A part-time PhD not for turning

Gayle Munro on the disparaging comment that fuelled her thesis and the perception that non-traditional doctoral students lack commitment

October 27, 2016
Danny Allison illustration (27 October 2016)
Source: Danny Allison

“There’s no such thing as a part-time PhD.”

I was in the first month of my (very) part-time PhD when this was said to me, and I was still at the stage of basking in the excitement of embarking on a new project. I had seen a flyer on my university’s noticeboard advertising a guest lecture by one of those “big name” academics whose work I had followed throughout my master’s, and whose numerous books I had read in preparing my application for doctoral work.

I decided to use one of my precious 20 days of annual leave from my day job to travel to Oxford to attend the lecture, and I stayed up late the night before to finish some work that was due so that I wouldn’t be distracted by any nagging doubts about it. The lecture was well attended but, since many of us had arrived a little ahead of schedule, the speaker filled the time by asking the audience a few “friendly” questions about our studies.

When it was my turn, I offered a sentence or two about the nature of my project before adding that this was a part-time doctorate. The speaker followed up her withering response with a curt “next” and turned her attention to a full-time 22-year-old, fresh from undergraduate studies, who was clearly, in her opinion, a “proper” PhD student. Heads swivelled around the auditorium to look at the “no such thing” student squirming in her seat, cursing her decision to waste a day off on such a demoralising experience.

I regularly reflected on that put-down during the subsequent nine (yes, nine) years it took me to finish my thesis, and I thought about it again when I graduated last month. What exactly did she mean? Perhaps she thought that part-time students lack commitment. I certainly had lots of things going on in my life outside my PhD. I worked full-time throughout my doctorate in a demanding research job not directly connected to my thesis topic. During the upgrade from MPhil to PhD, I was 37 weeks pregnant with my daughter and, two years later, I had my son: a year’s maternity leave followed the birth of each child.

I had to relearn and adapt study habits developed during my “free” undergraduate years and a very focused full-time MA. Gone was the luxury of devoting entire days or weekends to writing when I felt like it. Thought processes had to change from “I’ve only got an hour: there’s no point in starting anything substantial” to “Right, I’ve got an hour, how many words can I fit into that?” (Quite a lot, it turns out.)

But how to measure commitment? Is the student who watches her bank account diminish by a considerable amount every September less committed than the one who passes a cheque from a funding body to the university? Is the student who spends a weekend away nodding encouragingly at her family in the swimming pool while proofreading the third chapter of her thesis less committed than the one who does so at her desk? Is the student who does the school run blinking in the sunlight after a night redrafting a literature review less committed than one who goes straight from breakfast to a full day in the library? It seems to me that the more “other stuff” you have going on, the greater the commitment required.

That said, it is important to note that all doctoral students have a life outside their PhD. Happy and not-so-happy life events can test the resolve of anyone. Illness, bereavement, childbirth, marriage, divorce and house-moves are all potential “threats” to completion. All PhD students, regardless of discipline or status, have one thing in common: they have all faced – or will face – obstacles, adversity and negativity. Some will take the form of minor niggles, others will be life-changing events. And some that may appear to an outsider to be a “minor niggle” may be the last straw in an accumulation of blockages, events, comments or even raised eyebrows.

I was lucky enough to receive much encouragement from many kind people during my long years of doctoral study, not least from my very patient supervisor and my family. The perversity of the whole PhD experience, however, meant that it was not the encouraging words that kept me, teeth gritted, at my desk at 3am two weeks before the deadline, when I was practically falling over with tiredness. It was, rather, Professor No-Such-Thing-As-A-Part-Time-PhD – and several others like her – who I have to thank for keeping me going.

It is the response to the inevitable negativity that distinguishes the doctoral swimmers from the sinkers. I learned many things during the course of my studies, not all related to the actual subject matter. But perhaps the most revelatory was never to underestimate the strength that can be generated from a desire to prove someone wrong.

Gayle Munro was a doctoral student in geography at University College London.

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