This blog is a collection of blog posts by a range of authors. They come from those who have completed or are undertaking part-time doctorates. Its content is therefore only as rich as the range of contributions. If you do not see yourself or people like you represented, we’d love to include a piece by you. If you have experience of supporting part-time doctoral researchers supervising PhDs would also love to hear from you.
You can see from the posts we have already shared that they come in a variety of styles and formats. What we want to develop is place where current and future doctoral researchers can find inspiration though the experiences of others. Our editorial policy is light touch, and we will work with you to shape your ideas if you are not quite sure what you want to share.
We are particularly keen to feature pieces from:
People working outside academia
Lab based part-time students
Those under-represented in higher education
People who have paused, resumed or abandoned part-time doctorates
Those doing doctorates but not planning on careers in academia
This list is not exhaustive and all ideas and perspectives are welcomed so please do get in touch. You can get in touch with through the contact form
Some general guidelines for writing a good post
Title: Ideally something snappy that addresses a question a student might have or speaks to a specific issue they might face
Author details: A twitter handle and any other method you might be happy for them to contact you on. It would also be good to have a couple of sentences saying who you are / where you are from and your relationship to the part-time doctorate.
Length: 5-800 words is a good length
Do try and include:
A short introductory paragraph spelling out the issue you are discussing
A takeaway message at the end if possible
References hyperlinked in the text
Format: Microsoft word
Publication: We schedule a post weekly so there may be some delay between acceptance and publication but we will let you know when it will be published and promote it both on twitter so please include your username if you have one.
Deadline: This is an ongoing call so there are no hard deadlines
This post is from Selina Griffin. Selina has worked in data and project management and now works at the Open University and is in her mid (I can still say mid right?) thirties. She started a Doctorate in Education in October 2020 combining her love of data (in the guise of learning analytics) with one of her hobbies – Toastmasters. She tweets as @psylina and blogs about her study, her running and her cat (@MrGrebo) on Psylina Psays
Why an EdD? Why now?
I chose to pursue a Professional Doctorate because I wanted to be able to “hold my own” and show that I can do what I do (have expertise in data, online learning and education) at an academic level. The difference between this and a traditional PhD was explained early on in our materials – a Professional Doctorate makes you a researching professional, a PhD a professional researcher. I considered that a Doctorate on Toastmasters may help me to “save time” by combining my hobby with my study; activities could in some way be linked to my study and so tick two boxes. In a Professional Doctorate this idea isn’t so unusual, except people usually are combining their work with their study.
This is the big question isn’t it, how? How do you work 9-5 (ish), do all the home-life stuff and find the 18 or so hours a week needed to study? Well if that is your aim – to just work, study and do family commitments you’re going to have problems. There’s another important category you need to consider, You.
1.Enjoy your study
Firstly, I do enjoy studying. And you have to at this level. You’re not in compulsory education, you’re making a choice so I’m afraid you are going to have to enjoy it or you haven’t got a hope in hell. I’m not saying I always enjoy it obviously, particularly when I’m struggling with an assignment or grappling with a paper or a concept I can’t figure out, but you need to be excited about what you’re doing and enjoy it. I would almost class study as a hobby; which is perhaps demeaning, but by this I mean when I have free time, study is an option – it’s a choice and not the same category as work
Being a part-time researcher, you can struggle with your identity and your motivation. It can feel isolating and like something “extra”, rather than who you are. You are just as much a researcher as someone who is full-time. Own it (it’s all over my blog!). Make it part of your identity (I put it in my signature after my job title and on Twitter!). Networking with your cohort can help, I do this by attending a monthly seminar – it works for me because there’s a seminar to listen to, it’s not “social chat” and it involves students in all years so I can get a sense of progress and the wider community. A weekly pub quiz may not work for you, but find something – or set something up
3. Find your you
That doesn’t mean all I do is study, I have this “You” category too: I do Toastmasters. I hug my cat. But I also exercise and run (including marathons). I run because it helps me to run. What I don’t do is watch hours of TV – there are a few shows I watch and films, but I don’t “veg” watching TV, it has to be doing something for me.
When you work at a computer, then study at a computer and it’s lockdown, I need a break! I might pop out in a lunch hour (I usually do some sort of exercise at lunch, a 15 minute exercise video, just something to take a physical and mental break and still have time left to eat!) or when I close my work laptop for the day. But I also enjoy it, it feels decadent, I can listen to podcasts (and Zombies, Run), enjoy my own space my own ability (separate from work or study) and set and achieve challenges (the satisfaction of a virtual race is still a huge thrill for me!).
