Succeeding as a ‘non traditional’ student

This post is by Colin Cohen, who completed a doctorate at the School for Health in the University of Bath in south west England. Colin is what we call in the trade a ‘non traditional student’: older, part time and not working in an academic field. Many people have talked to me about what an isolating experience this can be. Colin successfully completed his doctorate, faster than many others do: I think we can all learn something from this post – especially number 2.

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 10.27.59 amThis post is about the challenges of undertaking a part time doctorate, whilst working full time in a non-academic setting where I felt isolated from a learning environment. In particular it is focussed on how I tried to maintain momentum and motivation. I offer some suggestions about what worked for me, and hope that people who read this might avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way. It is written from the perspective of being a mature student (or in my case a very mature student), as I was nearing retirement by the time I finished.

1. The project plan

One of the most useful short courses I attended at the university was called “Staying motivated”. We were strongly advised to develop a project plan for getting to the end of the doctorate, and to produce it in the form of a gantt chart so that we could work out what tasks we needed to carry out, roughly how long they would take, and which tasks depended on earlier tasks (for example you have to collect your data before you can analyse it).

The plan wasn’t set in stone and I had to amend it several times, but it was helpful to check the plan regularly, so I could think about whether I was on schedule and which tasks were coming up next. A useful tip was to work out the date you expect to submit your thesis, and to print that out in a large font and fix it to the wall to remind you of your long term target.

It’s important to identify interim milestones, such as transcribing your interview data or finishing the first draft of your literature review, so that you can celebrate those achievements. You can think of it as being like the challenge of running a marathon. If you’re thinking about the finish line when you’re at the start you’ll increase the probability of giving up. Be kind to yourself, and just focus on getting the first 2 miles of the race or the next project milestone under your belt.

2. Managing risk

I found it useful to produce a risk register for my research project, which involved identifying the things that might go wrong and what I could do about it. For example I had planned to send out an online questionnaire to about 1500 health care workers, and there was a risk that these people wouldn’t complete it as they were busy providing care for patients. To reduce the risk of a very low response rate I went to several professional network meetings to explain the context of my research, and I was fortunate enough to persuade the local Medical and Nursing Directors to send out a covering letter encouraging their staff to respond.

A different type of risk to be aware of is ‘scope creep’. This is where the research starts with a defined study population which gradually expands. In my own research project I was tempted to extend my case study from one locality to a multi-site case study. My supervisor pointed out the implications of doing this, particularly the time and effort required, and fortunately I listened to his wise advice about sticking to the original remit.

3. Writing

Like many people I found it difficult at first to get down to writing my thesis. I was advised by my supervisor to start early, and although I was a bit sceptical I took that advice and produced a first draft of my Literature Review chapter before I’d collected any data. I found the Thesis Whisperer particularly helpful when it came to getting down to writing, especially the excellent article about “How to write 1000 words a day”

What worked for me was to try to write little and often. Sometimes I worked on draft chapters for the thesis, other times it involved making notes in my research journal about random thoughts on methodological challenges or about an interview I’d undertaken. The journal proved to be very useful for when I came to write the reflective commentary section of my thesis.

Another tip I was given at an early stage was to write something for publication. I was advised not to aim for the most prestigious journals, but just to try to get something published. I did succeed in getting a paper published and it helped me feel more confident about expressing myself in writing.

4 Procrastination

When I was writing up my thesis one of the biggest challenges I had to tackle was the temptation to indulge in displacement activities. For example it can be very tempting to rearrange your workspace, experiment with different fonts, and check your inbox for email. This excellent cartoon by Tom Gauld sums up the struggle.

As long as you are aware when you are procrastinating you can decide what to do about it.

5. Supervisor

As with any other relationship, you need to work at the relationship with your supervisor. At the start it felt a bit like parent and child, but gradually it evolved into a partnership between equals. I was conscious that he was supervising several doctorate students, so I tried to rely on other people for the more mundane stuff and to prioritise how I used my limited contact time with him.

When we had agreed that I would send him a draft chapter to review I felt that it was important to stick to the date I’d promised to send it (or at least warn him if it was going to be late), rather than assuming he was sitting around with nothing else to do.

As a mature student I had to learn to take the feedback I received on draft chapters as constructive criticism, rather than reacting defensively. That proved difficult at first, as my supervisor was young enough to be my son, but we gradually developed a relationship of trust as I came to appreciate the sound advice he offered about how to successfully complete the thesis.

6. Support network

As a part time student I rarely visited the university campus, so I needed to develop a support network to keep motivated, rather than just relying on my supervisor. One of the most important networks involved my peer group on the doctorate programme. Most of us agreed to help each other, so we kept in touch by skype and email to exchange ideas. It proved especially useful to be able to touch base with other people who were dealing with similar challenges. For example, those of us using qualitative methods often compared ideas about our experiences of undertaking interviews and analysing the data.

