Publishing during your part time PhD

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 2.22.41 pmDoing 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.

27 thoughts on “Publishing during your part time PhD

  1. Sian Hindle says:

    Yes, I’m clearly not as prolific as Kerri (I blame the 3 kids), but I have managed to publish at the halfway stage of a part-time PhD. There’s a lot to be said for studying part-time; I find that doing something (however minimal) everyday keeps it bubbling away. I’m also in agreement with Mark Carrigan (the Digital Sociologist) who claims that regular blogging provides the reflective framework that can hold everything together – which is really important with part-time study. Failing all else, having kids means that you simply have to switch off from it periodically, if only to work out how to get the toast out of the dvd player; that’s probably a good thing too.

  2. Helen says:

    Thanks Kerri,
    I’m just embarking on a part-time PhD, so your article is timely. It’s helped boost my ideas of what I can get out of the PhD, and how I can contribute more through the PhD.

  3. Tori Wade says:

    Thank you for your post. I started and finished my PhD part time as a middle-aged person, whilst working in my field (telehealth and e-health). I had a period of being full time in the middle when the job and starting a business situation was a bit flat, but overall there was a great deal of positive cross-over. Here’s a potential topic for another post: “Doing a PhD and a business start-up at the same time.”
    Also, I highly recommend doing the PhD by publication wherever possible. Within two years of completion I managed to get a Level C academic position and be appointed Editor-in-Chief of a journal in my field, and both of these things were made possible because I had been publishing all the way through the process. Oh yes, and I’ve recently reduced my academic hours so I can spend more time with my start-up – not the same one as before.

  4. Agnes says:

    I did my PhD part-time which meant opportunities and challenges. It was the right choice for me with considerations of finances and children. There is a link here, I think, with The Research Whisperer’s recent post on measuring word counts and the idea that productivity equals writing a lot in a short time. Kerri neatly turns around the assumption that part timers are less productive. Now as a permanent part-time academic, I really like the idea of “slow scholarship” (despite feeling like I am in a minority). Although people often study part-time for ‘life’ reasons, their research can also benefit from it.

  5. Connie Z (@conniexplore) says:

    For me, my full-time job and my research project are not really closely related. It is good to have a job adding the industrial experience for your phd. But if these two parts of life are not related, then one may try even harder to achieve the balance.

    • amyknickers says:

      Yeah, that’s my situation, so not much of this post is resonating with me, particularly as a PhD by publication is obviously going to help with publishing prospects as opposed to a traditional PhD by thesis.

  6. Annabelle Leve says:

    Great to hear these ‘success’ stories! When I was undertaking my part time PhD I heard stories about the huge ‘drop out’ rate for part timers. I couldn’t get an office because I was part time student, and part time academic (tutor) with no scholarship. The other bit, part time sole parenting meant I had a very full life over a period of almost 10 years. And what more could I ask for in life? A full life of loving and learning and challenging and being challenged.

    At one point, when I returned from an incredible 5 month adventure in the remote Pacific with my son (whose school was most upset that I had ‘disrupted his routine’), my supervisor asked me what I’d done towards my PhD, and I realised, frankly, nothing! She asked me straight out – do you want to just stop, not do it? And I momentarily felt an overwhelming feeling of relief. Wow, yes, I could actually STOP this craziness, life without a PhD was actually quite a normal thing! Well, I didn’t, I persevered, I had another child, I learnt and I worked and I thought and I was challenged and I had good times and not so good. But I did get my PhD.

    Now I read books for pleasure. I’m in no way a ‘high achiever’ (like some of the others that have posted – WOW!) but I’ve led and continue to lead a damned good and fulfilling life. My teaching gets better, my passion for teaching and provoking students to think gives me great satisfaction. Sometimes I tell my daughter to call me Dr Mummy – that gives us all a giggle. I get letters from marketing companies addressed to “Dr Leve”, and from banks to “Mrs Leve” (thanks but not married…). My long term study (BA-DipEd-GradCert-MEd-PhD) has been an incredible part of my life’s journey, and I’m sure, for my children as well. And I like to think my students benefit from this journey as well.