I use running as a motivation (just read 1 more paper then you can run) or a tool to help me focus (now you’ve run you can study for a couple of hours) – the approach depends on the priority for the day and other commitments.
5. Allow for Eureka moments
It’s a cliché, but I do think clearly when I run and a work or a study problem will often unpack itself and present a solution, so once I’m back, I make notes. I have a Trello board for study and I add cards (even on my phone so I don’t have to go through the hassle of turning a pc on) to ensure I capture and remember key ideas or trains of thought as I come to them for processing later in my study time. This also helps my “completionist” tendencies because having separate cards (or lines on a to-do list) I can tick them off as I move through and address the point.
This week’s post is from Sharon Inglis (@sharoninglis) a Senior Lecturer in Education, and course leader for FT and PT MA Education. Her thesis investigated the expectations and experiences of part-time students in transition into taught postgraduate students, and the staff who taught them. Her viva was in January 2020. The student participants were her PT MA students, and the staff who taught them were her colleagues.
It can be really challenging to be a doctoral student in the institution where you work – particularly if you are completing a Professional Doctorate researching your own practice, and working full time in your setting. Total immersion in your studies is a given, but it can be something of a double-edged sword.
Staying focussed really isn’t a problem, because your topic is all you ever think about and (almost) all you ever do. Critical engagement with the literature becomes second nature, because your subconscious brain is two steps ahead of your conscious one
There is no such thing as wasted effort in either the day job, or the research (unless it’s admin that isn’t best use of an academic’s time). Everything relevant counts towards one or the other – and on a good day both.
You are most certainly immersed in your data because you have lived and breathed it, both as researcher, but also reflected on it (and possibly acted on it) as a practitioner, too.
Your recommendations write themselves. Your data screams at you! You know what needs to be done, and by the time that you have submitted, you’re already half-way to evaluating your first attempt at implementation.
Total immersion means that here is no escape from either your doctorate or the day job. Any boundaries that you might start out with can soon crumble; and, when the going gets tough it can be hard not to resent both the day job and the research for the reciprocal time burglar that each becomes from the other.
Because your research and your day job are closely intertwined, it can be difficult for colleagues and management to be as sympathetic to your research than if you are doing something completely different.
If you are researching your own institution’s students, you need to be particularly careful about perceptions of power. Will your participants respond differently to you if they perceive you as a member of staff first and a researcher second. This is participant bias. You can go a long way to dismantling this by making sure that all your information and consent documentation make the anonymity and confidentiality of their participation very clear, and re-iterate this at every possible opportunity.
If your participants are your own students, then there is an added layer of complexity about your dual role. Sometimes students can find it difficult to distinguish between you as lecturer/tutor/ course leader, and you as researcher. If this happens, there’s a significant possibility of participants telling you what they think that you want to hear, so it’s really important that your own students understand that their participation (or lack of it) have nothing to do with their progression on their course. Again, you can use your documentation and each interaction with your students as participants to reinforce this. Interestingly, my own students told me things as a researcher that they had never told me as their lecturer; and never mentioned to me as their lecturer again, outside of their participation in my research.
Consideration in your thesis of your positionality in own institution makes a great start to a section of reflexivity. The things that you have to think about, and how you overcame them are great thesis material. Just remember to capture what you did, before you forget!
Ring-fence your time, and set clear boundaries for colleagues and students.
Manage expectations. For students, book your leave and communicate it well-ahead. For colleagues, and anyone else who might be emailing you, have a polite, but firm OOO response in time that you have committed to writing. Provide alternative contact details for your non-contact time.
If, like me, you have spent years trying not to sweat the small stuff in life, it’s time for a re-think. Learn to sweat the small stuff, and remember that as a part-time student, you eat the elephant that is your doctorate one bite at a time. So, if you’re someone who thinks that they can’t do anything if you have less than half a day available, think again. Turn this on its head, and think about what you can usefully do in a small chunk of time.
Keep your eyes on the prize. You are investigating your own practice, because you are passionate. If you didn’t care about it so much that it hurts, you wouldn’t be doing this. Breathe deeply, stick with it, and remember that the double-edged sword can be instrumental in bringing about both a doctorate for you, and a better experience and/ or outcomes for your students
This weeks post is re-published with permission from the Think Ahead team, and the author Melanie Lovatt (@melanie_lovatt). Originally posted on the Think Ahead blog.
Back in 2010 I excitedly told friends and family that I had decided to do a part-time PhD. “Part-time?” repeated a relative sceptically. “Well, how long’s that going to take you?” “Around six years!” I replied, with an enthusiasm that I suspected might desert me long before completion. But five years and nine months on, having passed my viva with minor corrections last month and about to start a lectureship, I can honestly say that doing my PhD part-time was the right decision for me. Here are some reflections on the process:
Why do it part-time?
