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Survive and Thrive as a Part Time PhD Researcher⤴

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Notes from another excellent online course provided by the University’s IAD.

Pre course Actions

We were asked, about a week before the course, to read an article in the online Grauniad on How to juggle a full-time job and a part-time PhD; to think of 5 top tips for being successful as a PT PhD; and bring questions of our own to the course.

Within the correspondence were also buried a couple of unannounced pdf attachments which contained resource for the course, I think, but also some links to blog posts and articles1 2 3 4 on doing a part-time PhD. One message stood out from these, beyond those that resonated with my own “top tips” (below), and that was this:

students who study part time for their whole degree finish sooner and have better results than full time students.5

Wow, that is encouraging. I have a hope not to overrun on my own PhD, and finish early if at all possible but there are a lot of factors in that particular critical path, most of which I have no idea about. For now, I am focusing on sustaining the momentum by doing something every day, unless I specifically plan not to. It’s working so far, and I have managed when external factors have confounded that approach.

Having a TBR (to be read) list is a good idea: I have one but it’s huge and diverse. Next task is to organise and prioritise that. Lastly from the blogs, making use of buffer time that provides transition space between work, home and study. My job is closely related to my research and there is a “double divided” of much of the studying/thinking I am doing, so it matters less between work and study time, but I also need to be sure to be fully present at home: to not be nodding along to a domestic tale whilst mentally drafting some thesisable nugget. Working memory needs to be dedicated to whatever is current or in the moment. Multitasking is your enemy!

My 5 top tips

Block out time
You have to switch off everything that might distract you from your PhD. Everything. The only way I have been able to do that is block out time when I am doing nothing else but PhD work.
Have specific objectives
That time should be spent working on something specific, whether tidying up your reference manager library, reading specific papers, searching for new ones or writing up notes.
Track achievement
Have a to-do list that you check in on every day and check off the things you complete or progress. Watching that build into a record of achievement helps keep me keep moving forward.
Talk about your research
I find it feels good to talk to other people about my research project. It is important and interesting, what you are doing. Tell people about it and what impact you hope to achieve. If you haven’t got people, talk to a dog. Or a gonk.
Accept advice gracefully, and park it
When you talk to other people, they may well have their own ideas or a book/paper/journal for you to read. Keep track of that stuff but sustain your immediate direction – don’t be distracted by what others think you should be reading. Make time for it when you can to check back on once you have progressed what you’re working on today.

The seminar

The 90-minute seminar was led by Steve Hutchinson who I have met before on a speed-reading course. He’s an impressive teacher, whether in the 2-D Zoom space or 3-D in real life, where he is a pretty impressive sketch noter. I still have his notes from that on my office wall: and still use the methods he taught me. Delegates were grouped for chatting about what works and what doesn’t: based on our preparatory notes and conversations between us. As well as my top five above, there were some superb ideas to help, including:

  • writing is output, even if it’s shit;
  • when you stop writing, note down prompts for next time
  • get some time in early, before looking at your emails
  • don’t compare yourself with other people (especially full-timers)
  • focusing in small chunks of time

It’s also important to keep yourself reminded of why your PhD is important to you: what motivates you about it and the things you are learning. The vision involves “bricks, walls, and cathedrals”: the to-do list is the day to day reification of this idea.

“The PhD is a project to be managed, not a quest for truth.”

There were plenty of other ideas and strategies shared, reference within the course handout, that make it a useful reference to return to, especially when it might get sticky. Of greatest importance is the repeated reminder that the purpose is to pass.

Conclusions

This was absolutely well worth doing: both the preparation, the thinking, and also the engagement with the seminar. The delegates connected in a really lovely way, all fully supportive and empathic. I am thankful to them, and to Steve, and to the IAD for this course.

Notes and references

  1. https://thesiswhisperer.com/2013/03/13/5-time-management-ideas-from-part-time-phd-students/ 

  2. https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/editlab/2020/04/01/the-secret-life-of-part-time-phd-students/ 

  3. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/blogs/studying-part-time-phd-challenges-and-benefits 

  4. https://sccontrol.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/part-time-phd-some-problems-and-solutions/ 

  5. Pearson, M, Cumming, J, Evans, T, Macauley, P and Ryland, K (2008) “Exploring the Extent and Nature of the Diversity of the Doctoral Population in Australia: A Profile of the Respondents to a 2005 National Survey” in M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds). (17-18 April, 2008). Quality in postgraduate research: Research education in the new global environment – Conference Proceedings. Canberra: CEDAM, ANU 

Getting Started with Postgraduate Research⤴

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Online course Oct 21, asynchronous 2-hours-a-week. Provided by IAD via the University Learn platform. This course relates to domains A1, B2, and C2 of the RDF.

Contents

Week 1: Introduction, getting to know you and starting out

Aims are to introduce the course; introduce students to each other; to signpost essential information and resources for postgraduate research at Edinburgh; and to encourage PGR students to consider, discuss and reflect on expectations.

