Notes on a part-time doctorate

Dan Rezner has been writing some good articles on PhD study, which made me think about mine (coming to the end right now). There isn’t much out there on part-time PhDs, but when it comes down to it, I’ve always been a part-time student, considering the amount of paid employment I’ve done while studying. This article is therefore written from the perspective of someone without much money trying to complete a PhD.

So, without further ado: some thoughts on part-time PhDs, some (odd) benefits and some survival mechanisms for what is without any shadow of a doubt the most insanely knackering experience of my life.

Five thoughts on a part-time PhD.

1: Don’t do it.

Seriously, don’t. Reading around on the internet, you’ll see a million post-doc articles all complaining of the existential angst that accompanies completing a PhD. Take that, multiply it by five, add in shifting revenue streams and unemployment and you have the recipe for a nervous breakdown. Having almost completed one, I would never advise someone to do a part-time PhD. Move heaven and earth to do one full time. With that said, I love knowledge, and I love learning, so don’t let me put you off doing one if that’s what you want, just try and get someone else to pay for it.

2: Don’t let the funding-differential get you down.

In the UK, funding is scarce. As a part-time student you will be faced with the fact that you are working insane hours, then more insane hours to feed yourself, and all the while your fully-funded colleagues seem to swan in and out. They use phrases like “Oh, I’m not feeling it today.” and go home. You might not feel like studying today, but you have to, because this is the three hour slot that you have to work on your PhD. Whether you ‘feel’ like studying or not is entirely irrelevant. This ‘work ethic gap’ will rub on you at some point - trust me. The point is: forget about it. There is nothing you can do to change this, so every second spent complaining is a second spent not researching and a second less that you get to chill out at the end of the day.

3: The next 3-5 years of your life are going to suck.

There are no two ways about it. You are committing to a double work-week for an extended period of time. Worse, financial pressures have a double-suck effect – slowing your PhD progress down, and therefore increasing the amount of time that you have to endure the whole process. It will suck. Period. All the people with funding don’t get this. They get to moan and complain about all the standard PhD stuff, but as a part time student, you get no definitive end-date, low pay and constant stress. Here I could shoe-horn a million trite comparisons such as prison-sentences, tours of duty and so on, but I won’t. Hunker down, keep going, grind it out.

4: It’s a job.

Most research isn’t fun. You don’t get to read the things that you want to. Why? Because the bit of information that you want to research are wedded to an insane lattice of other peoples’ work, and if you don’t read that, then someone, somewhere will call ‘plagiarism’ and your career is over. Worse, most of this stuff isn’t fun to read because academia demands that you take out all the flowery language, and replace it with as precise terms as possible, even if to the reader, these sentences are the linguistic equivalent of a repeated baseball-bat to the face. You will read pointless papers. You will read works in which people apply quantitative measures to try and assess the p value of plain common sense. You will read works that will make you bang your head on the desk within three sentences. Worse, you will read someone else coming up with your bright idea that you’ve spent a couple of years on about a year before you’re ready for publication. A PhD is incredibly rewarding as an intellectual endeavour, but don’t have any pretensions about the fact that it is hard, hard work.

5: You are not a precious snowflake (and other references to Chuck Palahniuk).

You don’t matter. There are probably four or five people that could fill your shoes. The ‘big idea’ that you have? It probably won’t change the world. The REF is organised so that the “value” of what you produce is interchangeable with the work of other people. You might do some incredible original research, you might be into some insane theoretical cross-comparisons. The people that would take your spot would do that, too. The world does not ‘need’ more politics or international relations PhDs. I know, it’s natural to consider your topic important, but get some perspective. The market is flooded with people like you, so what makes you so special? As a part-timer, you won’t have attached funding, and likely you won’t have a post-doc lined up from the start, so be ready to take every opportunity from the outset. I learned this the hard way because “networking” did not come naturally to me. You’ll need to learn your research “elevator pitch” for when you meet people that might be able to throw work your way, you will need to get business cards and keep connections. This can get depressing but you need to make yourself important to someone that might give you a job/opportunity because no-one is going to do it for you. To make this sound slightly less American Psycho/Gordon Gekko - be a good person and network for other people, it won’t get you anything but connecting colleagues to people that might help them will prevent the “networking” mentality turning you into a total dick.

The upsides - What do you get from a part-time PhD?

All the above leads to two basic responses: break down or hunker down. I’ve done both, the latter has been far, far better at getting me closer to my goal of PhD completion. Flip the question – What do you get that all those closeted people don’t? The answer is quite a lot.

1: Understanding time.