There are many reasons why someone might want to study part-time, e.g. financial reasons, existing work commitments, or family responsibilities. Mine were largely financial. I was already working as an administrator at The University of Sheffield when I considered postgraduate research and was able to register as a staff candidate, where I paid no tuition fees but received no stipend. If you work at a university and are considering doing a PhD, it’s worth investigating if your institution offers something similar. It definitely worked out for me. As well as the huge incentive of paying no fees, I’m convinced already working in an academic environment secured me interesting and useful employment I might not otherwise have got, which leads me to my second point…
Doing paid-work alongside my PhD
Not having a stipend meant that I needed paid work alongside my PhD to pay the rent. For the first couple of years I stayed in university administration, which gave me valuable insights into the inner workings of academic life and ‘how things get done’ in a university. From there, I was fortunate to get a position as a part-time research associate (RA) on various projects in different departments. This was not without its challenges…
Getting up to speed with entirely different bodies of literature on subjects with which I was not already familiar was difficult. It also sometimes meant needing to juggle my time and other commitments around in order to meet deadlines, although this worked both ways. For instance I once switched to working full time as an RA for a month so I could submit a report on time, but then took the next month off in lieu to work on my PhD. Having supportive line managers helped with this.
Despite these challenges, working as an RA on projects alongside my PhD was overwhelmingly positive. It gave me experience of working in multi-disciplinary teams, applying my methodological skills to different fields, writing and publishing journal articles, and applying for grants. So, while it may have taken twice as long to get my PhD than if I had done it full-time, I was filling my CV along the way with the skills, experience and achievements that I needed in order to secure an academic position. Doing those other jobs also gave me some helpful perspective on my PhD, in particular steering me away from any misguided notion that my PhD would ever be perfect. (It isn’t, though nor would it have been even had I spent another six years on it.) As an RA, I frequently had tight deadlines where I had to submit a piece of work that I thought was good enough rather than perfect, and this definitely helped me when I approached the final stages of writing my PhD.
I once heard someone describe doing a PhD as ‘a slog’. He was talking about full-time study, so I’m not sure what term he would have used for a part-time degree. It’s perhaps not repeatable. It’s certainly the case that six years is a long time to sustain enthusiasm for a topic. I had a gap of five years between finishing my Masters degree and starting my PhD, and am relieved that I waited until I had come up with an area of research that I was genuinely interested in. I think my part-time paid work on other projects also helped to maintain my commitment to my PhD. Rarely spending more than three days a week on it meant that I never really got bored of it. Switching between my PhD and my paid work each week could be difficult, but on the whole I think it helped me to stay focused and make the most of the time I did have to spend studying.
I’ve heard many people describe doing a PhD as an isolating experience. I actively worked to avoid this. As a part-time student I had no access to a permanent desk in the department, and so studied from home. This meant that, apart from my monthly supervision meetings, I was an infrequent visitor to the department. (This instilled in me a lingering insecurity that I was not a ‘proper’ member of the department. Consequently, convinced that staff would not remember me, I always felt compelled to remind people of my name, until the time when one lecturer, in obvious bewilderment and impatience said, “I know who you are! We’ve met several times!”). To try and redress this and feel like a member of the department, I attended as many departmental seminars as possible, and also co-convened a reading group. I am also lucky in that my fellow PhD students are a lovely, sociable bunch, and we have regular catch-ups over drinks where we share experiences and provide peer-support.
I do think I’ve been fortunate with the opportunities I’ve had, and if my part-time work had been merely to pay the bills rather than develop my skills as an academic, I’d probably have a very different perspective. Doing my PhD part-time worked well for me though, and it was definitely worth the wait.
This weeks post is re-published with permission from the Think Ahead team, and the author Sam Dent (@SRDent89). Originally posted on the Think Ahead blog.
My PhD topic area is based in my experiences of working on the front line of University Student Support. Each March I’d brace for impact as swathes of 20/21-year-olds about to graduate would come to see me; exhausted/tempted to withdraw, and questioning the purpose of their entire education. At this point in the year most graduate recruitment schemes had announced their new recruits, and inevitably some students didn’t make the cut. For many of these students this was the first time they had realized that beginning their career would not be straightforward, and that being successful had not come easy this time.
This work is perhaps where I became fitted for part-time study, (Masters and PhD) equipping me with the grounded perspective that little about careers is smooth and linear. My career so far has been thematic… but initially broad, mainly focused around governance, then Higher Education (HE), balancing work in professional services with a personal interest in academia, and increasingly interests in social justice, and inequalities (You can find the detail here on my LinkedIn).
