A lot of people ask me about how it’s possible to get through a part time PhD. This post is by Kerri Viney, a Research Fellow at the Research School of Population Health, Australian National University and Tuberculosis Consultant. Often part time PhDs are talked about quite negatively, this post has a different take on the issue.
Doing a PhD part time while working full time seems like the stuff of nightmares, but for some students it works perfectly. For me it was the only option. You see, I came to the PhD world relatively late, at the age of 40. By that time I was already living and working overseas as the sole income earner of the household and I had 18 years of work experience under my belt (and for those of you who are wondering, I am female!).
My desire to do a PhD had always been strong, but other priorities (such as living overseas, doing a Masters degree, travelling, doing my public health training, having a baby etc.) just seemed to be more important at the time. By the time I started my PhD my life circumstances were such that studying full time while sitting in a University Department in Australia was just not an option for me, professionally or financially. So, I embarked on a five year journey of working full time while doing a PhD part time, with three and a half years spent overseas. For the remaining one and a half years I was an academic in the same school in which I was doing my PhD.
Doing a PhD part time has copped some pretty bad press I’ll admit, but my experience was largely positive (with – of course – some hiccups along the way). So in this posting I want to outline some of the positive aspects of doing a PhD part time. (While doing so I will be the first to admit that doing a PhD part time while working is not for everyone…..)
Making a greater contribution to the workplace
While living overseas I worked as a health adviser in the Pacific, working mostly on tuberculosis (TB). (Yes, it still exists….). I was working closely with national Governments and other partners on TB research, and it seemed natural that I develop a coherent body of work on TB in the Pacific for my PhD. So my PhD topic (which was “problems and prospects for TB prevention and care in the Pacific Islands”) was directly related to my day to day work.
This close connectedness between work and PhD allowed me to make a greater contribution in the workplace.
For example, for my PhD I undertook a detailed literature review and was therefore able to better understand some of the technical aspects of my work. My PhD also required me to connect with regional experts on various aspects of TB care, which also enhanced my work.
I also learned to think more academically (thanks to my supervisors for that!) about technical issues, and was able to make more informed inputs to meetings etc. So, overall, I think doing a PhD on the topic of my work, improved my abilities in my job, which had flow on effects to the people I worked with.
Improved ability to influence policy and practice
As stated above, I was working closely with Ministry of Health staff in various Pacific Island countries while doing my PhD. Eventually, I came to understand some of the challenges that they faced when managing TB in their countries.
These challenges lead to research questions, joint research protocols and eventually some of the studies in my thesis. Therefore, the research that I undertook was partly defined by people working in the field, based on priorities identified by them. National Ministry of Health staff were also involved in the field work, I recruited nurses to assist with data collection and the research was overseen by programme managers.
I knew these people well and had developed good working relationships with them. The results of the research were therefore directly applicable to local policy and practice. As a result, I believe that my ability to influence policy and practice was enhanced. By way of example, I not only produced scientific papers as part of my PhD but policy briefs, which I took back to the countries in which I had conducted my research and shared with policy makers and clinicians.
I even managed to meet with the President of Kiribati to discuss my research. I doubt that this would have been possible had I been an “outsider” with loose connections to the country.
Solid outputs for the PhD
I should have mentioned earlier that I did my PhD by what my University terms as “compilation”. Other Universities call this publication. So my thesis comprised three written chapters (i.e. an introduction, a literature review and a discussion chapter) with nine publications included as my results chapters.
In addition to these nine publications, thirteen conference presentations arose from the research. Further, I wrote two policy briefs and an additional eleven papers which were published in the peer reviewed scientific literature, a book chapter and a short communication.
Admittedly, none of these were published in the New England Journal of Medicine (I wish!), but it was all my contribution to TB care in the Pacific. I also gave five media interviews and wrote one blog.
These outputs would not have been possible had I been sitting in an office in an Australian University Department for three years. They were possible as I was working in the field, had strong links with programme staff and partners, and had a desire to write and talk about my work. So I think doing a PhD part time while working full time facilitated these outputs, not only for my PhD, but for Pacific Islanders who I hope will benefit from my work.
In summary, doing a PhD part time while working full time was not only the only option open to me for personal reasons, but I think facilitated a greater workplace contribution, allowed more ready application to policy and practice, and assisted with PhD outputs (not the most important thing, but a nice spinoff). Admittedly, at times, it was too much, but I think for certain students this model of higher degree research can work well.
Thanks Kerri – I think your post certainly highlights some of the advantages of doing a part time PhD while working in an alllied field. I wonder if anyone else has had a similar experience? Love to hear about it in the comments.