I am just about to complete my MA after two years of part-time study. As a part-time and self-funded student I think it is vital to share experiences with others who may be contemplating a return to academia. My own experience has been largely very positive. I was part-time because I was self-funded; I just couldn’t afford to pay the fees in one year, and part-time study meant I could spread the cost.
There have been positives and negatives. On the negative side, I feel like I’ve wasted a year, and that I’ve been forced to delay my progress simply because of money. On the positive side, part-time study has allowed me to ease myself back into academia and really become absorbed in my subject again after 6 years of running my own (very small) business. It meant that I could dedicate so much more time to reading and becoming comfortable with the scholarship and fine-tuning my own writing. And I won’t lie: spending vast amounts of money on fees has been a great motivator and has spurred me on not to waste a single moment or opportunity.
Those expensive fees have financially crippled me. In the first year I managed to get away with paying for them haphazardly: £300 here, £50 there. In the second year, however, I was less fortunate, and although I wouldn’t say I was hounded by the finance office, I definitely felt the pressure to pay up sooner rather than later. That meant the whole lot went on a credit card that I’m now paying off as quickly as I can; that is to say, paying the minimum amount and hoping for a miracle, like winning the Euromillions. The pressure to pay was awful, and always at the back of my mind. Would I be refused service at the library because of unpaid fees? Would I be told I couldn’t return for the next semester until I paid my fees? Thoughts like this were quite damaging and intrusive. How can you think about your next deadline when you spend half your time worrying about how much money you owe?
Part-time study has been both frustrating and fabulous. It’s wonderful to have the luxury of time, and not to be completely thrown in at the deep end when you’ve been out of academia for so long. But when you see your colleagues graduating and you’re only half-way there, it can be a bit dispiriting. My department have been a great support and very understanding in terms of accommodating my work commitments. They have also recognised that my non-traditional academic career path is an asset rather than a hindrance, which is very reassuring (constant feelings of not being good enough are a plague when you go back to learning after a few years!).
I have applied to do my Ph.D., with much excitement and even more trepidation. I worked on my proposal with the professor who will be my supervisor. The same professor and my current supervisor both wrote excellent references in support of my admission and scholarship applications. The whole lot was submitted in February, and I received my admissions acceptance in March. However, I won’t find out about funding until the end of May. I want to do my Ph.D. full-time and get on with my career, but if my funding application is unsuccessful I’ll be left adrift. I simply do not know what I’ll do. I could defer for a year and try with the funding again next year, but that’s another wasted year. The competition for funding is also insane. I’m not sure of the exact figures, but since I’ve spent roughly 90% of the last two months obsessing over it, I reckon I’ve got somewhere in the region of a 1 in 100 chance of being funded. The funding is so important because the reality is that I just cannot afford the fees. Even part-time I wouldn’t be able to afford them. It’s so disheartening. Not to mention disruptive when you’re trying to organise your life and all your plans hang on a funding decision.
So, I think what I’m trying to say is that if you really, really want to return to academia, and you’re absolutely in love with your subject and you’re sure that paying out (emotionally and financially) for more qualifications will be an asset to you and your career, then go for it. It’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. If you’re just thinking about going back because you’re not sure what you want to do with yourself, then I would advise you to think carefully – it could end up being an expensive headache. In my case I want to teach my subject at university level and can’t do without the MA or the Ph.D., so here I am. And all financial stresses aside, I’m loving it.