    My story may well be quite typical, but I don’t meet many of me around. Perhaps it’s my age – turning 50 gave me a new view on achievements, on facing new challenges, on living a ‘good life’, and sharing this as well as I can. So glad my part time PhD was part of this ‘good life’.

  7. Bob says:

    Great post! I suppose the most important take-away is that studying for a PhD part-time is do-able if you know what exactly you want to do and have to do.

    I think studying part-time requires you to be incredibly structured in how you approach your study. This is not the same as starting off knowing exactly what you want to do, but being structured in finding out. Full-timers have the luxury of mucking around and learning things through trial-and-error. Part-timers have to be a bit more directed and deliberate to make the most of their limited time. Combing work-and-study objectives is indeed great and highly encouraged.

    What I’ve also found incredibly helpful in keeping me sane is understanding, in a practical sense, what exactly a PhD is about. Stuff like what do I need to demonstrate? What do examiners look for? Bluntly put, it’s studying for the test. Know what the standards/expectations mean in practice, work towards them. That article “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize” is very helpful in putting things into perspective.

    I’ve had debates with others who believe that’s a very mechanical way of doing things, but it works for me as it allows me to establish a vision of what I want to achieve, and design S.M.A.R.T. goals to work towards. Without this approach, I’d be overwhelmed, freak-out and be useless both at work, in school and at home (it happened early on). I tried to be the “good” PhD student who immersed himself fully in academe, but I unfortunately couldn’t sustain that. So I’ve simply stopped trying to be someone I can’t, and be happy with my situation and what I’m achieving.

    I think being comfortable in your own skin is probably the most important thing I’ve realised studying part-time. So many people have offered well-meaning advice on what I should or shouldn’t do that assumes I’m studying for the PhD full-time. I suppose that’s the default assumption since most PhD students do indeed study full-time. I work in a university so you can imagine I get this a lot. But I know myself best. So I’m doing what works for me, fully aware of the trade-offs I’m making. And I feel once I have a good handle of things, the experience is more enjoyable. 🙂

  8. Francis Norman says:

    A great post and so nice to see the part timers recognised and so many of us coming out of the woodwork to discuss our experiences. Like most of the other commenters I am a middle aged part timer (turning 53 this year) who returned to academic endeavour after establishing a professional career and saw the study as a way to improve my professional understanding and help others along the way (my area is interpersonal communications in virtual teams).
    The positives of my experiences have been the networks, perspectives, learnings and a deeper self understanding, the negatives have been around the general lack of understanding in the career academic community of the life, value and contribution of us part timers. Events are held on campus during normal daytime which it can be impossible to attend, occasional publication pressures can be an enormous additional workload for someone studying while working a full time (50 – 60 hr job) and generally we can be treated as second class or even invisible members of the student body.
    On the positive contribution side, I believe that most part time researchers are more industry connected and their output is therefore more grounded in practice than that of professional academics, we can deliver really strong industry engagement and recognise many of the workplace challenges far better having lived them personally, something many universities are yet to recognise.

    • Alok Nayak says:

      I totally agree with you on the positives & negatives of being a part-timer. As an experienced professional you are bound to have a lot of skills and knowledge that would make you an excellent lecturer or seminar leader, and not being ‘in an academic mindset’ or ‘out of touch with academie’ may be a disadvantage for people like us
      ( I am a director in the arts and have come back to academic life after 13 years out since my masters)

  9. Colin Cohen says:

    Really interesting post, lots of good ideas. I started a part time doctorate aged 55, whilst working full time for the NHS in England. The course was a Professional Doctorate (rather than a PhD). Not how common this variant is outside the UK, but PD courses are well suited to people who are working full time whilst doing their doctorate. The PD model helps to ensure that the research for the thesis is grounded in the professional environment you are working in.

    • LisaMc says:

      Same here Colin. I’m planning to start a Prof Doc in two years (currently doing an MBA), and I’ll be the same age :-). I AM concerned though, did I leave it too late?