You will get to know the real value of time. All those fully funded people don’t have a fucking clue. Okay, maybe late-stage PhD students who’ve come from the military/professions might, but the rest? Nah. When you wake up at 8am on four hours’ sleep after a night shift, and drag yourself in for four hours of research before your next night shift, you tend to understand quite how important four hours can be, and what can be done in that time frame. Mopping puke off a bar floor at 3am is also a good motivating factor – either you complete, or this is your life. After you see the bottom in minimum wage, backbreaking work, anything ‘up’ is a god-send. It makes you hunger for it in a way that, well, funded people can’t understand.

2: Zero-preciousness.

Academics are precious types. They have fights in journals about matters so insignificant to the rest of the world that it would be considered a sign of insanity if these spats made it outside the academic bubble. Preciousness tends to be institutional. As a part-timer, you get to pop that bubble pretty quickly, or, better still, never buy into it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against ideas here, or the value of knowledge or anything like that, just the insularity from the outside world. Most ‘fun’ career paths weed people out in this manner. That thirty-something media guru in post-production? The difference between him/her and a dozen other people is that they crawled on their hands and knees for a decade as a runner, then working eighty/hundred hour weeks for under £20k. The ones that dropped out are probably working at Starbucks, the ones that make it take those snazzy jobs entitled “Creative Director” and so on. Academia isn’t much different. I know, universities are meant to be these grand institutions that value knowledge above all else, but the plain hard truth is that if you’re poor, you have a lesser chance of making it through, particularly at PhD level. The upside of this is that you can see it for the game that it is. If you want the job, then you’re going to have to struggle for it and take it, because otherwise a cosseted rich-kid will swan into the position. When you fail, though, you understand that it’s not necessarily your fault – the game is rigged against you. When they fail, they tend to take it personally. In today’s academic world, the struggle that you endure as a part-time student continues after graduation - we all have at least a year or two’s worth of continued scrabbling for post-docs and part-time teaching fellowships. Since you’ve built up 3-5 years of resilience to living on the poverty line and insecurity, another couple of years of this existence will be no big deal. Your funded colleagues who have gone on the BA-MA-PhD treadmill will be in for a shock.

3: Contact with the real world.

Understand this: most people don’t like their job. You’re working towards a sweet job. Personally speaking, lecturing is one of the few things that I have done work-wise that has actually made me feel better for doing it. I get a buzz out of preparing lectures. Figuring out what is important, tailoring it for a specific audience, working out how to get your points across, all of it. I even dig the theatricality of giving a good lecture. Lectures also put your knowledge on the spot – students will ask difficult questions, in fact, in many ways they’re better than academics because they’ll ask questions that are too ‘big’ for a single answer.  Some people want to do research and policy, I’d rather be a lecturer and researcher. The first time I did an undergraduate lecture, I knew that was a job that I could do for a very long time and not get bored. But I also know that it was a sweet job, because I went home from that lecture and went to run a bar. I had to deal with ejecting drunk idiots, broken glass, fire alarms going off and the rest of it. Being a part-timer gives you that grounding. It’s not a case of undergrad-postgrad-PhD, it’s a case of constant struggle to get there, but one that provides valuable perspective on the world at large. People locked into the academic bubble don’t get that. An internship at a nice DC policy institute or one of London’s many think tanks does not compare to working a minimum wage job to stay alive. Without the experience of the latter, one can’t really understand how great a decently paid, intellectually stimulating job is.

4: No complaints.

Again, with the preciousness. Complaints. People complain about things that they don’t need to. As a part timer, you generally see how pointless that is. Complaints don’t make it to the CV. In fact, if they do, the CV may as well have “file in waste paper basket” stamped across the top. You won’t have time to sit down and pen your refereed article. You won’t be able to afford taking time off work to go to conferences. But you will find a way to re-arrange your life to take advantage of whatever gets thrown your way, because that’s all you’ll get. As a part-timer, you will take a million knocks. People with full funding might complain, but they have a steady stream of income for their entire period of study, so in a sentence: they can shut the hell up. Occasionally part-timers bitch and moan, but as a rule of thumb it is about stuff twice as important as full timers, and at least half as often.

5: Discipline and focus

Here’s the important bit – at some point your life will empty out temporarily, and you will attack your thesis like a rabid pitbull. It happened to me last summer. I got six weeks clear and wrote about 135,000 words. There were downsides to this – I realised that there were a few key points of my thesis that required evidence that was unattainable, so I switched and shuffled and produced an argument that was defensible on the evidence available. Maybe I am a freak of nature, but I now laugh when I hear someone complaining about writing a hundred words in a day. But I’m not alone – all the part timers that I know have the ability to ‘burst’ like that. We’re so used to having to deal with the entire world disrupting our day that an eight hour stretch of uninterrupted study becomes insanely productive. This is, however, good preparation for the ‘real world’ as academics don’t get to sit around all day reading books (at least not in the UK). They have to teach classes, file paperwork, file research grant applications and so on and so forth. If you’re part time, you learn to switch on and off in seconds, and it’s a damn sight more productive than sighing at the fact that there is admin to be done.

