Tips for part time PhDers… a puppy helped me out!

19 07 2012

I promised myself that once it felt real, and I actually had that certificate in my hand, I would write a blog post about surviving a part time PhD. I say surviving – and sometimes it does feel like that! However, I also feel there can be some real advantages to doing a part time PhD whilst working in academia, which was my situation. I also had a little pup to help me through the final weeks… here goes:

1. Love your topic

I say this to all my research students, but I think this is particularly true when you are going backwards and forwards between your PhD research and a job or other commitments. You need to really love it, and it needs to have a meaningful output for you. There is no point in doing it if there is no reason other than “I want/need a PhD”. So choose your topic wisely, if you are able to select it. If not, aim your research in a direction of interest. You need to have the PhD thought process happening all the time, despite other things going on – if you hate your topic this will just not happen! I was lucky as my topic was part of my day job, and I think this is something else that really helps the process.

2. Don’t worry when things go slowly

The longitudinal process happening alongside my PhD was the establishment of a new vet school, at which I am a foundation member of staff responsible for a huge range of curricular developments, teaching and assessment, not to mention clinical work, helping us get RCVS accreditation and other research projects. So at times, my PhD stuttered, and coughed, and wheezed and progressed so s-l-o-w-l-y I thought I would never get anywhere! I learnt to ignore it when this happened – I became very good at picking up where I had left off. If you worry then it only gets you down. It was often a relief to get back to it, away from the stress of other aspects of my job….

3. Flaunt your pre-existing skill set

Proof – I got there in the end! And got to wear a silly hat!

The chances are if you are doing a PhD, you have already spent some time in industry or academia and may well be still there. This means you have a lot of skills which someone with less workplace experience may have to develop alongside their PhD research. Don’t forget, the PhD process is about developing you as an academic and therefore if you can already deliver a presentation, communicate difficult topics to peers, negotiate new deadlines, manage a budget, teach, write sentences, and most importantly think critically you are way out ahead at the beginning of the process. This is very good news! In addition, I was lucky in that I was already immersed as an academic in the institution where I studied, therefore negating the finding of the library and learning the names of support staff processes that many students have to tackle. And what’s more, the people around me who knew me well wanted to help – so I could draw on their enthusiasm too.

4. Manage your supervisors

I really only did this in the last year of my PhD. I was lucky that my supervisors allowed me a lot of freedom to develop my research and recognised that they were there for me to bounce ideas off and offer suggestions, rather than tell me what to do! However this independence I had meant no-one chased me and so when I did need comments on drafts, I learnt to manage this process. Generally this meant an email stating what I would send them and when, with a supervision set for 2 weeks after my work had been sent. If there was no supervision, then I would ask for comments within 2 weeks. Done in a diplomatic tone of email of course! As a busy academic, I could empathise with the need for deadlines and these helped both me and them (I think!) I also asked for a particular type of feedback – e.g. this is a draft and I haven’t checked for typos, could you please comment on content and style? This saved reams of track changes coming back to me, which is unnecessary if you are able to check for your own typos…..

5. Write early

I started my literature review in the first few months, and then added to it over the next four years of my studies in an iterative manner. I am always amazed when other postgrads tell me they are starting their lit review and they are a couple of years into things….I know sometimes this happens for a reason, but I found my lit review helped me to focus my research questions and then very much fed into my thoughts. I knew the literature very well (and still do!), so this helped my confidence in my viva.

6. Have other areas of interest

If you are an academic PhDer then you probably can’t help this, but I really enjoyed other “side” projects whilst doing my PhD. Yes at times they were a distraction, but in general they helped my sanity and have developed me in other ways. So keep an ear out for other bits of research you can get involved in.

7. Embrace social media

I discovered Twitter a year ago, and I so wish I had found it sooner! It has totally changed my approach to conferences, and the #phdchat hashtag, amongst others, is very useful. I also follow some interesting people who will answer random questions. Sometimes there are things you don’t want to ask your colleagues, and as a part time PhDer I did not spend much time with other PhD students in my school, nor did I attend lots of courses with other students. But you need a support network, and Twitter has really filled this gap for me. There are also some great forums out there. Google is your friend!

8. Bribe yourself!

Actually my other half bribed me – a new puppy was great motivation 🙂 I would thoroughly recommend this strategy!

My bribe – Twig the springer!