Part-time PhD-ing = a full time occupation

In this month’s feature, Debbie Rodgers and Ruth Currie share their experience of working on a PhD on a part-time basis. They reflect on the benefits of allowing their research to mature over a longer span of time. We also learn of the challenges that arise from juggling research with demanding other commitments, and how these other commitments might be turned into advantages.

Debbie is a part-time PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University, investigating the role that engagement with music and musical spaces could play in tackling mental health stigma. Initial thoughts from the early stages of her research have been published in a special edition of the ‘London Review of Education’ (Vol. 15, No. 3, pp.474-487). Debbie also works as a peripatetic music teacher for Surrey Arts and has extensive teaching experience within London and the South East. 

Ruth is a part-time PhD researcher at the International Centre for Community Music (ICCM) at York St John University. Ruth’s research explores the relationship between a community music organisation and local cultural partners, to understand the role of publicly-funded cultural leadership in community partnerships. In her non-PhD work, Ruth is an arts manager, with a particular focus on access though music making. In collaboration with her peers at ICCM, Ruth welcomes contributions to the upcoming student research symposium at York St John –27th/28th November 2018. 

A change of plan

If asked, I would always state that I didn’t originally set out to become a part-time PhD student. I had every intention of opting for a full-time schedule as I had done with my Master’s degree and aimed to complete within three years, but life intervened and I found myself with a rapidly expanding piano teaching network and the lack of sufficient funding to commit to the offer of a place on a full-time programme. After a lot of deliberation, I decided that in fact this was an ideal moment to embrace both my professional and academic interests without having to sacrifice either, and I tentatively set off on the five-year rollercoaster journey that I am currently navigating!

Part-time study certainly brings its own set of challenges and rewards.

Longer, more flexible deadlines, more time for research ideas to mature and develop and the opportunity to do other things around study are offset by the isolation of lone-working (especially for part-time distance students) and the lack of an immediate support network of fellow researchers for discussing ideas and facing the inevitable bumps along the way. Finding the continual motivation to pick up and set down work for five years rather than being able to fully immerse yourself into your research is also an on-going mental battle, and one that is a struggle around managing the demands of everyday working and personal circumstances.

Juggling identities

“I actually really want dysentery for Christmas!” said my final pupil of the morning in a very matter-of-fact way as he plopped himself down on the piano stool and set out his books.

Well, that was an unexpected contribution to the festive chatter that had been the undercurrent to most of my final lessons of the autumn term. One bout of hysterical laughter and uncrossing of conversational wires later, I learnt that you can indeed buy soft, plush toy versions of common viruses and bacteria. Of course you can. And little J is already the proud owner of the common cold and E. coli. Brilliant.

It’s moments like this, little snippets of bizarre conversations that provide a gloriously odd source of light relief from the challenges and frustrations of everyday life and study.

Being a peripatetic teacher offers the wonderful (if not occasionally frustrating) privilege of a weekly insight into the ever-changing perspective of a child’s personal, intellectual and musical development.  Being the facilitator within this environment is certainly big responsibility to shoulder, but a completely different challenge from the day to day requirements of my PhD study. It requires the ability to switch rapidly and constantly between different skillsets and identities, the ability to motivate, create, play and juggle the administrative and organisational requirements posed by my 70+ pupils, as well as finding both the time and the personal drive to keep reading, writing and setting realistic targets for progression within my research. I have found that I now carry a notebook everywhere I go with me to jot down ideas and questions as they come to me, and as a reminder of the need to keep setting little targets for myself, even if it is merely the task of responding to any unread emails that day!

Most of my pupils know that I am also a researcher, and having to be able to explain the complexities of some of the sociological frameworks that I am utilising in my work to a group of interested nine-year-olds is exceptionally good training to ensure that my ideas are remaining accessible, explainable and not becoming unnecessarily cluttered or complicated.


More chances to network

Despite the benefits of being able to discuss my research with my pupils, finding ways of connecting with fellow PhD students, especially those in a similar field or study mode to myself has been invaluable.

Conversations and collaborations, whether in person or through social media, have provided a great source of personal and academic support and I have been lucky to have found a wonderful group of fellow researchers at the International Centre for Community Music, based at York St. John University.

Ruth Currie, a fellow part-time PhD student in her third year of study has very kindly shared some of her reflections on study at the ICCM for this blog post.

RC: It’s an extremely nurturing environment to be part of. The centre is a portal through which community music researchers can connect and through which I have connected with PhD researchers worldwide. Being connected to others – a community of community music researchers – is something I’ve started to explore in collaboration with my full time PhD colleague at ICCM, Jo Gibson. At a recent conference, Jo and I presented our pilot of practice sharing as a mechanism to foster peer-support in PhD study. Through this, and in collaboration with the people I have met along the road thus far, I’ve realised that the (in)balance of commitments I assumed to be a product of part-time study, was actually a PhD-wide phenomenon.  Jo and I organise an annual student research symposium in collaboration with our peers at York St John; I met Debbie and many other brilliant people there. The symposium aims to offer space for students, whatever stage of research, to share their research and their experiences as researchers in a safe and constructive environment. For me, living a healthy PhD needs brilliant people around.

Connecting with brilliant people takes time, it’s worthwhile, but takes time no less. I find navigating the boundaries of time, particularly time for non-PhD/PhD work, a challenging compromise. I work in the sector where my research is situated and often find my professional role and my role as a researcher gets entangled. Recognising the implications of this in my positionality as a researcher was a pivotal PhD moment for me; I currently have a paper in review that talks about this. Writing and talking about my positionality and the way that my non-PhD work/PhD work run alongside each other has been helpful for me.

To balance the weight of non-PhD/PhD I’ve realised (probably quite naively) that there is no even balance between the two – there are inevitable spikes in activity that distract one from the other. In an attempt to navigate this, I plan in three-month blocks and have more colour codes on my iCal than I care to admit. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and being part of a community of community music researchers gives me a chance to share and recalibrate – this helps me manage my life as a part-time PhD researcher.


In conclusion

I for one firmly believe that, despite the demands and different challenges posed by part-time study, that it has positively influenced my work and encouraged me to further develop additional reflective, organisational and creative skills to support my study.

Being part of a supportive network of researchers has been invaluable in my progress so far and I welcome further discussion with other PhD students!


Debbie Rodgers:

Ruth Currie:

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