I realised quite early on that there was nothing wrong about asking for help. I contacted a number of eminent people during the course of my research. Although a few of them did not respond, many of them were willing to spare some time for a chat over a cup of coffee, and offered insights into how I could improve the design of my research project or suggested contact names of other people with similar research interests.

And try to avoid the mood hoovers. I had one or two work colleagues who were very negative about the whole idea of doing a doctorate. They made comments such as “why do you want to do something like that at your age?” and “everyone knows that it’s easy to get a doctorate – universities give them away in exchange for the fees”. As well as academic support, most of us need people we can turn to occasionally for a bit of friendly advice and support when the going gets tough.

7. Present at conferences

Another piece of advice I received was to apply to present at a conference once I’d produced the first draft of my literature review and collected some data, rather than waiting until I’d completed my doctorate. I was a bit doubtful about this, but I decided to try and I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

The outline of my talk was accepted, I overcame my nerves on the day and gave my presentation at the conference, and a couple of months later I was invited to speak at another conference by someone who had heard my first presentation. I realised that most people feel a bit apprehensive when they speak in front of a large group, but that once you start speaking it is usually a rewarding experience, and you often get to talk to other people with similar research interests.

8. Exercise and meditation

And finally, what also worked for me was taking regular exercise. I found that after sitting staring at a computer screen for 2 or 3 hours I needed to get out in the fresh air for a run to clear my head. I realise that the running bit won’t appeal to everyone, but it is definitely worth taking regular breaks and getting out of the house. (I admit I’m cheating a bit here, as I was a regular runner before I started the doctorate and had completed the London marathon).

As well as exercise, I took up mindfulness meditation a couple of years ago. There are several different approaches you can use to reduce stress. Mindfulness works for me, and I even used one of the meditation exercises on the morning of my viva to help me feel focussed and to reduce the feelings of stress.

I hope these suggestions are helpful, and I can assure you that in the long run the effort is worth it.

How about you – are you a ‘non traditional student’? What strategies would you suggest to others?

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39 thoughts on “Succeeding as a ‘non traditional’ student

  1. So good to see that there are other people out there going through the same experience as me! I agree with all your ideas. I have found that the relevant university librarians are angels! They are so generous with their time and have helped me immensely with research, databases and the dreaded Endnote for MAC.

    • Susan, I agree with you about making the most of any opportunities to get support from people with a wide range skills, such as university librarians. Good luck. Colin

  2. Some great tips, and some of them resonated with my own journey. I recommend writing a paper for a conference reporting some of your initial data. Like Colin, I was surprised at how valuable this was for me, with my first publication resulting from it, and for also forming good networks. I would say that my PhD journey was also non-traditional in that managing two small children (one born during my PhD) and being part-time was a challenge for me. Very isolating at times. I made the effort to attend seminars and workshops, and my biggest supports were my supervisors and some fabulous PhD friendships I made, and still have. I made it through in the end – it took me 6 years (with a bit of family leave in between!).

  3. I totally agree with the point about not aiming at the most prestigious journals. I wasted almost 6 months because my supervisors wanted me to submit my work to the BMJ and PLoSMedicine. Both my heart and my head told me that I was aiming too high, and I was right, so I would have done better to stand up to the supervisors at the time. Not because my work was low quality, but because it was in quite a narrow field, and it would have been better to aim at either specialty journals or one of the Open Access mega-journals, which are the two places where I did end up publishing.

  4. This is wonderful Colin, thank you for sharing! You experience very much mirrors mine as a non-traditional student (who seem to the majority in my Department). It can be a juggle but if you plan you can definitely achieve it. I agree with all your advice. It all worked for me, especially the planning and writing the whole way along. I’ve worked either full-time or part-time throughout my candidature as well as having my two children in that time but I will still submit earlier than planned. Sometimes it is very focusing to have other things on and have to make the most of your time!

  5. As Colin’s colleague in the Univ. of Bath’s Doctoral programme,and one who is also pretty mature, lives at a significant distance from the University and is not in the academic setting, I truly appreciated the prompt help that Colin offered anytime I reached out to him. Thanks so much Colin for sharing some really useful tips and introducing me to some great sites including Thesis Whisperer. Thanks for being a true peer group colleague. I hope to be able to do the same as I go along. The e-networking is truly key for non-traditional students and attending courses and conferences can be very helpful as well. Keeps you focused and helps you to appreciate that you aren’t as lost as you sometimes feel.

  6. These seem like valuable tips, even for a traditional student. Especially when students are visiting classes and TA’ing, the necessity to balance, do things like take time off to go run (I like that bit!) and set goals and schedules is just as aptly suggested.