However, there are some old fashioned thinkers who would suggest we have failed to specialize or settle down; we’re intrepid explorers people! Boldly going where others haven’t, approaching things from new and creative angels. Pass me a scarlet letter if you absolutely must, but I’ll wear it with pride ultimately my career has involved doing many things at once, things that I enjoy, find interesting, and am passionate about.
My PhD is but one very significant strand to this. In my experience a PhD is not necessarily a zero sum qualification, you get or you don’t. By doing a PhD you are making yourself more informed, broad-minded, inquisitive, well-read, articulate, creative, exposed to different people and cultures, and these are all skills and experiences I have found myself relying on in the last three years; as well as acquiring a greatly expanded rolodex! Ihaveheldthreefull–timerolessincestartingmyPhD, eachapromotionordevelopmentopportunity, andeachenhancedbythedevelopingskillsetandnetworkwhichcanbetracedbacktomyPhD.
At times though, I need to compartmentalise elements of my career in ways that other researchers perhaps do not. My multiple email accounts, to service my multiple roles, are one way that the boundaries are drawn. Scenes like this are not uncommon;
Q: “How many email accounts do you actually have now?”
Me: “I haven’t counted till you asked but apparently it’s 6 atm 😝”
The above is from an email chain where I redirected an enquiry from one of my accounts to the most appropriate one. The HE sector can be deeply political, nobody has taught me this, or instructed me to draw these boundaries, but I’ve become very aware of the potential challenges of studying an area you work in. The views you express through academic pursuits as a researcher, may earn you respect in one sphere and be accredited to your academic rigour, independence. Yet in another sphere this might ruffle feathers as you fail to tow the party line or speak in an unfamiliar language. In a third sphere a middle ground maybe perfect; delicately balanced to help conceive how impact can be generated from your research findings.
IfeelIamactingasthespokeinthemiddleofwheelwhichbringstogetheracademicresearchinwayswhichleadtopracticalapplications. To an extent it’s about being clear about what sphere your operating in, and who your audience is and perfecting your use of language and demeanour to suite your audience; a complex skill constantly developing, but a highly valuable one.
Studying what you know and what you do, while you do it, is deeply complex especially as you try to maintain integrity, and juggle these different sphere. Very similar to how Clegg, Stevenson, and Burke (2016) have characterised the challenges of researching for evidence-based policy making purposes while trying to maintain academic credibility, navigating the challenges to one identity which comes with this and the real potential for “slippages of translation and loss of criticality”.
I do not want to scare you away from Part-Time PhD study, especially for professional development, however it is an issue which keeps you on your toes. I won’t here recount specific examples of how political and complex the HE sector can be. But I’d suggest you look to Vicki Bolivar’s recent talk where she talks about her complex journey influencing policy and politics of Higher Education. Bolivar is a maverick whose research is fundamentally changing the face of HE, my experience has been a very different reflection of our differing career stages/focuses.
But challenging as this may be, doing a part time PhD is the best thing I have ever chosen to do.
My PhD has become one of the most rewarding things I have entered into, it has; introduced me to some excellent people, fascinating conferences, lifelong friends, mended broken hearts, and shaped my life in ways I’m not sure would have happened otherwise. I may not have some of the stability, and pension plan if I’d been snapped up by a graduate recruitment scheme at 21, but I certainly think I’ve had far more fun.
This weeks post is from Katherine Christian (@KatherineChri15) from Federation University Australia. Her research interests focus on Early Career Researchers in the Sciences and you can find out more on her website
I did my PhD part time, and as a remote student with supervisors at the end of email and on regular video calls. This was less than ideal, but if it is the only option, it is still worthwhile.
My PhD studies came towards the end of my career, over 40 years after my undergraduate degree, rather than at the beginning. Unusual, perhaps, but during my career in management of medical research I had seen evidence of the very difficult work environment for early career researchers (ECRs) in the sciences in Australia and I wanted to do something about it while I could. My PhD project involved exploring the challenges for these ECRs, who were working in universities and independent research institutes, and their impact on the scientists’ job satisfaction and their intention to leave academic research. The advantage of making waves towards the end of a career is that it doesn’t matter if you create trouble for yourself and you can take advantage of having friends in high places. I have recently submitted my thesis, but I hope to continue this research on a part time basis, particularly exploring the environment during COVID-19 and looking more closely at the impact on ECRs of questionable research practices and poor leadership supervision which have emerged as major problems.
