Reflections on PhD

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Reflections on a Part-Time PhD

I have been approached by a number of people over the last 18 month months looking insights into the process of completing a PhD on a part-time basis. It is an undoubted by-product of the public health situation that there are many reflecting on their own career paths and considering their respective options. So for what it is worth, I am jotting down a few observations that I think may be useful to anyone considering a doctorate on a part-time basis.

Was my own PhD worth it?

Well respected journalist and author Deaglán de Bréadún began his review of my book with the line ‘Patrick Mulroe has performed a very useful public service in this book.’ Such public recognition is intensely rewarding but when reflecting on my own PhD experience, I remain deeply conflicted as to whether it was time well spent. I oscillate between moments of intense pride and despair as I reflect on the years spend in a box room working towards a qualification that gives me an elegant prefix (that I seldom use) and little else concrete. Like the frequently mis-told anecdote of former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai commenting that it was too soon to gauge the impact of the French revolution, perhaps it is too soon (five years out) for me to properly judge whether my own PhD experience was worthwhile.

For now, here are my pointers for those contemplating the same tortuous route. This is based solely on personal reflection and is by no measure a recipe for success. For that, look elsewhere.

Reflections

  1. It is unlikely that you will get a full time academic position after graduating from a part-time PhD. The academic job market in Ireland and internationally is notoriously tight. A piece in The Economist put it neatly;

‘In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships’

Speak to any academic in the Arts or Social Sciences and they will deliver a similar message. Moreover, best case scenario a newly minted PhD graduate can look forward to a short term post-doctoral contract usually paying in the region of €35,000 per year, significantly less than a newly qualified second level teacher receives. People do still make it to a tenure track position but it is important to be aware that the odds are against it.  

My advice: Consider how a PhD can further your career outside academia.

2. From a career earnings point of view, it is arguable whether a part-time PhD is the best use of your time. However, I would caution against using this as a basis for a decision. There are those that see education as a commodity that is to be purchased to improve an individuals’ earning potential. This is an ideological position and should be identified as such.

My advice: It is perfectly valid to pursue further education for a host of reasons other than monetary gain.

3. The most important people to speak to before applying for a part-time PhD are those closest to you: family, friends, partner, children etc. You need to agree with these people how much time you can commit to part-time study/research.

My advice: The conversations with people closest to you are much more important than those with even the most esteemed potential supervisor. Make the conversations matter of fact, ‘I will have to work 1-2 evenings a week for 3 hours, every Saturday and during holidays for the next 6 years, can we sustain that?’ Take seriously the concerns of those closest to you.

4. Part-time students face a longer period with their chosen subject matter and this has to be borne in mind. Presuming that you are gaining a PhD via research, you will be stuck with a particular topic for 6 years or more, so make that topic something you are passionate about.

My advice: Discuss with potential supervisors how your area of passion can be tailored to improve career opportunities post-graduation, but be careful to avoid drifting too far from your core interest.

5. The part-time PhD student is at a significant disadvantage in terms of developing soft skills e.g. networking, communication skills, career development planning. Moreover, there can be a temptation when completing the PhD itself to focus on the mechanics: getting the thesis written and the training courses completed. A part-time PhD student needs to realise that they are missing out on much of the experiences full time students enjoy. The chats over coffee about conferences, grant applications, journal submissions and job opportunities will be less frequent, if at all. These are the conversations that can often open doors to new opportunities and many part-time students are not involved in them.

My advice: Part-time students need to be proactive in developing soft skills in areas of presenting, networking, career planning and getting published. Ignore the soft skills at your peril.

6. ‘Publish or perish’ is the standard advice for academics at all stages but I am not sure it applies as readily to part-time students. It will obviously take those students longer to produce journal-ready material and that needs to be understood. Trying to get peer reviewed articles published too soon can be a disheartening experience. Publishing when ideas are not fully developed may do a disservice to your research. Overall, there is a particular set of soft skills associated with getting research published in the right place at the right time.  Full-time students will develop these skills almost by osmosis, being around a university environment more. Part-time students need to work at it.

My advice: Part-time students should be aware of their skill deficiency in the area of ‘getting published’. They should proactively spend time investigating the best forums for their work at each stage of the research process and not feel pressure to publish early.

7. PhD research can be mentally exhausting. Part-time students are trying to balance research with work commitments and family life over a longer period of time. It is also likely that the topic of the research is something deeply personal to the student. In my case, I was researching political violence related to the Northern Ireland Troubles. Having subject matter like this in your mind for a prolonged period is not simple. Bear this in mind when choosing a topic for research.

My advice: Think carefully about the mental health toll before undertaking a PhD. When choosing a topic that is sensitive, be aware that this can add a further layer of pressure.

8. Many years ago I had a memorable conversation about legal representation with someone known to have the odd brush with the law. His observation was that ‘a good solicitor is one who offers you cigarettes [when in custody]’. I would have a similar philosophy when it comes to PhD supervisors: chose someone who shows an interest in your welfare. I was fortunate in this regard in that my own supervisors Professor Henry Patterson and later Professor Arthur Aughey were not only professionally diligent but also understanding of the pressures a part-time student faces. No cigarettes, but at our first meeting Professor Patterson bought me a cup of tea- these things matter.

My advice: If your potential supervisor offers you a tea/coffee, asks about your day and shows genuine concern for you as an individual, they will likely stand by you in the tougher stages of the PhD process.  Everyone’s PhD journey will be different but hopefully these observations are in some way useful to would-be doctoral researchers. Get in touch if you have specific queries.

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