I am studying for a Ph.D. part-time and I am self-funded, which poses a number of interesting challenges, but also many real positives. On the positive side, the fact that I can continue to work means that I can earn enough money to fund myself through my studies, and it also means that I can apply to my work what I learn in my studies. I can also keep a practical perspective on my research, which is not always or necessarily a helpful thing, but for me this is a major positive. Arguably, another positive aspect of being self-funded is that the only determinants of my study’s focus and direction are my own ideas and my supervisor’s interests and thoughts. This means that it could be more academic, more theoretical, and does not have to fit into the needs of a funding body. I can study areas or topics that interest me, subject to academic approval. The downside of this, of course, is that it may not actually be a valid or useful topic to study in the eyes of funders and in light of current academics “trends”.
For me, this is perfect. I am studying for myself, to explore my subject area in far more detail, but with the academic rigor that a research degree provides. I can let my research wander across to whichever areas it leads. This has to be a positive from a purely academic perspective, but has the danger that there are only intellectual restrictions on the areas on which I work; nobody other than my supervisor (and, eventually, my examiners) has to agree with it. This approach is not right for everyone, especially people who want to use their research area to progress their non-academic work. This is not an issue in my situation, as I have been working for many years already, and it is my employment record that is most significant for future jobs. The doctorate might, in general terms, provide some help, but few current or future employers are likely to be interested in the specifics of the study, more in the fact that I have done it.
However, there are also downsides to being self-funded. The main one is that you have to find the money yourself! Related to this is the fact that the institution has no real drive to help you finish, as of course they are getting money for as long as you study. Once you have started, you have personally invested so much money – not just time – into your research that it is very difficult to consider stopping. The level of personal investment is even greater. The sense of failure if you have to stop is, therefore, much higher.
Yet, the issues of being a part-time postgraduate – and, in my case, also geographically distant from the institution at which I am studying – are far more significant. The problems are mainly two-fold: the institution does not run on the same (i.e. part-time) timescale; and I have to be very self-motivated. The ‘timescales’ problem is caused by the fact that the administrative processes of the university are built around full-time employment and study. There are no exceptions for the fact that I am part-time because the administrative requirements are exactly the same as for full-time students. During some periods of my research this has proved a challenge. There are points when I don’t meet with my supervisor often enough within the academic year (a concept that is not very meaningful for my situation). Additionally, the sort of administration that might be reasonable for someone studying for three to four years can become tiresome when studies continue over a period of seven years. I would accept, in mitigation for the administrators, that a lot of students are not particularly good at doing their administrative tasks, but the burden can seem especially heavy for a part-timer.
The biggest issue, however, is self-motivation. I gather that most postgraduate students struggle with being motivated to continue their studies, to get down to doing work, to progress things at the difficult and tedious stages of their research. As a part-timer, I find it very easy to be distracted. There are many other things that I could do and need to do as part of normal life instead of progressing my studies. This includes writing guest posts for Nadine’s blog! Putting in the hours is far harder, and there is less support to make work happen for me. What sometimes makes it even more difficult is that I am often studying when my supervisor is not working, so communication is often by evening emails, which he picks up when he is next in the office. We have had occasional phone calls, but I am often working during his working hours, making this more difficult. If he doesn’t pick up my emails, it can be a problem. I am unable to just turn up at his door and ask him to comment on something. Maybe a separate email, or a different route of communication might work, but I realize that he is also busy and inundated with university administration.
How can these issues be solved? In truth, I don’t know the answer, and I simply have, I think, to find solutions to issues as they come up. I have made a choice to study in the way I do, which is not the normal or usual way of studying, so I have to find solutions each time. I have to find my own places to study, I have to find my own support networks, I have to find a way of chasing my supervisor when I need him. That is part of my learning experience: finding ways to learn with minimal support. The social events are not always accessible to those of us less closely associated with the university or not living in close proximity. I would love to be socially involved with other postgraduates, but living 100 miles away makes this a problem at my own institution, especially as I have to be up for work the next morning. The frustration is that I do live close to another university that could provide some social interaction. I have used another university library (near where I was working at the time) and, in fairness, the SCONUL scheme, which allows me to have access to other institutions’ library services, is excellent. It would be even better if this concept could be extended to social and support facilities. As it is, I am very much a lone learner, and sometimes that is difficult.
Finally, would I do it any other way? No. This is partly because the financing would not work any differently, but also because I am doing what I want to do. I am paying my way because I can, and I am studying in my spare time, integrating my study and my work. What could be better?