Having made the decision to do this research, part-time, while continuing my two part-time jobs in research, I needed to find a supervisor. That was actually very difficult. My PhD research was interdisciplinary, being about scientists but not actually science, and it didn’t seem to “belong” anywhere. Eventually I found Wendy, a scientist with an interest in higher degree education, who was able to help me over a second obstacle: that I didn’t have a higher degree. Fortunately, I did have research experience, had worked in scientific academia and I had recently published a text book about research management. I was underway, flying towards the next set of hurdles.
Wendy’s university was in another state, in a regional Australian university, spread (as were my supervisors) over three campuses. A campus visit involved catching a plane and a train, or plane and car journey, so I only visited four times in three years.
My introductory visit was a baptism by fire into the perils of interdisciplinary research. Wendy the scientist was away, so I met only my two other allocated supervisors, both social scientists. It was a very difficult meeting. They didn’t understand my world of science and had no experience or understanding of the environment I was concerned about. I didn’t understand theirs. We spoke an entirely different language! The last straw was being told social scientists don’t believe in evidence in the way scientists do, but instead simply use it as a starting point for considering the views of individuals. The fact that I was very senior in my professional experience while a rank amateur in social science academia proved very challenging for all of us. I felt I knew all about my topic, and not only knew what my question was, but its answer as well. The prospect of immersing myself in the literature for a year was torture, but the supervisors were insistent, and I was slowly brought into line and shown the “academic way”. Of course, this approach did end up being valuable. While it didn’t add greatly to my knowledge of the problems (which sadly were reproduced in various guises across the world) I learnt a lot about academic writing and the many forms it takes.
I had regular video calls with my supervisory team, but I was largely on my own in between. I took up all online courses and resources offered by the university and I was sent on a course to learn about qualitative research, which was very beneficial. In retrospect, it was quite a lonely experience being both part-time and remote. I missed the opportunities that come with being immersed in academia and I didn’t get to meet many other students. I couldn’t, of course, pop in to an office to ask any of my supervisors a quick question or bounce ideas with other students. COVID-19 helped my circumstances. Suddenly the university had to offer resources to students working at home and I was consequently able to participate in on-line seminars and in a writing group. I came to know some of the other students and to learn about their work and I felt a little more that I belonged. I wish I had had these opportunities from the start.
Three years of steep learning curve on all fronts, a change of one supervisor to another who provided a bridge between science and social science, and a lot of patient support from the whole supervisory team has brought me to the end of the journey. Would I do it again? Definitely. I have learnt a whole range of new skills, had my eyes opened to different ways of thinking and I have successfully “rocked the boats” I was wanting to rock. It has been very satisfying. If in doubt, I say do it!
Key points for the remote student – involve yourself as much as you can with anything which puts you in touch with other students or early career researchers, and take up all the training you are offered. The training will bring you in touch with other students and alert you to new ideas and approaches. The same applies to conferences – these days usually held by Zoom. Accept opportunities to present and to attend, and broaden the horizons which will otherwise be limited by your remoteness.
This post is from Nicole Brown. Nicole is a Lecturer in Education, who embarked ona part-time doctoral journey as a (very) mature student. In her contribution she writes about the flexibility of time, as she has experienced it in her studies. She tweets as @ncjbrown
Doing a doctorate is difficult, engaging in that research as a part-time endeavour even more so. Drop-out rates amongst doctoral students are generally very high, but studies show that nationality, marital status, age, disciplinary research field and funding all play a part. And with that as someone who was working, older and not an English native speaker I was highly likely to not complete my studies. However, for me, part-time “doctoring” was not all doom and gloom. If I was to summarise the main concern and the main advantage of my experience of a part-time doctorate, it would be that time flies and stands still, at the same time.
I was no youngster, when I started. In the UK context a mature student is aged 21 or over at the start of their studies. Well, aged 39 when I started my doctorate, I was definitely an atypical student in my chosen institution. I didn’t feel mature, I felt geriatric amongst all the under-thirties-students of my cohort. But the thing is this: Time is strange. When we enjoy something, we tend to experience it as flying and the minutes and hours running through our fingers. When something is difficult or boring, then that same minute that just ran through our fingers suddenly feels like hours. It is this effect of the flexibility or stretchability of time that I was able to turn to my advantage as a part-time doctoral student. And here is the why and how:
Time is precious
Of course, time is precious for every student, but if you have to cram studying, reading, researching, marking, teaching, planning, supporting colleagues, school runs, cooking, household chores and any other family commitments in to your day, your time becomes even more precious. My day became a slick military operation of managing time, no time was ever wasted. If I needed to wait for a few minutes somewhere, I would use that time to be productive by reading and highlighting or making notes. Time was not wasted away with unnecessary tasks; every minute was purposeful.
