What does the part-time doctoral journey look like? Building a community of stories.

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This first post is from Dr. Jon Rainford (@jonrainford) . Jon is the creator of this blog and completed his part-time doctorate in 2019 at Staffordshire University. His thesis examined widening participation policy and practices in higher education.

This blog is set to launch early in the new year and will feature a wide range of posts by those who are undertaking part-time doctorates, those who have successfully completed them and those who supervise doctoral students. The aim being to develop a rich resource that captures the diverse and wide range of doctoral experiences. Ideally this will include the voices of those who are less represented in traditional literatures on doctoral study, include the scope of doctorates from the PhD, professional doctorates and those undertaking theses by publication. It is also envisaged that the blog will be global in nature and we would welcome submissions from a variety of countries.

I have recently reflected elsewhere on my tips to doing a part time-doctorate and my tips for what can help if you are supervising a part-time doctorate. I think there are some real distinct benefits of doing a doctorate part-time, especially when the focus of the study relates to policy or practice. The extended thinking time to work through the arguments in your thesis that the part-time mode allows for is one of the greatest benefits in my mind and something which can really benefit the doctoral researcher.

Additionally, I followed this up with my tips for thriving during the part-time doctorate at the inaugural seminar of the professional doctorate society (@ProfDocSoc on twitter). There is hopefully a recording that I will add soon but the seven key areas I discussed were:

  • Embracing your identity
  • Building your tribe
  • Managing your project as opposed to it managing you
  • It being your own race….
  • And the race being a marathon not a sprint
  • You can’t drink from an empty glass
  • Always leave threads to pick up…

However, the part-time experience is one where there is a significant gap in the literature. Whilst there are many excellent blogs and books covering the process of studying for a doctorate, many of these focus on the full-time experience. This is something I am working on helping address in the near future and if anyone would like to share there experiences of undertaking a part-time doctorate on this blog, please do get in touch.

Studying part-time across borders

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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?

 Advantages

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

Disadvantages

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.


Finding the time to complete a part-time PhD

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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.

Maintaining Part-Time Connections

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This post was by Rachel V Staddon (@StaddonRachel). Rachel is a tutor at the University of Sheffield, and is currently awaiting her viva for her thesis on mature students and their attitudes and experiences of learning technologies and technology-enhanced learning.

It can be difficult to maintain connections when you’re a part-time PhD student. You’re part of the department, but sometimes it feels less so than full-timers, particularly if you’re often busy elsewhere with your job or other responsibilities. Sometimes your supervisor won’t respond, and you have to play the fun game of Ghosting or Out of the Country?

As a part-time student, it’s easy to be forgotten about. Maybe not by your supervisor so much, but perhaps by your department and your institution. I sure was. There may be a number of reasons for this, from starting at a weird time of year (I started in March, and this caused a great deal of confusion), to just not being around to say hello to people in the corridor and remind them of your existence. Since I didn’t start at the ‘normal’ September time, I didn’t have an induction, I wasn’t given any of the paperwork or added to any mailing lists. It was only as I approached the end of my PhD that my department realised I had never been enrolled on the Blackboard course, and so I couldn’t physically submit my thesis until that had happened.

The problem I encountered throughout my PhD was that I didn’t know what I didn’t have, so it wasn’t just a case of going, “I need this” to the relevant people. It became something of a fact-finding mission. If you’re ever in this situation, or any situation where you’re not sure what to do, remember that your supervisor is your very best resource. I started by asking my supervisor explicitly to find out what I needed to do. This raised problems in itself – my supervisor often went overseas for weeks at a time, and had very intermittent internet access. I therefore had to plan my time and questions carefully around my access to my supervisor as well as my work. This is tricky as a part-time student, but the thing I found most useful was keeping up regular communication with my supervisor throughout my PhD. Even if our supervision meetings themselves were irregular, I sent him an email every month or two with a brief sentence on my progress (or lack thereof) and a question. Sometimes the question was about my work, an article I’d read, a specific book I couldn’t find, or about the logistics of the course. It didn’t matter – it maintained a connection, and prompted him to remind me when he would be out of the country so I didn’t schedule anything that involved him at that time. Keeping your supervisor informed about your status is really important, especially as there are two people in a supervision relationship, and they are both allowed time off! I also recommend keeping them informed about difficult points in your life, such as bereavements, house moves, and mental health changes, all of which affected me multiple times, sometimes simultaneously. As long as your supervisor knows about these things, they can signpost you to support resources, and generally cut you a break.

It is also important to maintain connections outside of your specific PhD and your supervisory team. Don’t forget about your life – friends, family, pets, they all provide support. There’s also the rest of your department and your institution. Maybe join a society in the Students’ Union, or have a Skype coffee with a fellow student if you’re long-distance. I also found that asking my department how to be more involved helped as well. From this, I was able to do some teaching on the Education MA, which was fantastic for my confidence; it also broadened my subject knowledge, and enabled me to get to know some students who weren’t my PhD participants. Other things I found useful were getting involved in others’ studies as a participant (great for doing before you start your own instrument design), chatting with student reps, and attending departmental meetings and seminars.

Overall, you may sometimes feel like you’ve been forgotten about as a part-time PhD student, but there’s lots of ways to maintain connections. Your supervisor is your top resource, but there’s plenty of support out there, so don’t be afraid to ask for it.