By Ben Hodges |
“Oh, so you are doing a PhD! Is that because you want to be as brainy as your wife?”
I’ll be honest, I never particularly wanted to do a PhD. The bits of my undergraduate and master’s degrees that I hated the most were the dissertations. A PhD is like a massive, soul-destroying dissertation, right? But here I am…
My journey to this stage has been unconventional. I had an eleven-year break between my undergraduate degree and my master’s. I read politics and international relations and intelligence and security studies, but somehow, I ended up doing a history PhD. Even my master’s degree was part-time, fitted around shift work with the Metropolitan Police, which included a role in the counter-terrorist policing of the London Olympics.
I fell into my PhD. My PhD is a mid-life crisis vanity project. It has nothing to do with trying to keep up with my wife, Dr Lisa Berry BSc MSc PhD FRCPath. Besides, she is always quick to point out that there is a big difference between a ‘real’ PhD (science) and a ‘pointless’ one (history). But enough of that!
It all began when I answered an advert via the Intelligence Corps Association, looking for volunteers to help with a project called ‘Secret Soldiers’. It began as an enjoyable part-time hobby researching the lives of intelligence corps soldiers in the First Wold War. My PhD research proposal was born out of that. It follows on, chronologically, and investigates the British Army and the way it ‘did’ intelligence in the interwar period.
So, what’s it like doing a part-time PhD, working full-time and having two children under 5? (In my defence, I only had one child when I started!). The short answer is, it’s bloody hard! It got even harder after the arrival of number two child. The very fact that I am sitting here writing this blog piece in November 2019 (and finally submitting it in January 2020!) when I said I would write it in June 2019, may give you a hint as to what the time constraints are like with my juggling act.
So here are my words of wisdom for anyone mad determined enough to follow my example:
1. YOUR NUMBER ONE PRIORITY IS YOUR FAMILY
Seems like an obvious thing to point out, but it needs to be said. Milestones with children, partners, special family time, anniversaries and so on will all happen throughout the lifespan of your PhD and these are things that you really shouldn’t miss.
2. MAINTAIN REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS AND PLANS
Plan your time carefully. Make sure you can dedicate time to your project, but remember, you are a part-time student. Be careful not to judge your progress, or apparent lack of it, against a full-time student. It will only depress you.
3. KEEP A NOTEBOOK HANDY
Because I am old, I like a notebook. I like to have something to record my thoughts. Being part-time and having a million other commitments to work and family, means that I often find myself thinking about my project at odd times. On the way to work on the train, or on the way home. At 05:00 in the morning because my daughter has decided it is time for the family to wake up! By having a notebook handy, I don’t forget these random thoughts when they pop up at random times.
4. LEARN TO SAY NO
This is fundamentally the hardest thing for me. I am a people pleaser, I like to be busy, I like to be there for people, I like getting stuck into new projects and ideas. I now realise that I have bitten off more than I can chew, and I am slowly ditching commitments to concentrate on the most important things, i.e. the PhD and the family. It is very tempting, as a part-time PhD student to look at all the cool stuff that full-time students are doing in terms of speaking engagements, papers, conferences and other cool stuff like that, and think that you are somehow missing out. But you must remember that you have more going on than just your PhD. If you want to read more about ‘saying no’ check out Krysten Blackstone’s excellent post.
5. BUILD A SUPPORT NETWORK
I have been incredibly lucky, as I start my PhD journey to have met some great people who have been incredibly helpful. But your network doesn’t just have to be people you know. Twitter has been a godsend. These are two of my favourites for support and advice, @AcademicChatter and @parent_phd and the associated hashtags of #phdlife #phdchat. For a more specific hashtag for those of you in the historical field, there is, for example, #twitterstorians. Now I want to do some shout outs to those that have helped me. Firstly, my little team of fellow University of Northampton PhD students @KLoveHistory and @KathrinaPerry it is important to have people round you going through the same thing, especially as a part-time student because you can feel quite isolated as you are often not on campus. I also want to thank the ridiculous little #AcademicFamily that has built up around me. All have been very helpful and supportive. So, here’s to mum, @SpitfireFilly; dad, @Iain_Farq87; uncle, @JamesTTHalstead; and auntie, @trickcyclistraf.
Finally, don’t let your PhD take over your life. You probably had interests and hobbies before you started this thing. Don’t neglect them. Accept that there will be times when you want to be working on it, but you can’t. Have fun, be kind to people. Remember, it is a marathon, not a sprint.
See you all in 5, 6, 7 or maybe even 8 years’ time, when I’ll be Dr Hodges (hopefully)!
Ben Hodges works in the City of London. He is a former Metropolitan Police Officer and Armed Forces Reservist. He is married with two children, and has embarked on a mid-life crisis PhD, looking at the way the British Army organised its intelligence function during the inter-war period. You can follow him on Twitter @interwarintell.
Image ⓒ Ben Hodges