by Alastair Duthie |
Completing a doctoral research project in three years is a challenging endeavor. Today, PhD students are expected to do far more than submit their thesis; organizing conferences or seminars, teaching, and writing book reviews are just some of the ways we can improve our chances of employment in a competitive job market. While this is now an accepted feature of PhD study, as a part-time student it is almost impossible to juggle it all in tandem with a part-time (or in some cases full-time) job. In this blog post. I will discuss some of the positive as well as the negative aspects of part-time study as I come to the end of my first academic year.
Personally, the decision to undertake my part-time study was purely a financial one. It has allowed me to pursue my interest in history and career goals without bankrupting myself in the process. Working in bars, cafes, and offices has allowed me to do this, but is has had it practical advantages and disadvantages. Flexibility is key and half the battle in finding the right employer. Working in a cafe near the department allowed me to maximize my time at both, however the proximity of the job sometimes resulted in unexpected exchanges with students and faculty. Of course, this was countered by the additional perks of free or discounted coffee, bread, and other baked goods (specifically the buns from Peters Yard!). Although I may be unable to eat another Peters Yard sandwich again, it helped to cut costs and fueled through work on my thesis during the evening and on the days that I could dedicate to study.
The decision to move into a new flat halfway through my first year brought new challenges. I soon discovered that letting agents hate part-time students even more than students! Once you find a sympathetic letting agent, the council becomes your greatest adversary. For anyone considering part-time study , it is important to know they charge full council tax rates to part-time students-going by the philosophy that if you are working and studying part-time it means that one drives around in a Ferrari! Income tax also becomes a nightmare when you work two or three jobs and it was an uphill struggle to convince the bank to grant me a student account.
That being said, I either anticipated most of these problems or the issues ironed themselves out over time. Although I researched part-time I studied extensively before I was accepted into the programme, nothing could have prepared me for the number of times I have questioned my own status and legitimacy. After reading Tristan’s excellent blog post on liminality, I found myself thinking about this question from the perspective of a part-time student. Dividing my time between the PhD and working has impacted my visibility and momentum, making ‘imposter syndrome’ – a common affliction among graduate researchers – all the more pronounced.I do believe that this has improved steadily over time. However, it can feel overwhelming during the early stages of doctoral study, when you are first finding your feet.
For example, it is a condition of many funding opportunities – particularly large grants – that the applicant holds a first class honours degree at undergraduate level or a distinction in a higher degree. Many funding opportunities are not open to part-time students for the reason that they have an income. This is understandable, but a one-size fits all approach unfairly targets students who have improved their academic performance across their time in education or who work to support themselves if funding is closed to them. Largely due to timing, I began PhD study part-time to ensure that I could start in September 2013, after missing the deadline for AHRC funding when I returned from travelling in March of that year. After seeking advice, my plan was to apply to the AHRC for my second year and to go full-time if I was successful in gaining funding at a later date. While this proved to be a practical possibility it was impossible in reality and in the current climate, this type of funding is just not being granted.
As Roseanna mentioned in a previous post, self-funding your research raises questions about the validity of your project. Even if this is isolated as self-doubt, every funding application becomes a judgement of your project’s worthiness. As a part-time student, it is challenging enough to find momentum as the project evolves slowly over two years. Making coffees while you could be harnessing a burst of creativity on your thesis is frustrating, but you ultimately learn how to make coffees and write little notes in the back of a waiters pad! I also found that the first grant of money you receive completely changes your mind-set. That first award is the most powerful and can act as an important catalyst for the entire project.
A piece of advice I would offer to anyone considering applying for part-time (or full-time) PhD study: work hard to ensure you pick a topic that you are passionate about. Picking a topic that interests you, that you genuinely want to learn more about, and that drives the research process, will ultimately see you through the darkest days of your project. Although you will be working on your thesis for the same length of time as a full-time student, your research project has the potential to be in your life for twice as long. It can be challenging to maintain motivation for it while working to earn money in support of your studies. There is a running joke at the café I currently work at, that my colleagues can tell when I have my academic brain or my coffee brain in gear each day. I think suspicions were first raised when I started making flat whites with latte art of President Hoover’s face drawn in the milk!
On a more serious note, I have been fortunate to meet kind, understanding, and supportive friends and employers during the last two years. My managers allowed me work my hours around their rotas, which made my time working at two of Edinburgh’s busiest cafes easier. While this usually resulted in many 14 hour + days, for the most part it worked. My PhD supervisors have also been incredibly supportive and understanding of my other commitments. Those commitments have sometimes resulted in missed deadlines and opportunities – particularly the inability to make it to many conferences and seminars. My intention to move to full-time study for my second year has largely been in response to this last point. Not only is it important in terms of visibility, but I have found that fully immersing yourself in academic circles is the crux of turning your work into an original contribution to knowledge.
Since I made the decision to apply to Edinburgh, there have been many highs and lows. It has been difficult at times, but I recommend part-time study to those who are willing to make sacrifices of time and money, and who have a supportive network around them. As my friends outside university advance in careers with healthy salaries, put deposits down on property, and settle into post-university life, I have questioned the sustainability of balancing work and study. At the same time, I feel privileged to be pursuing a career that is tied closely to my interests, even if it is sometimes hard to explain to those outside academic circles. In the end, whether you are studying full-time, part-time, or all the time, it is those around you who ultimately help you through the trials and tribulations of PhD study. It is something that we all have in common, no matter what subject or time period you are working on.
Alastair Duthie is a first year PhD at the University of Edinburgh. He studies changes in American political journalism and President Herbert Hoover’s press relations during the early years of the Great Depression, with an emphasis on the emergence of the political columnist.
(Image 1: commons.wikimedia.org, Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SecHooverMicrophones1929.jpg, Image 3: http://otakumode.com/tokyootakumode/post/230368799113609216)