In an ideal world, I’d be a year from submitting my Ph.D. thesis. I’d have been fully funded by the AHRC; have taught on undergraduate modules and given a few lectures; had a couple of solid, peer-reviewed publications under my belt; and presented papers at a few well-respected conferences in my field. In an ideal world I’d be an excellent candidate for a position at a good university on achieving my doctorate. Of course, this isn’t an ideal world and, instead, I’m three years into a part time, self-funded Ph.D., working full-time in order to cover the cost of my tuition fees, and wondering if I’m ever going to get a chance to teach. Not exactly where I thought I’d be back in October 2010.
I actually started my Ph.D. as a full-time, though still self-funded, student. It wasn’t the best situation to be in because I was also working full-time. I had applied for departmental and AHRC funding when I submitted my application, and though I was lucky enough to receive some financial support from the department, my AHRC application was rejected. I was stuck in an awkward position months before I actually began my research. Not doing the Ph.D. wasn’t an option for me. Ever since I was young I had wanted to excel academically, and now I had a topic by which I was engaged with and excited, and an offer from a well-respected university. Turning that down was as unthinkable as giving up a lottery win.
But working full-time while studying full-time was, realistically, the only way I’d be able to fund the degree without going into serious amounts of debt. Already paying back the cost of the student loan for my BA, as well as the career-development loan I had taken out for my MA, taking out another loan to fund a three-year Ph.D. was just as unthinkable, given the state of the current job market. To make things worse, the application form I had completed when applying for the Ph.D. made it clear that part-time students would only be accepted under exceptional circumstances. Mine were far from that. My circumstances were (and are) the same as those of countless other current, former, and prospective Ph.D. candidates. It seemed like the only option I had was to accept the full-time offer, keep my full-time job, and dedicate every spare minute I had to my research.
Three months in I realised what a mistake I had made. It wasn’t that I had under-estimated the amount of work I’d need to put in; I had over-estimated my ability to switch off from the day job as soon as I left the office and focus instead on my research. I had over-estimated my ability to work without needing a break, and while working on the Ph.D. was a break from the office, and vice versa, neither was a substitute for an evening off watching rubbish on the TV, or a weekend away with friends. I realised that I was putting far too much pressure on myself, and it wasn’t just affecting my academic work, or my day job; it was also affecting my mental health. I was exhausted all the time, prone to getting upset far too easily, and doubting my ability to actually do the research that I really, really wanted to. Three months into my Ph.D. I sat down in my supervisor’s office and told him I needed to go part-time. To say I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation would be an understatement, for all of the reasons I’ve given above. But in the course of five minutes, my weeks of worrying were over. “You need to go part-time,” my supervisor said. “You’ll end up running yourself into the ground or making your work suffer – or both – if you keep this up. I’ll speak to the academic office for you.”
I’ve been working on my Ph.D. for just under three years now, and while friends of mine who started at the same time as me, as full-time students, are close to submitting, I’m still in the relatively early stages. I’ve got a lot written, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve got a hell of a long way to go before I have a polished thesis in front of me. A few years ago that would have bothered me, but now I can’t imagine what it would be like preparing to submit within the next year. I don’t feel at all ready for it – academically or psychologically. I think that’s one of the things for which I’m grateful in being part-time – I’ve got more time to really study in depth my area of research. I can take the time to go down a particular road that, while maybe only amounting to one or two lines in my thesis, will make the work that much stronger for being considered. I also think that being part-time has allowed me to experience more aspects of life beyond the department than perhaps I would have if I had been full-time. So far I’ve attended several conferences, including one overseas, where I’ve presented papers. I’ve also had journal articles and book chapters published, and have just finished co-editing my first special issue (of Sexualities, on Fifty Shades of Grey, if you’re interested). By being able to take my time and explore areas that are on the periphery of my main topic, I’ve been able to start what will hopefully be a long academic career after the Ph.D. I’ve also met a huge amount of interesting people with whom I’ve had fascinating conversations, and have made a lot of new friends – which is one of things I think I enjoy most about this whole thing.
In being part-time and self-funded I’ve still managed to tick off quite a few things on my ‘ideal world’ checklist. The one thing that continues to be a stumbling block, though, is teaching. I’m at the point where I’m starting to look at adverts for vacancies in my field (one popped up in my emails as I’m writing this), and all of them require substantial teaching experience. I actually followed my supervisor to a new university last year, and my current department has been very supportive and made the effort to include me in all aspects of department life, even though I’m both part-time and live some 80 miles away. They, and my supervisor, have also welcomed the idea of me taking seminars and starting to get some experience. I was supposed to start teaching last semester but, typically, a range of problems cropped up in my day job, and I had to turn it down. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to start teaching in the next academic year, but until I’ve actually started nothing is set in stone. If I didn’t have to juggle a full-time job, if I wasn’t a part-time student, if I had been fully-funded, maybe that would be different. Then again, given the current changes to higher education in Wales and the UK, maybe it wouldn’t be. I do worry about how my lack of teaching experience will affect me when I go on the job market, but I also know I have a good four years or so left during which I can (hopefully) rack up that experience.
To try and bring this to something of a close, then, I’m glad that I’m part time. I guess I’m also glad that I’m self-funded because if I wasn’t I’d have someone else’s timescale to work to. I’ve no doubt I’d be able to do that, and I’d make a good job of it, but this way I really get to sink my teeth into my research, and get plenty of other experiences along the way. Yes, I wish I had the money to be able to do the PhD without working full-time – there are days when I get home from the office and the last thing I want to do is turn my laptop on and redraft a chapter, or use a day’s annual leave to travel to a supervision meeting instead of using it for an actual holiday. But I also think working while doing the Ph.D. has had its benefits. The CEOs and Managing Directors I speak to or meet with on a daily basis while I’m at work have given me the confidence to walk into a conference and start chatting to people, and the amount of organisational skills it takes to actually do my job have really helped when it comes to organising the Ph.D., or whatever else I’m working on at the time. Part-time, self-funded study isn’t for everyone, but with the changes I’m seeing to the HE sector in the UK, I think more people are going to end up going down this route. My circumstances will continue to be as unexceptional, as will those of future students’. I just hope their experiences end up being as good as mine.