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  8. Thanks for your wonderful post Colin. I could really identify with a lot of the challenges you wrote about especially the dealing with comments without being defensive. I’m also a (very) mature-aged part-time PhD student. and I’m studying by distance (more than 1,000km from my university) and was until recently working full-time in a senior role. After 6 years of this, I was made redundant which has its pluses (more time to finalise the thesis) but added significantly to the isolation as my thesis and my work were very closely linked. Lucky for me I have a great supervisor who continues to encourage me, I’d certainly encourages other mature aged students to do a PhD. it is worth the effort.

    • Maria, thank you for your kind comments. Clearly what worked for me might not suit other people. As I was living a long way from the university I did a bit of searching and flind that there was an active Post Grad Research network at the local university. So I made a point of attending some of the lunchtime meetings about research methods and went to hear some of the guest speakers. I found it helpful to feel part of a research community. Good luck. Colin

  9. Thanks Thesis Whisperer.

    I particularly liked this email/post. I too, am a non traditional student: older, and not working in an academic field.

    I found my journey, difficult, to some extent because of my non-academic status! I’m almost finished, and wished I’d read something like Colin’s post sooner. Perhaps I did, but found a lot of this journey overwhelming and I didn’t take all the useful info in.

    Nonetheless, it was good to read this, even now.

    Regards, Cindy Solonec UWA (see, I don’t even sign off with ‘best’).

    From: The Thesis Whisperer Reply-To: The Thesis Whisperer Date: Wednesday, 22 July 2015 3:02 AM To: Cindy Solonec Subject: [New post] Succeeding as a Œnon traditional¹ student

    WordPress.com Thesis Whisperer posted: “This post is by Colin Cohen, who completed a doctorate at the School for Health in the University of Bath in south west England. Colin is what we call in the trade a ‘non traditional student’: older, part time and not working in an academic field. Many pe”

  10. Like you, Colin, I graduated a few years before retirement. I think your advice is excellent in every way, but I wouldn’t call myself non-traditional. Many PhD students are older, and/or part-time, and/or parents and/or carers. I think that older students may have some advantages over younger ones: we’re used to dealing with all kinds of people, we usually have good work skills (we’ve been doing it long enough!) and I think we may be better at assessing risk (as you discuss in your number 2). Well done on completing and on enjoying the process. Mostly.

    • M-H, you’re right that PhD students vary greatly in terms of age and experience of life at work and in academia. Those of us who are nearer to retirement can draw on our life experience, and we can probably be a little more relaxed about things like speaking at conferences. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

  11. Thank you Colin, there was so much of your post I could relate to. I work full-time and have found a morning routine of mindfulness meditation and cross-fit before work or PhD really sanity and health saving. I have just had my first week using a standing desk in an attempt to compensate for spending more time on my bottom than ever before in my life, and can recommend it. Your post was affirming and it’s encouraging to see that the effort is worth it. Congratulations on finishing.

    • Karen, the standing desk sounds like a good idea. I found that if I sat in front of my computer for several hours i one stretch, I became less productive and got tempted to waste time checking emails, facebook etc. Speaking personally, going outside in the fresh air for a run (or a walk) helped. Good luck with your studies. Colin

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  13. I’ll confess that I don’t read all the posts on the ‘Whisperer’ but the heading ‘non traditional’ student made me read this one. I don’t feel that a ‘traditional’ student would have the maturity to realise that their supervisor wasn’t ‘sitting around with nothing else to do’. Deadlines are deadlines. I am always grateful to learn from anyone who is prepared to freely share knowledge but will never overcome my dread of public speaking. I know, it’s supposed to get easier with practice. Hope to see the day when we are all just labelled as ‘students’.

    • It’s just a thought, but some universities run short courses for doctorate students on presentation skills. That might help you to come to terms with public speaking. Another thing that might help is to give a talk about your thesis topic to a small group of fellow students. Colin

  14. Thanks Colin! I am probably not a ‘non-traditional’ student but I found so much of your post helpful! Thanks for sharing.

  15. Great post, thanks Colin. I’m a full time mature aged PhD student in Australia, and I’m six months in to the journey – feel as if I am drowning in literature at times, and I constantly fight the distraction offered by rabbit holes that I’m finding along the way. You have provided some excellent tips, as do many others on this website (thanks Inger) and I appreciate your frank and honest advice.

  16. Hello Colin… Thank you for sharing your tips. I am the same kind of non-traditional student, including near retirement age when I am finished. I will be submitting my application this fall to the University of Toronto’s Health Services Research PhD. Your post (and the replies to it) gave me an opportunity for reflection, and advice to fall back on when the going gets tough.

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  18. Reblogged this on Debs OER Journey and commented:
    Great Article found on The Thesis Whisperer blog (thank you !) by Colin Cohen giving tips on how to manage studies including procrastination ( and a really amusing link to a cartoon by Tom Gauld ! ) It did make me giggle …

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  20. Thanks for this. There isn’t a lot out there for the non traditional student. I’m 37, and doing my MSc part time through distance learning while working full time. It can be isolating and your article not only has some great insight, but reminds me I’m not alone in being non traditional🙂

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