Christine Downton is a Ph.D. student in the field of Classics at the University of Exeter. I am a part-time, distance, self-funded postgraduate student, studying the potential reasons for the lack of political imagery on fifth-century Attic pottery. That is usually enough to make people glaze over. Anyone who is still with me, read on …
The first thing I would say is that a part-time Ph.D. is difficult – be under no illusions about that. The second thing is that writing this, and reading some of the previous posts, has made me realise just how lucky I am. I have two part-time jobs, working between 32 and 40 hours per week, and have been allowed more flexibility in my main job than I probably should have (thanks to a very understanding boss). This can mean 9.5-hour days, and not usually being capable of anything by the time you get in at 6pm, but results in two or three days off a week (two days of which are consecutive, which is so much more useful than having single days on their own). Added to this is the fact that both jobs pay well enough for me to be able to work part-time only; the second job paying for my fees, and the main one paying for everything else. I am also well supported from my family and my husband, and even have a study area in the spare bedroom. Like I say, I’m lucky.
Despite this, I have days when I struggle to even open my laptop, let alone write anything; there are days when I think I can’t do this anymore. There are too many other things fighting for my attention, which have nothing to do with ancient Athens (more’s the pity). I have lost count of how many times I have had a melt down, decided I’ve had enough, and can’t go on, only to be back at my desk a couple of days later feeling silly (and relieved I hadn’t acted on my ‘decision’). I have just come out of one these episodes recently, a particularly long period of time amounting to about a month during which I watched pointless telly, read non-academic books, saw people outside of work, and all those other things I rarely do (and feel guilty about if I do them). I wondered why I had thought I could possibly do a Ph.D. I was also bloody miserable. And that is the paradox of the part-time Ph.D. – it’s so difficult, and you feel guilty about spending spare time on anything else, but when you decide it’s not worth the stress and spend your time doing all those things you ‘want’ to, it makes you miserable! You can’t win! But the very fact that you are unhappy without it shows that you are doing the right thing by carrying on, and that is ultimately the thing that drives you, for me anyway. I wonder how other students with less time and more commitments cope. I take my hat off to every one of them.
On top of the obvious pressures of time and money, there is the additional factor of being away from the university campus. This has never bothered me before, having done all my studying since GCSEs part-time and, later, distance learning. Now, however, I find it a lonely business. It’s not that I particularly want to be part of a student community, or that I feel I would even participate that much if I were closer, but somehow it feels like I live in a bubble with virtually no contact from the academic world. My tutor recommends that I visit the university more often, and try to get more involved. Certainly good advice, but it’s a 2.5-hour train journey each way, and that means it’s one of my study days away from my desk; not something to be taken lightly in my eyes! Of course, my distance from campus is not the university’s fault, and generally I have found them, and my tutor, to be supportive. The university offers a number of research courses at a secondary campus closer to home (more luck than judgment that I happen to live only twenty minutes away from this secondary campus), and allow me to borrow books from the main campus and have them delivered to the closer campus at no charge (where my husband happens to work – it’s almost as if I planned it!).
For anyone considering undertaking a Ph.D. in this way, I offer the following advice: think about it … really think about it. Are you willing to sacrifice your time, money, and possibly your sanity (at least temporarily)? Consider if you are really committed to it. Could you honestly say you would sit and work in mid-August, when the sun is shining, and the beach is calling your name? Can you afford it? Not just the fees, which themselves are quite something to be aware of, but also travel expenses involved in getting to meetings with your tutor, books, etc.? Finally, are you ok with the feeling of being isolated from the academic community? If you can answer yes to all these questions then, well, you are better than me – because I can’t (particularly the one about the sunshine). That hasn’t stopped me though. As far as I can see, as long as you are aware of the pitfalls, you know what to expect when you fall into one!