Below, and here, are two stories of PhD study from researchers who combined work and a PhD. While both are positive accounts, there are some differences, for example, working as a practitioner in the same field as you study, or working on multiple research projects including the PhD. What both have spoken of though is:

  • Perspective: the PT PhD as one aspect, albeit important, of who they are and their career portfolio. This helps to maintain momentum, and enthusiasm, and avoids becoming entrenched in the idea of the perfect PhD.
  • Complementary: Working and studying within the same topic areas, or having insight into the research culture and university workings, all useful things in navigating PhD progression.
  • Process not product: seeing the PhD as a learning and growth opportunity, and slowly building skills and experiences towards the next step.

I hope you enjoy them both, there are some good ideas here for full time PhD students too.

This piece is from Samuel Dent (@SRDent89), a researcher in Higher Education, at Sheffield Hallam University.

My PhD topic area is based in my experiences of working on the front line of University Student Support. Each March I’d brace for impact as swathes of 20/21-year-olds about to graduate would come to see me; exhausted/tempted to withdraw, and questioning the purpose of their entire education. At this point in the year most graduate recruitment schemes had announced their new recruits, and inevitably some students didn’t make the cut. For many of these students this was the first time they had realized that beginning their career would not be straightforward, and that being successful had not come easy this time.

This work is perhaps where I became fitted for part-time study, (Masters and PhD) equipping me with the grounded perspective that little about careers is smooth and linear. My career so far has been thematic… but initially broad, mainly focused around governance, then Higher Education (HE), balancing work in professional services with a personal interest in academia, and increasingly interests in social justice, and inequalities (You can find the detail here on my LinkedIn).

However, there are some old fashioned thinkers who would suggest we have failed to specialize or settle down; we’re intrepid explorers people! Boldly going where others haven’t, approaching things from new and creative angels. Pass me a scarlet letter if you absolutely must, but I’ll wear it with pride ultimately my career has involved doing many things at once, things that I enjoy, find interesting, and am passionate about.

My PhD is but one very significant strand to this. In my experience a PhD is not necessarily a zero sum qualification, you get or you don’t. By doing a PhD you are making yourself more informed, broad-minded, inquisitive, well-read, articulate, creative, exposed to different people and cultures, and these are all skills and experiences I have found myself relying on in the last three years; as well as acquiring a greatly expanded rolodex! I have held three fulltime roles since starting my PhD, each a promotion or development opportunity, and each enhanced by the developing skill set and network which can be traced back to my PhD.

At times though, I need to compartmentalise elements of my career in ways that other researchers perhaps do not. My multiple email accounts, to service my multiple roles, are one way that the boundaries are drawn. Scenes like this are not uncommon;

Q: “How many email accounts do you actually have now?”

Me: “I haven’t counted till you asked but apparently it’s 6 atm 😝”

Sam's multiple workstations.png

The above is from an email chain where I redirected an enquiry from one of my accounts to the most appropriate one. The HE sector can be deeply political, nobody has taught me this, or instructed me to draw these boundaries, but I’ve become very aware of the potential challenges of studying an area you work in. The views you express through academic pursuits as a researcher, may earn you respect in one sphere and be accredited to your academic rigour, independence. Yet in another sphere this might ruffle feathers as you fail to tow the party line or speak in an unfamiliar language. In a third sphere a middle ground maybe perfect; delicately balanced to help conceive how impact can be generated from your research findings.

I feel I am acting as the spoke in the middle of wheel which brings together academic research in ways which lead to practical applications. To an extent it’s about being clear about what sphere your operating in, and who your audience is and perfecting your use of language and demeanour to suite your audience; a complex skill constantly developing, but a highly valuable one.

Studying what you know and what you do, while you do it, is deeply complex especially as you try to maintain integrity, and juggle these different sphere. Very similar to how Clegg, Stevenson, and Burke (2016) have characterised the challenges of researching for evidence-based policy making purposes while trying to maintain academic credibility, navigating the challenges to one identity which comes with this and the real potential for “slippages of translation and loss of criticality”.

I do not want to scare you away from Part-Time PhD study, especially for professional development, however it is an issue which keeps you on your toes. I won’t here recount specific examples of how political and complex the HE sector can be. But I’d suggest you look to Vicki Bolivar’s recent talk where she talks about her complex journey influencing policy and politics of Higher Education. Bolivar is a maverick whose research is fundamentally changing the face of HE, my experience has been a very different reflection of our differing career stages/focuses.

But challenging as this may be, doing a part time PhD is the best thing I have ever chosen to do.

My PhD has become one of the most rewarding things I have entered into, it has; introduced me to some excellent people, fascinating conferences, lifelong friends, mended broken hearts, and shaped my life in ways I’m not sure would have happened otherwise. I may not have some of the stability, and pension plan if I’d been snapped up by a graduate recruitment scheme at 21, but I certainly think I’ve had far more fun.

Read more from Samuel Dent via