I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss my experience as a self-funded, part-time student as studying in this way had been both a blessing and a curse, and – just to make life more complicated – I also studied from a distance. One of the reasons the needs of students studying in these ways is often overlooked is that, by nature, our needs are different and, unlike more straightforward pathways in graduate education, our needs are shaped by external factors. With this in mind, rather than reflecting on the nature of part-time/ self-funded and distance postgraduate study from my singular view point, I want to reflect on my own experiences in the hope that this will contribute to a wider dialogue in addressing some of these issues.
I came to study in the way I did as, like so many others, my AHRC funding application was unsuccessful. Instead of taking a year out to work and re-think my proposal – as a number of my peers who were also rejected did – I took out a Professional and Career Development Loan, changed to part-time study and found a part-time job. Nearly three years down the line, this headlong and ill-conceived path to postgraduate study has left me yet to graduate and with a worrying amount of debt that I am already having to pay back. I am now in the third, writing-up year of a part-time M.Phil. To put this into writing pains me, as does seeing a (nearly) three-year masters degree on my CV; it begs the question why it has taken so long.
However, because of my choice to study part-time, my CV also shows a series of papers, publications, exhibitions, an art gallery internship, as well as experience in the public and private sectors, all of which, alongside my education, have lead me to my current job as an editor at a digital arts publishing company, which I love. Studying part-time has allowed me to cultivate a professional, private-sector career experience alongside my academic path, which I hope will be useful because of the practical skills I now have, as well as serving as a buffer in the seemingly tough world of the early-career academic. I hope that dealing with the financial and time constraints, and the “real-world” experience I have gained, will prepare me for the rocky ride that has shocked a number of newly graduated Ph.D.s I have spoken to. To fit my thesis in around 23-50 hours of non-thesis work a week I have had to schedule writing time wherever possible and to adopt productivity tools to make the most of this. As I was unable to spend much time in the department, Twitter and academic blogs have been invaluable in finding out these tricks and for motivation, as well as dealing with the isolation of part-time research.
I have, however, felt that as my research lacks the momentum of a full-time student, I haven’t had the same level of supervisory support my full-time colleagues received. This has frustrated me as at times, in theory, I am a paying customer rather than a member of staff, but I try to avoid this attitude which devalues the process of both learning and teaching. To a degree, I feel that the more erratic support I have received means that I have learned more in terms of productivity and self-motivation. I also hope it would help me to be empathetic were I in the supervisory position. From my experience, I would say that self-funded and part-time study has its benefits. I was in no doubt that I wanted to continue researching and was willing to pay for the privilege, which has made me see the value of my time and that of academic staff. Because I took this route, I have a career of which I am proud, and I hope I will make a strong candidate for doctoral funding in the near future.
Although studying in this way has been a benefit to me, I know it would be financially impossible for me to self-fund another degree. To fund this degree I have worked as much as I could and used the suggested form of finance, yet I still wouldn’t have been able to afford to study without support from my parents, who kindly offered to pay my tuition fees (which, fortunately, at University of Birmingham, were half the usual cost for part-time research students because of the lack of contact time – another occasional bonus of part-time research!), and from my partner, who compensated for the times I was unable to pay my share of bills. It is this aspect that makes self-funded study problematic – it necessitates the privilege of a support network. It seems like a long time ago now, but I took on part-time and self-funded study as I knew that I wanted to continue studying and needed to in order to follow the career path I had chosen, and I didn’t want to wait indefinitely to do so. As funded study is decreasing and as the career trajectory of funded students around me loses its stability, I can increasingly see the advantages of the pathway I chose to take.