I completed the five tasks presented in the first week of the course: an introduction post; reading basic policy and information on PGR at Edinburgh; another post on my hopes and fears; uploaded a photo of my workspace and another post describing my research to a 10-year old. I read and commented on a few posts in the various forums attached to these tasks. There were some useful links to pick up on, mostly Twitter or RSS feeds related to (hashtag) PhD Life.

Week 2: Achieving first milestones

Aims are to identify key milestones; to introduce the importance of planning time and research; to highlight some tools; to encourage reflection into your own personal and professional development and identifying strategies for it; to discuss expectations of the supervisory relationship and consider different styles of supervision.

This week introduces more basic tools and strategies for planning including to-do lists, mind-mapping and timelines. I like and use many of these, and think I have settled on a decent workflow to help me with the PhD, however I may try some more sketch-based ideas too, in this week’s task for my supervisors (which I am oddly stuck at). There is a course on Learn to help you choose a reference manager, too closely linked to another called, Producing your thesis or dissertation in Word., which to me sounds like, Building your extension in Lego.

One of the reasons I took up this PhD is that I feel that my productivity levels are higher than they have ever been, not least because of the rate I can write and assemble information but also because of the workflows I have established in my working life.

Task 1 – planning approaches and tools

  1. Approach to planning work and time I have a full time job, but one that varies from day to day and requires detailed planning using a range of tools. These same tools are needed in studying with a few exceptions I will try (see question 2). Current tools include to-do lists; Gantt charts; GitHub documentation control; text editors; diary and calendar including writing blocks; out-of-office.
  2. What new approach could you try? Some students have organised themselves into day-long writing sessions which are semi-social in that they are located in a cafe, have 90-minute writing blocks with 15-minute social breaks. I think I’d like to try one of these if I can find a day but I think they will be effective if I can add cadence to that habit by making it every Friday, for example.

    The other “new” approach is the visual timeline, related to the third part of this first task. Pen and paper – sketch note style, to start with, before committing to text and code.

  3. Create a planning timeline for your first three or six months I don’t feel comfortable sharing my detailed plans as they are subject of current discussion with my supervisors. I will post the current generic Gantt chart, only slightly different from the proposal.

Task 2 – training needs analysis and the RDF

I am familiar with the RDF from previous travel along this road but still completed a training needs self-assessment against the framework. This tool is available here as an Excel spreadsheet.

Task 3 – Working with your supervisor

This was quite easy for me to think about because I already know the work and styles of both of my co-supervisors who are colleagues at Moray House. We have begun working out our modus operandi, with habits and expectations emerging as we meet over the coming weeks.

End of week activity – Picture my research

We are asked to post an image of something related to your research topic and describe (it) in a few words. I found this delightful quote from Doris Lessing to go with those few words:

My research begins with an analysis of a particular genre of radio broadcasting with the aim of identifying and revealing its hidden pedagogy. I hope to go on to try it out.

Week 3: Making the most of your time and overcoming common challenges

Avoiding feeling overwhelmed

I’m confident that I have some fairly good habits when it comes to time management, and yet am still prone to distraction. I’m trying to use a Pomodoro application on my laptop and phone to make spaces in which I can focus on blocks of work and study. This has been quite effective at sustaining focus, although the keep-awake ticking of the electronic pomodoro is really irritating. I’ll probably ditch it as more unnecessary distraction!

Impostor Syndrome is a very real thing but both of my supervisors have been very good about helping me feel that the work I am doing is both interesting, worthwhile and new.

Noting down achievements is a habit I have been using now for over a year in my work, and this has carried over into my PhD. Partly for fear of forgetting something important I keep detailed lists of thing to do, arranged into a timeline. This remains open on my desktop except when I’m diving into one of the blocks of work or study. I mark tasks that are completed and at the end of each “reporting cycle” (i.e. a month), export a pdf as a record achievement (and proof I have been worked very hard, boss). This method is easy enough because all of the writing I do, including these task lists, is done in Markdown, which has a checkbox syntax built in to the versions I use.

I am appreciative of the advice based upon experience shared by other PhD students more advanced than the rest of us, in particular their frank and heartfelt sharing of how they responded to setback and other challenges they experienced as researchers.

Making the most of time

This part of the course opens up possibilities for collaboration and networking, which I am not ready for yet. I have discussed these briefly with my supervisors and will pick up on this idea a little later.

Focus on writing

From a self-audit of how I feel about my writing skills and abilities, I am confident…

  • in the basics of academic writing – eg. sentence structure/ grammar
  • about the academic writing conventions for my discipline
  • about writing about data
  • about referencing and know what is required
  • in writing about my research in other ways eg. for a blog

Conclusion

This was a useful “getting started”. My final post on “one take away from the course”:

More than anything else, I’ve learned that being insecure, impostor syndrome, being distracted and worrying about things going wrong are normal. I’m especially thankful to those who have shared with us here, because I am encouraged and feeling stronger now, more than ever, about my PhD.