A day is a day, is not a day
When it came to the weeks and months of field research, I noticed my full-time colleagues worrying and panicking if there were delays with the ethics forms or when interviews needed to be rescheduled. A day lost was indeed a full day lost. In my case, rescheduling a day wasn’t really a full day lost. I was “only” a part-time student, so in terms of equivalencies a full day lost really only converted into a half-day loss. And if there was more time at risk, then I focussed on work commitments and crammed all that into my days, and traded those for PhD days a few weeks later. Catching up with days lost felt easier to manage to me than for the full-timers.
Time to take a break
Because of that stretchability of the day being a half-day that can be made up easily, I think I took more breaks from my doctorate than the full-time students did. Like I said earlier, having a break from the PhD did not mean idling my time away, I had other things to do. But what it did mean that I had time away from the doctoral study and the brain work involved with that. We know that in order to become an expert in something we need deliberate practice, but also deliberate rest and sleep. Although the 10,000 hour-rule of practice for becoming an expert is disputable, the relationship between deliberate practice, deliberate rest and sleep is crucial. According to Pang expertise only comes after10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep. And there was my gain! Any break I took or had to take from my PhD became a deliberate rest. Deliberate rest does not mean becoming a couch potato binge-watching the latest Netflix or Amazon Prime offerings. It means to take a break from actively thinking about and engaging with the problems on hand. For some people, deliberate rest may be taking time for exercise or arts and craft activities; for me, it meant dealing with the other tasks and commitments in my life. The benefit of such a deliberate rest is that your brain has time to process and mull things over and when you come back to the problem, you will be better equipped to focus and find solutions. However, I found my full-time peers worrying about losing out, slowing down, not producing enough if they took a break.
Ebb and flow
And so, the part-time doctorate is a tidal journey between the ebbs of quieter times and the flow of frantic interviewing and writing-up. Of course, it is all-too-easy to become complacent and drift into too many idle periods. In her youtube video for the University of Kent Vanisha Jassal therefore shares strategies to remain focussed and organised. However, being mature (or geriatric) has probably helped me with this, too. I always felt that I was not getting any younger. Yes, my life experiences as a teacher, translator, company director and mum had shaped me and had provided me with skills that were useful for the doctoral studies. But I felt I had to race to complete sooner rather than later, if I wanted to be taken seriously as a scholar and still have some sort of career options ahead of me.
I guess if there is one thing for the reader to take away from this it’s that time can play in your favour, if you are using it wisely between deliberate practice, deliberate rest and sleep.
This weeks contribution is from Meredith Rose (@20Biscuitcrumbs). Meredith is an Early Years Course Leader and Senior Lecturer who is also doing a part time PhD. Her research is focused around curriculum design and dilemmas, including meeting the differing needs of students.
Many of us will recognise that time disappears like snow in summer, when you are doing a PhD. You make endless lists, have huge piles of very interesting articles and very good intentions…usually!
What tends to happen is you start well, and then other distractions take away your focus. Sound familiar?
You sit at your workspace diligently reading and everything’s ok, because you have a plan and its written in your special PhD writing pad! You begin reading and then, a bird flies past your window which has suddenly become sooooo interesting, even though you’ve never really taken an interest in birds previously!! Your doorbell rings and there’s a real human being with a parcel, but you can’t touch it for 3 days, so you have to have a quick game of ‘kick the parcel through the door’, or my favourite distraction is “I’ll just make a cup of tea”! Before you know it, 30 minutes has been passed, and you have indeed made a beautiful cup of tea, but you’ve also read the ingredients on the biscuit packet and realised how many you’ve eaten….or is that just me?
Staying focused has been one of the biggest challenges so far. Since starting the PhD, my office has been redecorated in a rainbow of colour coded post it notes, which I initially splattered across the walls as reminders. What I have very quickly realised is that they are actually a huge distraction; a little like the sun in your eyes when you are driving.
The point is time is precious and disappearing at a rate of knots into the deep PhD ocean. As a part time PhD student alongside a full-time course leader role, I have had to have a ‘little word with myself’ and get organised as there are only 24 hours in a day, despite what we try and cram in.
So, big question coming up! How do you strike a balance between work, PhD, socialising (although that’s all a bit odd at present), oh…. and those necessary things like eating and sleeping? I really wanted a nice crisp timetable that ‘told’ me when I had allocated time, just like my teaching timetable. But as I quickly realised whatever you plan, gets nudged, moved and sometimes trampled on with size 10 boots. What I have realised is that one big plan does not work for me. That said, I do need the structure that a plan provides.
