On a great website (www.everything2.com) that I used to hang out on far more than was healthy back in the early days of my internet usage (read: my adolescence, the nineties), there were certain nodes called “GTKY” or “getting to know you”. That’s what this first post is all about.
I’m an American student from the Mountain West studying for a PhD (DPhil) at the University of Oxford. I study environmental stuff. This past June, I completed a two year master’s degree (MPhil) at this same institution. Going to Oxford was a huge dream of mine from high school on, but for the past year, leading up to my decision to study for the DPhil, I have been questioning if it isn’t also the biggest financial mistake I’ve ever made.
Oxford is ridiculously expensive for an American student; the tuition per year is about $24-25,000, dependent upon exchange rates. Although that tuition is comparable to similar institutions in America, there are two additional factors here.
The first is that, for graduate degrees in America, funding is expected; at Oxford, this is definitely not the case. For Americans and other overseas students, funding is incredibly hard to come by. When I first came here two years ago, I believed that I would easily get a scholarship within a year. Instead, I have applied to everything that came my way and still have not received any money. It’s not that I am a bad student; my MPhil received a distinction, the highest possible mark. The funding is just incredibly scarce. No Rhodes for me. I rationalize this first factor by knowing that a. I can continue to try for funding over the next three years of my degree, and b. due to scholarships, I paid no money for my undergraduate degree and have no debt from that period. In fact, by having a job for the last two years of that degree, I managed to save enough money to pay all my living costs my first year at Oxford.
The second factor is the insane cost of living in the UK, especially compared to what I’m used to. I did my undergraduate degree in Washington DC, which at the time (having come from the West) seemed to be the most expensive place I had ever been. My rent for living in a house with three other girls in a neighborhood that wasn’t exactly great was $650/month. However, after graduating and a summer of living back home, I came to the UK in September of 2006 and was faced with a cost of living beyond anything I’d expected, despite knowing that the pound was strong and that London was the most expensive city in the world.
For example: the absolute cheapest rent that I can get for next year is £300; that is a two room + bathroom flat subsidized by my college whose total area is smaller than the downstairs floor of the four-story house I had in DC. As far as food goes, the numbers are the same as in the US — but the money is worth just less than twice as much. And all of the little peripherals — cell phones, travel, going out — usually cost well more than double US prices, transportation especially. Finally, because Oxford is such a tourist zone, and is also pretty close to London, it is one of the most expensive places to live in the UK.
So this is the situation I am in right now: no funding, $40,000 in student loans from the past two years, and three more years to fund. Luckily Oxford won’t charge me for a fifth year of tuition, and depending on how the writing up of my PhD is going, I may be able to move back home and work from there for that final year, but there are at least two more years here in Oxford to pay for and I’d like to leave school without being in horrible (like, over $60,000) debt. My parents are very helpful and will be paying for 2/3s of tuition starting with this year (since they didn’t have to pay for my undergrad, they don’t mind helping out) but I hate that they are giving me money and so don’t want to go over my budget.
So this blog is about trying to live in Oxford, as a grad student, for the lowest cost possible. In the past two years, I’ve learned quite a bit about being frugal, but I think that I can tighten it up further this year. Hopefully what I’ve learned can help other people in the same or similar situations — grad school is expensive and even people in the US only earn minimum wage when they’re doing it. Not fair but true.
And maybe at the end of it I’ll have come up with an answer as to whether or not this was a terrible financial mistake and I should have just gotten an extremely lucrative BS in Petroleum Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines like a lot of my friends…