I began my part-time Ph.D. in October 2011. I had just lost out on a studentship at De Montfort University, but thankfully they offered me a fee waiver instead, without which I would not be able to do my Ph.D. at all. I self-funded my Masters’ degree in 2009/10 with a Career Development Loan that I will be repaying until 2014- making finding funding for a Ph.D. even more of an impossible task. However, without substantial savings, and without the salary that comes with a research studentship, my only real option has been to study part-time and work full-time, something that sometimes I find to be a luxury and at other times a burden.
When I initially enrolled, I was living (and working) in Cornwall, but trying to study in Leicester. This proved near impossible as the cost of travelling from the depths of nowhere to Leicester once a month for the various compulsory training courses (most only an afternoon or a morning in length) mounts up, not to mention the time it consumed! I had to book several days off work, and I felt completely distanced from the learning environment that I had so craved when deciding to embark on my Ph.D. in the first place. So when an opportunity arose in March 2012 of a job in Leicester, I moved my whole life to the city and, in doing do, I think I realised the significance of what I had begun. Although my motivations for the project are my personal interest in the subject area and a genuine passion for learning, I realised that academia – and the research, learning and teaching environment that surrounds it – is truly my priority in my life right now. It’s this thought that gets me through the days where I perhaps don’t feel quite so confident about what I’m doing, or why.
Even when I moved to Leicester, though, I still shied away from the Ph.D. research centre which I knew existed, and instead I did all of my work from home, or occasionally in the library. I don’t know what stopped me initially from engaging with the other students – perhaps I was intimidated because I was part-time, and they were full-time. I’m not really sure. But when my annual review came around, I was feeling pretty lost in terms of what being a Ph.D. student ‘means’, and I had absolutely no clue what the expectations of me as a Ph.D. student actually were. As a result, I went into my first annual review filled with absolute fear that I was about to be told that my research wasn’t worthwhile, or that I hadn’t done enough work, or simply that I was doing the whole thing “wrong”.
I have since learnt, and it seems obvious when it’s said out loud, that there simply is no right or wrong way to do a Ph.D. My supervisor almost forced me to take the time to get to know the other students in the Cinema and Television History Research Centre at DMU (the CATH centre), and I am so glad that he did. I only get to spend one day a week in the centre because of my shifts at work, but the other students have become good friends and fantastic mentors to me (whether they like it or not). We all share similar fears and worries and we celebrate each others’ victories together, large or small. There are several other part-time researchers, and the vibrant mix of people from different backgrounds, working on different topics, all at different stages in their research makes for an engaging and, for me at least, reassuring environment.
There is definitely a ‘stigma’ attached to part-time Ph.D. students that I have witnessed – although I realise that it comes more from the administrative team and from those who have already completed their own Ph.D.s, than from fellow students. I get a lot of strange looks, most of them concern, when I confess that I actually work in an unrelated industry (hospitality, as it happens) full-time while undertaking my research. I can appreciate why people might have their concerns, but I have to work to be able to study. It isn’t an option for me, just like it isn’t for thousands of us. But as I have learnt in the past few months, it isn’t about what other people may be concerned about, it’s making the most of your own situation and engaging – not competing- with other researchers and academics. Sometimes I wish I had all the time in the world to spend on my research and didn’t have to go to work, but some days, when I’ve read and re-read the same section of my literature review twenty times over, I am glad of the excuse to put it down and put it away for a day. I do hope that in a couple of years I will be in a financial position where I might be able to work less and research more, but for now I am grateful that I am even able to do my Ph.D. at all.