I was introduced to the Pomodoro technique by a colleague who like myself, gets very distracted by ‘interesting things’! My initial reaction was one of dismay and quickly added it to the never ending to do this.
However, the following morning I decided to try the approach to get one specific task done, and to my amazement…. it worked! 40 minutes in this instance was sufficient, but it can obviously be changed as needed. The task itself was not a complicated one, but it just needed focus. If it had appeared as a 60 minute block on my outlook calendar, it may have been a little daunting, but 40 mins, seems more friendly somehow. I remember a very early PhD discussion advising me that you “can’t eat the whole elephant at once” but “try chopping a bit off”! It works for me, at the moment as I can fit it in between meetings and teaching.
I have therefore adopted a different approach to control my environment. I set a stopwatch for 25 or 40 minutes and plan to read or write something. I usually have a weekly list of PhD tasks, and as long as something gets crossed off in each of the 25 or 40 minute slots, then I have learnt to be happy with my efforts. At the end of the week you can see how much you have actually achieved, which is a real boost.
What this experience has helped me realise is that you need to allocate time to try things rather than just read things. Does it work for you? How did it feel afterwards? Was it a productive use of time? Only you can decide what works for you, but you do need to be brave and try things. It might also help you eat less biscuits!
Maryam Sani is the founder of ABS Educational Services www.abseducation.co.uk. In 1993, she ventured overseas for a two-year stint teaching chemistry in Saudi Arabia. Her plan was to return to the UK and pursue a PhD in Chemistry. Instead, she lived and worked as a teacher, trainer, academic director, and educational consultant in Saudi Arabia for over 20 years. In 2019, she received a PhD in Education.
My PhD journey began after several years of trying to fit in with different routes while living abroad. The main obstacle was the research methods component which was previously a taught module and universities required that I spent the first year of the PhD studies in the UK. Later, I explored the professional doctorate in Education (EdD) but it was not feasible to attend several mandatory weekend sessions each year. Advances in technology, pedagogical practices and a casual conversation instigated the possibility of pursuing a PhD part-time. My passions are chemistry and education, at that time the underrepresentation of women in STEM was topical. With my experience in education, it made sense, to share insights into a society which outsiders viewed as closed, it was almost a dream come true. I could study and spend time in a society which felt very much like home. Regular trips to the UK, extensive hours in Staffordshire University library during the summer and monthly Skype or face-to-face meetings with my supervisors.
So how was it studying part-time and abroad?
One advantage was my familiarity with the environment that was the focus of my research, certainly this would be different for someone entering a new environment for the first time.
The climate was great for me, working from home was a big plus. especially the daily schedule which began around 6:30am daily during the week. Although it may appear very early, life in Saudi Arabia begins before Dawn and schools generally start between 7:15 and 8:00am. It was convenient to read, and make notes early during the quiet time and have meetings later during UK working hours to maintain a reasonable work-life balance.
While the opportunity to conduct research overseas was great, it was the response of academics in the universities and students that took me by surprise; they were truly honoured to be the subject of my research and wondered why I had chosen them and their country. This was encouraging and at times amongst the driving forces to complete the PhD; they wanted everyone who was vaguely interested to read the research.
Studying part-time gave me the flexibility to use an extended period if necessary, it reduced the pressure of the 3-year deadline. Nonetheless, my goal was to complete within 3 not 6 years and I completed in just under 4 years
Access to resources, at time that was difficult. When I was in the UK I bought books that were essential and learned quickly to utilise my phone in taking photographs of relevant pages from other books and journals, later I discovered Evernote which became my digital personal assistant. I still needed access to a library for additional books especially when writing the research methods chapter. To gain access to a university library , my principal supervisor wrote a letter of request which I presented to a local private university and used their facilities when needed thereafter.
For a person who likes to discuss issues, I faced two problems:
The only PhD students in the UK that I knew were also part-timers, with busy schedules. I connected with other students and academics through Twitter but in-person conversations were absent. Personally, I really missed attending conferences that were held in the UK, it was difficult to plan for them as a comprehensive calendar with the major conferences, has not yet been created. Furthermore, most conferences take place during the academic year, but, as I was limited to UK visits mainly in the summer I attended conferences and workshops that were available then.
In Saudi Arabia, I knew many people who had completed PhDs but none who were in the throes of pursuing one. I didn’t think this was as useful as it may have been in a different setting as most PhDs had gained their qualifications overseas and the challenges they had experienced were very different from mine. Yet, I underestimated how beneficial it would have been to share our thoughts if I initiated a local researchers network. After completing my PhD I joined a researcher’s network in Jeddah organised by @YousrahOsman who reached out on Facebook.
