I’m A PhD Student – & With Rising Costs, I’m Worried About Eating

Photographed by Hayleigh Longman.
With the prices of everything continuing to rise, PhD students are struggling to survive on their meagre yearly stipends. Nicole Russell, a 24-year-old PhD student studying at Exeter University, told Refinery29 UK why she is nervous about her final year as a student as she tries to work out how she is going to cover all of her expenses.
Ever since I was a little girl growing up in Surrey, I always loved learning. But the cost of being an academic now, as an adult, is a high price to pay as the cost of living crisis continues to forge ahead.
Early on in school, I knew I wanted to defy stereotypical gender norms so planned to become an engineer, a profession typically taken up by men. When I chose my A-levels, maths and sciences predominantly featured, but I also decided to take a psychology course. Little did I know then that it would become the subject I would go on to get my undergraduate degree in years later.
While studying psychology at Exeter University, I toyed with the decision of pursuing a master's and PhD. Going down the academic route would give me the ability to help and understand people, but without having to carry the heavy load of being a clinical psychologist, a profession I thought would really impact my mental health.
When I found out I had been accepted to receive the 1+3 scholarship that would fund one year for a master’s and three years for a PhD, I was elated. I studied social and organisational psychology for my master's and have been pursuing a PhD in diversity and inclusivity in the workplace for the last two years.
Based on personal experiences, it is really important to me to be involved in research that will be used to ensure that women, those in LGBTQ+ communities, and people from all cultures are represented and respected within the workplace. I know what I am doing is meaningful, but I’m also struggling financially to keep up with the rising cost of living.
At the moment, the 1+3 scheme funds my tuition and provides me with £15,000 a year to live on. From that, I pay for rent to live in a flat close to campus, food, and all of my bills. I’m pretty thrifty and have managed to create a budget that allows me to pay for necessities, but I am just about covering everything with the money I’ve been allocated. I pay £610 per month for rent, £54 for Wifi, £30 for water, and £30 for electricity (which heats the house).
In the past two years, I’ve been cutting back and sacrificing what I can to stay afloat. To save on heating the house, I head to the university to stay warm while I work. When I am home, I bundle up in lots of warm clothes, but on those really cold days, I have to turn on the heating – I don’t want to be going to sleep in a ski suit just to avoid being cold. Everything in the flat runs off electricity. I just had my most recent bill and it was three times as much as it was last year. And that is with me being extremely careful with how much I am using. I only use it to occasionally work at home, cook in the evenings, and wash dishes at the end of the day. I turn the boiler off all day and only switch it on when I need it.
As my bills have gone up, I’ve had to be more careful about what I fork out for food – I allocate myself £30 per week for it. I’d love to be able to shop at cheaper shops like Aldi, but I don’t drive and the nearest one to me is a 45-minute walk away. Instead, I’m making cuts at the supermarket and on campus. I use a strict budget each week to determine how much I can spend on food, and I don’t divert from it. There isn’t the luxury of having wiggle room. Each pound saved adds up.
When friends who are working go out for meals or social gatherings that cost money, I often must turn them down because I just can’t afford it.
It’s been tough, but I’ve managed and I’m still really glad to be studying.
But things are going to get harder in October as prices are set to go up again and I’m just not sure how I am going to manage.
To supplement my stipend, I’ve taken a role as a post-graduate teaching assistant, but my work hours are capped at a PhD student at 180 hours for the year. The extra money is helpful but is only going to be a drop in the bucket once prices go up in October. As a PhD student, I’m not eligible for benefits.
I’m worried about what I’m going to do if the bills are just too high and I don’t have the money in the bank to pay for them. Although I have a great relationship with my family, they won’t be able to help financially. But I wouldn’t want to ask them anyway – I’m 24 and want to be able to fund this myself.
One thing I know – I’m going to have to make sacrifices. There won’t be any space for financial error.
I think there is a hardship fund I could apply for, but I know of so many students that are struggling even more than me who are going to need that. There are single mothers trying to raise small children or people caring for elderly or disabled family members. They are the ones really on the brink as PhD students. I totally acknowledge I am in a position of privilege right now, even though I am finding money really hard to think about while studying on such an intense course.
The sacrifice is worth it to me, but it has been far from easy.