    • Sephora Aquilina says:

      I’m currently in the finishing stages in my Professional Doctorate while working full time. I’m 34 yrs old and I agree that sometimes it becomes too much to handle.. I’m doing my research at University which is not my actual place of work. Fortunately I work on a shift basis and my fiance does a lot of the household chores!

  10. Kate says:

    Thanks for this and the interesting comments. I started in my mid-30s and have muddled through as a part-timer on a traditional PhD (by thesis) – with small children, a partner in and out of work, a lot of part-time RA work for me (including being drawn into periods of working full-time on a few research projects in times of crisis), and – until recently – a reasonably busy social life. Having said all that, I am not one of those people who is more efficient because they are busy! I can procrastinate with the best of them. Fortunately I have had supervisors who have kept giving me deadlines, and the university milestones you have to meet are super helpful. My main badge of honour is that although I keep getting asked when I am finishing (as it’s been over 5 years now), I actually am still within my allotted time, scholarship included! With most of my first draft written. No publications yet though. Partly because of not having been sure for a long time of what my thesis is about, and partly because of afore-mentioned lack of go-getting-ness. But I don’t mind, at my age I am not in this to make a splash career-wise, I just enjoy research and hope to make a living doing it, one way or another! Doing a PhD part-time while doing a hundred other things has definitely produced a lot of grey hair, but I have learned so much (including as a RA) and wouldn’t swap the experience for the world.

  11. Patricia Harvey says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’m just completing a Masters and the only way I can see me completing a PhD is part time. So this post is helpful as well as the comments made by others. The important contribution for me is the ability to bring my own working experience to the research at hand so that the output grows out of practice.

  12. purposefulfornow says:

    Thank you for this very encouraging and insightful post! I am about to begin my PhD this June alongside a full time teaching job. I find myself spending sleepless nights anticipating the problems I might have to face in the coming future. For one, unlike the author my research is on a completely different area than what I deal with in lectures (my research is on television fandom in India while I teach undergraduate major and minor English lit courses). Secondly, I shall have to travel 10 hours every week for a year to complete a rigorous research methodology course this year (apart from the four hours I travel to get to work every day). I am looking at a year of physical and mental exertion and it’s giving me nightmares already.

  13. Irene Fenswick says:

    Thank you for posting this article. You’re right, Kerri. If your work and PhD are closely connected, it allows you to make a greater contribution in the workplace as well as write better PhD on the basis of your personal experience.

  14. Jayne Meyer Tucker says:

    As usual love reading your blogs. I am exhibit A a part time PhD Candidate adding two other challenges – off site student with a non academic background. My strength has been nearly three decades in the field and I have therefore found I am continuing to find that the PhD journey is filling where my theoretical gaps were and through my study I am filling the others. Admittedly I have taken a sabbatical year from CEO life to complete my final year of writing up my PhD but it too has always been a five year project for me. There is one thing which I think is relevant to whatever PhD mode of completion you choose which is the topic has to be something that is so important to you that the motivation is innate and you would be thinking, writing, speaking about it regardless of the reward! Don’t get me wrong I am starting to get a little exited about a glint of light at the end of this very long dark like nothing else before tunnel!

  15. Shikha khair says:

    Thank you for sharing ur experience . makes me more desirous and focused to do PhD while working.. Thank you

  16. alicebanfield says:

    Thanks Kerri for this post. A great encouragement to a new(ish) part-time PhD-er whose work (professional and research-wise) is also largely centred around the Pacific. Love the reflections on how it contributed to your practice. For me, ultimately the practical application of the knowledge gained is what it’s all about. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Alok Nayak says:

    This is a really fascinating blog and one that resonates a lot with me. I’m a director in the arts, and although my part-time PhD research is directly related to my professional work, it has been really hard to get going with writing. It seems hard to transfer confidence in my experience and expertise in professional life to my academic work, and to find time in a job which takes up most of my days! Totally agree too that I am able to contribute to both areas, because of the related subjects

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