Transnational PhD studies are important for understanding perspectives from within the socio-cultural context of the research environment. The lived experience adds value to the research in the same way that non-verbal gestures can enhance the spoken word. In the case of my studies, I could see the efforts expended by the staff in the Saudi universities to ensure that my research plan was executed effectively. This was motivating and would not have been evident if I had been in the UK. I completed my part-time PhD in less than 4 years It was never my intention to study part-time, but family circumstances made a full-time commitment impractical. Furthermore, it was necessary to be present in Saudi Arabia so that I would have greater access to the participants and the universities. The self-discipline that is necessary for PhD studies is immense, my UK supervisors, Professor Emerita Tehmina Basit and Dr Lynn Machin, were fantastic in supporting my research and checking in frequently. I benefited from working diligently on a full-time schedule knowing that additional years were available if required. Periods of procrastination increased my time by about 8 months, on reflection, these could have been avoided if I started a researcher’s network locally and been more active with PhD students in the virtual world.
This weeks post is from Melanie Simms (@SimmsMelanie), Professor of Work and Employment and Head of Management Subject Group at Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow. She completed her PhD in 2006 from Cardiff University researching trade union organising. The thesis took 6 years part-time alongside a full-time research associate position. She was supervised by Professor Ed Heery who had also completed his PhD part-time; which helped a lot.
My main lesson from the PhD process was how to fit research in around the ‘edges’ of other responsibilities. For me, the activities of research break down into slightly different sets of tasks which need to be dealt with differently; synthesising literature, data collection, data analysis, reflection, writing, and editing. Knowing how to schedule each set of activities has taken time, but the basic approach emerged during my PhD.
Lesson 1. Work out when you can do particular tasks
I’m an early bird and mornings are the best for concentrated tasks. For me, writing must be a morning task. At latest, before lunch. General admin, contacting research participants, and editing can all be done afternoon. I cannot work in the evening. I’d rather go to bed early and get up an hour earlier, then work in the evening. Find your pattern and use the natural rhythms of the day to schedule the PhD around other responsibilities.
Lesson 2. [My] Writing is slow
I love writing, but I am slow. 500 words a day tops, especially academic work for publication. I learned during my PhD that 500 words a day is 2500 words a week. And 10,000 words a month. For writing I need to be at my most alert. So writing something in the hour before I open my emails is essential. It won’t be a brilliant 500 words, but once I have 10,000 I can edit and sketch out what I need to do to get the detail right, fact check, find a quotation or whatever. It doesn’t suit everyone, but does me. Watching the word count tick up day by day towards that first draft is highly motivating. And when I get to my 500 words, or the end of the time I’ve put in my diary, that’s it. I stop.
Lesson 3. Editing takes time
Sooner or later the chapter or the section has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s when the detailed editing can start. I think of it as a patchwork blanket where my first job is to make the sections. Then I can arrange them into a structure that makes sense. Then I can spend time carefully ‘sewing’ them together with links, summarising paragraphs, and signposting. That’s detailed work, but I find it easy enough to do during a slow afternoon.
Lesson 4. Some things that don’t feel like work are work
At the start of a new topic, it is always hard to get to grips with a new literature. It often demands close reading of texts which I can only really do when I’m fresh. For me that’s the morning. But immersing yourself in the literature doesn’t just come from reading. In fact for me, that’s the less important part of the task. Conferences, seminars, symposia, pub chats, arguments with friends and colleagues all expose me to key debates and ideas. I find it much easier to take on board new information when I listen and discuss, rather than read.
Lesson 5. Travel time is useful
Time on the train to reflect after a conference or event is a central part of deeply emerging myself in ideas. I’ve learned not to schedule work during those train journeys! I sorely miss that thinking time during 2020. Long journeys are also often crucial for data analysis and for stepping back and working out what the data is trying to tell me. Yes, Nvivo helps. Yes, coding is important. But telling a story that is true to the data can only really happen for me when I have time to step back. Knowing the story that I am about to tell is essential as it helps me identify which little bit I can work on tomorrow and how that fits into the big picture.
Lesson 6. My diary is my most important tool
So for me, the trick is to think of research tasks as needing different kinds of focus. Some I can do in the afternoon, some in the morning, some during travel time. It took experimentation to learn which needed what kind of attention, but once that was cracked, it’s a question of discipline. Diary planning helps me a lot – if it’s in my diary, I will do it. Slowly, slowly the project takes shape. It’s a long slog – but if you’re reading this, you knew that already.