What is life a part-time PhD research student like?
Firstly it is true that PhD study is isolating. This is even more so when you are part time. Whether full or part-time the key to success is motivation, work, and getting your research known within the wider academy. The days of undergraduate study, where you have almost daily contact with your tutors, mentors, peers, and friends are gone. You need to be prepared to work alone and unsupervised for long periods of time. Naturally, the temptations for distraction are there, day-time television, afternoon naps, and the Xbox. That’s before we even consider that part-time students often have to fit their research in around a full-time job. There are plenty of guides for motivation and time management. All I will say is you will feel like giving up at some point. There will be days when you just can’t face the thing, however, there will also be days when you feel on top of the world, and, I like to think these outnumber the lows. Remember, this is a big project and you are in it for the long haul. Writing a PhD has highs and lows, sometimes you will achieve a lot, sometimes very little, the key is to always try and be moving forwards. Have the reasons why you want to do a PhD clearly laid out in your mind: write them down and pin them above your desk.
The first thing to deal with is the isolation. I have seen many research students just hang around campus, but this, especially for historians, is not achieving anything. I believe that a researcher should be in the archives, researching. This is, of course, a lonely pursuit, and, outside writing up the thesis, will be where you are most isolated. However, once you have started writing your first drafts, now is the time to get out there. You can have the most original research in the world but it is useless unless you communicate it to the wider academy. As a part-time researcher I am rarely in my own university, and I communicate with my supervisors regularly by email, but only see them in person perhaps quarterly. Also I am outside the mainstream of the social life of the university, and also have a full-time job to hold down I do, however, regularly attend conferences and seminars at other universities, often aiming to give a paper myself. This is where you meet other researchers, who, you will find, share all the same problems that you do. You find that you are not alone in your worries. I would also recommend giving talks to groups outside academia, a local history society, for example. These networks often have access to archives that you would not think about. In short, you can be as isolated as you want to be. The responsibility to maintain your social and research networks really does rest with you. Once you get out there the help, advice and encouragement can be overwhelming.
Secondly, there will be a day when you will face a real drubbing. Your theories, concepts and ideas will be torn apart, perhaps when you have your first article rejected, or, after you give a conference paper. You can rest assured that this will happen and it will be awful. Don’t panic and don’t throw you work in the canal. This happens to everyone and it is part of the research process. Believe it or not your work will benefit and become stronger, more centered and clear as a result. Always remain professional. Never ever lose your temper or get into an argument, and never email an editor saying they are wrong to reject your article.( I haven’t, by the way) Always bear in mind that whatever you are going through other researchers are going through it as well. If there is a constant theme to life as a PhD researcher then it is, ‘you are not alone.’
Finally, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a part-time PhD. The research process will take over your life. Even if you are not in the archives, writing, or at a conference, then you are thinking about the thesis. This is good, however, it can make you a nuisance to live with. When was the last time you spoke to your nearest and dearest and did not stop mid-sentence because a PhD thought popped into your head? Take time out, do things with your friends, family and partners. Believe it or not try and get a hobby. Doing a PhD is overwhelming for everyone, not just yourself, don’t ignore your friends. In the end the PhD process is one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences you can go through, when I, perhaps not very long from now, emerge the other side, I will happily say it was worth it.
13 Martin Stokes, (Ed) Introduction in, Ethnicity, identity: the musical construction of place (Berg: Oxford, 1994), p. 6.
Stephen Etheridge, GLCM, MA