It also made me recognise what a lot of non-fee paying students miss - that I was paying for a service. If that service was not - at any time - up to scratch, I would complain and make sure it improved so that I got my money's worth. For instance, for some of the students, the lecturer not showing up was reason to cheer; for me, it meant losing out."

Carrie Myers, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, actually chose to do a course that was not funded because she wanted a specific academic as her supervisor. She accepts that was the price she had to pay, but the consequence is that she values her research more highly than most. She also believes working throughout her studies will highlight to prospective employers her skills in time management. But there are negatives too: "I often have to defer sudden ideas about what I'm studying, due to paid work priorities which take up three hours a day."

Many universities suggest the solution may be applying for Research Studentships which are advertised by individual departments on an annual basis. Generally, this entails carrying out work for the university in return for the payment of tuition fees and a small maintenance grant. As in Carrie's situation, it means putting time aside for paid work, but the bonus is that it is directly relevant to the world of academia. Bela Chatterjee, a PhD student at Brunel University in Uxbridge, believes this can increase career prospects: "It keeps me up to date with other research; I've learnt how to use different facilities; and it keeps me in touch with the real world."

It can encourage you to work more intensively, she adds. "It's an honour to have someone believe in you that much and there is a pressure about not letting them down."

In fact, an increasing number of studentships provide the opportunity to take seminars for undergraduates, which can almost provide a training programme for future academic employment prospects. Professor Sue Lees, a PhD supervisor at North London University, says: "Some student bursaries provide students with a foot in the door, and many actually gain full time lecturing posts whilst undertaking their research." But beware that studentships produce hidden pressures for students when they find themselves devoting several hours a week to a subject they have little interest in.

The highest sums of money available for postgraduate study tend to be available through funding associations such as the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. These bodies allocate quotas to university departments which then allocate studentships from these funds. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which funds social science research, for instance, is fairly typical in the way that it accepts individual applications, annually, on a competition basis. But, as Carrie Myers points out, it has its price. Indeed, such applications tend to be extremely time-consuming and the disappointment upon being unsuccessful can be great. "It is soul destroying when you put your studies aside for a while to rewrite application forms for funding, and then you get turned down again," she explains.

For Sue Adams - another PhD student - the time she was advised to spend perfecting her application lasted several weeks. "I just wanted to get on with researching my thesis, but felt I was being forced to put it on hold."

Phil Sooben, Director of post graduate training at the ESRC, agrees that this can be a problem. In fact, he says, students' knowledge that money is tight and that the application process can be lengthy may put them off applying for postgraduate research in the first place. "The fact that talent is being wasted is a long time concern," he explains. The general advice from academics in the know is therefore to prepare for the worst: assume that you'll have to fund yourself - and recognise the benefits of this. And if a funding body such as the ESRC agrees to help you out, consider it a bonus.

We are all used to students expressing a wish that their vocation was in law or medicine, where provisions for postgraduate research options tend to be highest. But these disciplines don't offer a solution, says Dave Brummel, who is considering undertaking a PhD in medical microbiology in the workplace - for which he would get paid a higher wage than most. "If you have a project that's fundable, they regard you as cheap labour. They gain research ... and you get paid half the wages they would normally pay in that position."

But like Carrie and Bela, he believes there's a lot to be said for going independently. As Richard Gillespie, Professor of Iberian and Latin American Studies at Portsmouth University, says, it's important to remember that whilst methods of funding are undoubtedly influential, "the financial angle of completing a research degree is only one of many".