Sara Brown (University of Salford)

My experience as a self-funded, part-time PhD student has been a difficult but, ultimately, rewarding one. I am older than most students, even at Ph.D. level, as I am in my forties and have been a secondary school teacher for over twenty years. The difficulties of working full-time and studying part-time for something as challenging as a Ph.D. cannot be overrated; anyone considering such a move should do so with their eyes open to the pitfalls and problems that inevitably await even the best-prepared.

Hard-WorkMy job in a boarding school is demanding. My working day begins at 6.45am when I wake the boys in my boarding house, and it finishes at 11pm when it is lights out. As a result, carving out time for study has not been easy and has meant weekends, evenings (where possible) and school holidays being entirely taken up with Ph.D. work. It has also meant little time for my family, who, on many occasions, have had to take holidays without me, leaving me at home alone so that I could have peace and space in which to work. Being self-funded has meant finding money for fees, books and conferences out of the family budget, thus emphasising the need to keep the paying job that I have. School have been fairly supportive, but only to a point; my studies certainly had to come second to my job, and passing the Ph.D. will have absolutely no effect on my career. No pay rise or promotion awaits me at the end of this process – this is something I have chosen to do entirely for personal reasons. Having said that, I have loved every minute of my quiet study and writing time and have felt the cobwebs slowly clearing out of a brain may not have gone entirely idle, but had certainly atrophied to a point from lack of use.

0824_LEARNING-310x208In terms of accessing training at my university, this was very difficult and, at times, nigh on impossible as it all took place during my working week. I was only able to attend a few sessions in the six years of being a student, and I rarely went into the university outside of the meetings with my supervisor, which were usually only once every two months. I had started at Bangor University, which is only twenty minutes away from me, but in my second year I had to move to Salford with my supervisor, a three-hour train journey away. As a result, I have often felt very isolated and have had no fellow students with whom to discuss my ideas or share concerns. This can feel rather lonely at times, no more so than when preparing for the viva. Being a part-time, mature student who has to work full-time does place you at a disadvantage, so you must be prepared to be very independent, not to mention highly disciplined and self-motivating, particularly in those middle years when the first bloom of studenthood has faded and the end seems so very far away.

14255080_mOne of the ways in which universities could better cater for students in a similar position is by embracing the technology of the twenty-first century. It was rather frustrating to find that lecturers were not set up to podcast their training sessions, for example, so that I could access them from home. Skype or GoToMeeting are extremely useful interfaces that can permit groups of students and/or staff to meet and chat, thus including those who, like me, are rarely able to attend such gatherings. I also feel that there is not enough recognition of the stresses placed on someone in my position: work and family problems can often affect part-time, mature students, for example.

Money-by-Roger-Tooth-The-GuardianThe current state of funding for postgraduate students is less than ideal, particularly for those of us in the Arts. At the beginning of this report, I revealed that I am older than most Ph.D. students and that I have worked for over twenty years before coming back to study, which currently places me in a minority. I am certain, though, that my experience may well become the norm rather than the exception, as the pressures of cost versus income, and the need to break into the workplace, will increasingly prevent many budding Ph.D. students from continuing their further education in their early twenties. That is not to say that doing a Ph.D. at my age is a bad thing; however, with a career already in place and with no hope of competing against those twenty years younger than me, I have little intention (and even less opportunity) of becoming a professional academic. As well as forcing many potential students to wait until they are older to do a Ph.D., the lack of reasonable postgraduate funding will actually prevent many students from doing a Ph.D. at all. This will be an undeniable loss to the academic community, as some of those who could have made worthy contributions in wide-ranging areas of study may be prevented from doing so.

7518140_lI began with the comment that my experience has been a difficult but rewarding one and I stand by this statement wholeheartedly. There have been many times when I have seriously contemplated giving up; pressures of work, lack of time for my family, health problems, and coping with the death of my father have not made this an easy journey by any means, but I am still glad that I did it. I would counsel anyone who is considering doing a part-time Ph.D. to be very aware of how demanding and time-consuming it is, that there will be times when you will feel very selfish, very isolated and, even, completely lacking in motivation. The reward comes with that huge sense of achievement when you see your thesis printed out and bound – a testament to all the hard work and sacrifice that is inked on every page.

Sara Brown

Sara Brown

Sara Brown has been a High School teacher for twenty years and currently works full-time in Rydal Penrhos School in North Wales, where she teaches English to ungrateful teenagers. Besides her BA in English and History, Sara has a Masters degree in International History from the London School of Economics, for which she wrote a thesis on ‘The Problem of the Gold Standard in International Politics and Economics in the Nineteenth Century’. She completed her Ph.D. in Literature at the University of Salford with a thesis entitled “Crossing the Line: Issues of Boundary and Liminality in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth Legendarium”, which examines Tolkien’s writing from an anthropological and environmental perspective, drawing on the theories of Julia Kristeva and Donna Haraway. You can contact her via email and find her on Twitter at @AranelParmadil.

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5 Responses

  1. Sara Brown says:

    Thank you all for your kind comments. I hope that this article has been of some use to you on your own academic journey and that I have left you with a a sense that, even though it is a massive commitment and crazy hard work, it is all worth it in the end. If I can be of any further help, please do feel free to contact me either by email or via twitter.

  2. Melanie Garrett says:

    I admire you more than I can say. I attempted a PhD in French Lit while working full-time and studying part-time, in my early thirties, with no children to worry about and still ended up packing it in before I finished writing-up. It was still an amazingly important and valuable part of my life, a time I would not want to have missed, but even a year of sensible funding to do the writing up in would have made all the difference. There are days now when I still look back and think, I wonder if I could pick up the threads…but then I look at the piles of archive boxes and shelves full of books and think, uhm, that’s not even what Square One looks like now, since the whole field has had a good few years to publish or perish since then.

  3. Chris McGrath says:

    Very much enjoyed reading your story and much of it resonated with me. I am a Headteacher of a school in London and 2 years into a part-time DPhil (PhD) at Oxford University. Although I was warned before I was accepted that the workload -given my job – might be too excessive, I was keen to take this on and achieve a lifetime’s ambition – I am in my 50’s now. I had a chance to start a PhD on leaving university, but personal circumstances made this impossible at the time. It is INCREDIBLY hard. However, I am determined to succeed and the fact that you have successfully completed this journey – with such a heavy workload yourself – encourages me greatly. Well done and thank you.

  4. Kirsty says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I am also an English teacher but am only 18 months into a part time PhD. I’m struggling to balance work, academic and family commitments and often find it hard to stay motivated. I have no desire to carve a career in academia because I love my job as a secondary school teacher so I try to push myself forward by remembering that I’m doing this for me.

  5. Juliette3 says:

    Wow, you have amazing dedication. I’m a slightly older than norm PhD student but I must admit that some of what motivates me is the faint hope of an academic career and further opportunities to research and explore. Thank you for your post as I often feel very unsure as to whether or not I’m able to put in the amount of necessary hours given that I have children to look after, your post makes me think this is possible!

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