I was born and raised in Lebanon, a country that holds education on a pedestal, but unfortunately doesn’t have sizable resources for scientific research. After getting my bachelor’s degree, I was in a good academic position and was able to balance a part-time job and a new degree. This allowed me to get into a master’s degree program at an esteemed university with a good research budget. This exposure to what could be achieved if lab spaces are adequately resourced is what made me interested in pursuing my PhD in a more research-centred country, the UK.

After a rigorous process of applying and being interviewed, I got accepted to the PGR program of my choice! Not only that, but I also got a studentship that should cover both my academic and living expenses! I was set for the next 4 years of my life.

Unfortunately, shortly after arriving here in the fall of 2021, the cost of living crisis escalated in the UK. The inflation rate significantly increased that year, with the increase in salaries not matching the inflation rate. This crisis has affected all low- and medium-income workers who need to budget their monthly salaries and was very stressful for me as an international research student. After moving countries with few possessions and having been assured that my stipend should be sufficient to live in London, I found my budget difficult to manage.

As a student, my monthly budget included paying for essentials such as rent, food and transportation as well as important extras such as socializing, travel and emergency savings. As the inflation rate increased, I had to reassess my budget where my stipend was mostly spent covering my essentials. The choice I made was to maintain a more comfortable but expensive living situation at the expense of my other essentials, resulting in me electing to spend a bigger part of my stipend towards having a private, albeit small, studio apartment.

Since my priorities lie in my comfort, and that includes having my own private and quiet space after a long day of working on my project, the budget for other essentials such as transport and food had to be deprioritized. I was able to cope with the situation by traveling only at off-peak times and making my meals. This came with a price since these two solutions cost me a lot of my valuable time. By limiting my travel to off-peak times, I had to start my days at the office at less-than-ideal hours. Having a later start to my days would mean that I would probably need to have a later end to them and less personal time in the evenings, and having a very early start would mean that I would get fewer hours of sleep. While my university has affordable meal options, it is significantly more affordable to cook for myself, which means that even during the more stressful periods, carving out time to go to the grocery store, looking for more affordable options, cooking and cleaning the dishes is my only option. The combination of having long days and spending personal time trying to make the rest of the stipend work would eventually lead anyone to burnout, which, ironically, PhD students do not have time for.

As a human being in general, and as a PhD student specifically, a decent work–life balance and a good focus on mental well-being are crucial. Since pursuing a PhD includes 4 years of working on one project, the ability to pace myself and have the chance to take care of the social, personal and more adventurous parts of my life is essential for my motivation to work on my degree. While I do my best to do free or cheap activities (which are abundant in London!), sometimes having good mental well-being means being able to afford to go to social events, being able to travel back home a couple of times a year and having an emergency fund. All of these aspects have taken a hit when I had to re-budget my stipend.

My emergency budget fund taking a hit is something that could affect my future. As an international student, I had to apply for a student visa, which included a hefty payment in the form of an immigration healthcare surcharge. I was lucky to have been in a position to pay that surcharge when I applied for this degree, but with every passing month, it seems less likely that I would have the financial capability to apply for a UK work visa after I graduate. This limits my career options to workplaces that offer to pay for my work visa and supply more financial security. I would have liked to be able to apply to any job, with less focus on the money, as long as it means that I get to gain the proper training and experience necessary to kick-start me on the career path of my choosing, but that flexibility seems unlikely these days.

On a less personal note, people in my academic circle, including home students, are stirring away from careers in academia since they notoriously pay less than the ones in industrial companies. Academics are realizing that they have a good set of skills that could be extremely valuable even in non-research environments, and they are taking advantage of them to get better-paying jobs. This is worrying because academic research environments with excellent researchers and good research culture, like the ones at universities, are integral for the continuation of good-quality and unbiased scientific research. These institutions also have an important role in training the future generation of researchers, and it would be unfortunate if the academic research roles, including the roles of PhD students and post-docs, can only be taken up by individuals who can afford to be there. This highlights how diversity in research could be affected when researchers are left to handle the aftermath of a nation-wide cost of living crisis.

As an international PhD student in the UK, I am managing to navigate the cost of living crisis the best I can. From re-budgeting essentials to decreasing the amount that I can spend on extra expenses, I am making an effort to make the best out of being a researcher in the UK. I do appreciate the soft skills I am gaining from getting a degree from a university that is well known for its research standards, and I believe that these skills are highly valued and could qualify me for an ample amount of job opportunities. While I do not regret moving here to pursue my research degree, I am not very satisfied with where I stand financially as someone who supposedly has a set of valuable skills, developed through many years of learning, training and commitment in order to meet the high standards needed to pursue a research career.

Please note that this is an opinion piece and the words are those of the author.

Published by Portland Press Limited under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND)