Should you go for that PhD at home or away?

March 2, 2007

Caroline Gatrell considers the pros and cons of studying 'over the shop'

If you are employed as a university lecturer or researcher but do not have a doctorate, this might be the year you decide to register for a PhD. Anyone who has combined part-time PhD study with paid work will know that this is not an easy option, and for those who are employed at the university where they are also a student, the experience of "studying over the shop" has pros and cons.

At the end of last year, I attended a Christmas do with a group of friends whom I met while studying for my part-time PhD. Our academic interests are wide-ranging, but we share one thing in common. We all gained our PhDs part time while working as university lecturers and teachers. In conversation, we realised that our group had been meeting for almost ten years. Perhaps that says something about the length of time it takes to do a part-time PhD.

More encouraging, however, was the observation that, as a group, our completion rate was 100 per cent, and that this was quite unusual. This is because doing a part-time PhD can take years, and most students find that life gets in the way at some point. As a result, part-time PhD study is often put on hold and frequently abandoned.

Undoubtedly, there are big advantages to studying part time in your own institution. The main benefit is that it is easier to network with other students and scholars than if you are employed outside academe, especially if you are not living near the university where you are registered. The importance of good student networks cannot be underestimated. Colleagues from a range of universities who have studied over the shop have all acknowledged the value of the support they received from others in the same situation. The nature of this support has included chivvying and encouraging one another, sharing knowledge and techniques (for example, viva management) and giving and receiving feedback on papers and presentations.

One colleague recalled: "If you register at the uni where you work, there's someone on the spot who will pick you up when you hit a sticky patch. You can also provide role models for each another - when one person has 'made it', they offer to the others a strong sense that you can do this, too."

For part-time "away" PhD students, those employed in a non-university setting, such rich networking opportunities are much harder to access.

Although there may be options for online contact with other students, the limited options for face-to-face networking with other students can be demotivating and may lead to reduced self-belief.

Yvette, a part-time PhD student and a senior National Health Service manager who lives more than 160km away from her university, said the loneliness of her part-time status made her doubt her own abilities. This had not been a problem in her masters degree, when she had been part of a learning set. She explained: "I was due to do my PhD upgrade panel, and it was nerve-racking because I had no one to measure myself against. My supervisor said I was ready, and I trusted her, but if I had been able to be more 'present' at the university I would have been better networked with other students. I would then have been able to make that sort of judgment on my own behalf."

Another major advantage of being registered at your employing university is the sense of "belonging" to your institution. Even if you are in a post that offers you limited flexibility, you might still manage to get to some lunchtime/early evening seminars that allow you to pick up on the latest thinking in your field. Since evening seminars are often accompanied by social events, you may have the chance to speak directly with visiting academics, which could even lead to future career opportunities.

Of course, studying over the shop has its downsides. Annabel worked in a department where colleagues had all gained their PhDs through the "conventional" route - full time, and prior to their academic appointments.

Annabel did not receive the institutional encouragement that she had hoped for. None of her immediate colleagues was prepared to champion her cause, and none of them understood the pressures associated with combining part-time PhD study and a full-time academic role. No attempt was made to reduce her teaching load, and she remembers feeling "under scrutiny" throughout. "They watched me struggle without offering a helping hand. It took me five years to complete, which is not bad going given that I had a full-time post and a young child."

One way of avoiding the sense that you are under scrutiny is to register with an institution that is not your own (although this may require you to pay additional fee costs). Paul did just this, and felt that he had obtained the best of both worlds. "I had the freedom to enjoy and explore my research area without being under surveillance, yet I could still call on close colleagues at my home institution for advice."

Nothing is perfect, however. For Paul, the drawback of registering elsewhere lay in his discovery that the study processes at his student institution were quite different from those at "home". This meant that his expectations about the level and style of supervisory support to which he was entitled were not met by the institution at which he was studying.

So there are pros and cons in registering in another institution or studying, almost literally, over the shop. You need to weigh them up before wading in. Good luck.

Interviewees were drawn from a range of institutions and names have been changed.

Caroline Gatrell is a lecturer in management learning and leadership at Lancaster University Management School. Her book, Managing Part-time Study: A Guide for Undergraduates and Postgraduates , is published by Open University Press, £15.99.

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