Survival mechanisms

All the above might read a bit like Nietzsche. It’s not meant to, but a part-time PhD is a hell of a struggle. Here’s tips that I learned (sometimes the hard way) on how to cope.

1: Do something else.

Seriously, do it. Even if it overloads you and kills every second of free time that you have, a long-term project or hobby that is in no way related to your PhD is important. In my spare time I do brazilian jiu jitsu and judo, I also write fiction. As a result, I have no free time. I maybe get to see my friends once a week (outside of training with them). A PhD is a long, long slog. You will see no appreciable progress for extended periods of time. A part-time PhD is an even longer slog. Having something else that is no-pressure gives you something that can provide perspective. In my time spent on my PhD I’ve concurrently gone from blue belt to purple belt in BJJ, which is a pretty big deal. I’ve also written a couple of fiction books, (but no sales yet, so I can’t call myself a ‘writer’). There’s been no-one looming over me to do either of these things, so I derive pretty much pure pleasure from them. I’ve come to realise, however, that both of these activities are a pressure-release valve. When I’m completely stuck on my PhD, I maybe sit down and write for an hour and then go back. Similarly, having a solid training regime gives a life that is otherwise shift-patterned a little regularity. Every time I get a little better in either activity, I notice. It may only be me noticing, but little improvements like that are good for the soul, especially if you have your life locked into an extended research project which your future career depends upon.

2: Look back and laugh.

As a part-timer you will take knocks. In fact, there will be dozens. If, like me, you end up hanging onto your PhD by your fingertips, it will get really depressing. The key to getting past this is learning that failure has a sell-by date. I spent a couple of years about a month away from having to quit for financial reasons. Somehow I survived. There were a few times when prospects arose that could have lifted me out of this precarious position, and they all fell through. I got made redundant at 46 hours’ notice at one point, which was a bit of a kick in the teeth, and almost brought that one-month horizon crashing in on me. The point is, I’m still here, and I’m probably going to finish. The bits that almost made me not finish aren’t going to hold me up any more than they already have done. Reading through all of this, I’ve thrown in enough anecdotes that it probably sounds like the whinging of Eeyore at some point. That isn’t why I wrote those bits, I wrote them because nowadays I can laugh about it. Seriously. Laugh. It makes the world go round. Spending time cataloguing knocks, scrapes and bumps is pointless. Treat everything that doesn’t stop you as some sort of Heller punch line. You have no ability to change the past, so don’t let it impede your future.

3: Learn to work on the fly.

In the full time world, you have a desk, internet access and time to peruse libraries. In the part-time world, you probably can’t count on these things. At bare minimum, most of the time you have two places to be in any given day (that aren’t your bed). Here is where time management kicks in. If you can’t manage time, then you don’t get to complete. By time management, I mean “creating as much stationary time outside of paid employment” as you can. Mostly, this involves working out of cafes. There are two ways of doing this, the first is to rock up to somewhere, complain that they don’t have internet access and generally piss people off by trying to recreate a desk in someone else’s business, the other is to adjust your work protocol to their constraints. Have five articles on hand that you need to read at all times. Make sure that no matter how big or small a space you get to work, you can get something done. Pack a pair of decent earplugs to shut out the world. My personal gadget of choice is a kindle, since you can pack hundreds of articles onto the things and it saves having to need a printer/plug socket to use it.

4: Learn when to quit.

I learnt this lesson the hard way, specifically I had a single 3 day weekend break in my first two years. I didn’t realise that I was burned out until way past the point of burn out. Nowadays I can tell when I need to take a break. The upside of a part-time degree is that in the grand scale of things, a day off won’t kill you, so take it when necessary. As a rule of thumb, if your work-rate drops below 50%, you need a day off.

5: Track yourself.

100,000 words is a daunting prospect. Being 0.1% closer to completion makes it bearable. I made a quick excel sheet where I would punch in my day’s word count and other such details. It meant that when I wrote 500 words, or footnoted a paragraph for a chapter, the stats would alert me to the fact that I was 0.2% closer to completing. This bore no reference whatsoever to reality – the words might have been crap, the paragraph might not make it to the final draft. But this method is a powerful tool to positively re-enforce yourself over the long haul. Condition yourself, it’ll make you feel better. I actively encourage you to lie to yourself because sometimes we need the little white lies that see us through to tomorrow.