The Effective Part Time Researcher – The ultimate balancing act?

Old fashioned scalesThis week myself and Janet Wilkinson are running a workshop specifically for part time students. There are two significant new elements to how we’re doing this; firstly the workshop will be be split over two consecutive evenings (in the past we have run this on a Saturday) and secondly we are going to have some of the participants join in remotely via videoconference.

In the first part of the workshop I will be focussing on two main topics:-

  • What is it like to pursue a doctorate on a part time (sometimes very part time!) basis, what are the challenges?
  • How can we manage and balance the myriad of things we have to do – any hints and tips on how to keep the thing rolling?

I have to admit I am in awe of part time doctoral students because they achieve truly astounding things. It also has to be remembered that the majority of PhD students do it part time. It is a ruinous fallacy to believe that the norm is full time and funded – it just isn’t the reality for many folks.

So time and finances are the immediate hurdles.

I’m going to be drawing on some Vitae resources today around the part time doctorate including using some videos of successful part time researchers.

I’m also going to dip into some advice from Matt Might who has three qualities that he thinks make for a successful doctoral student

  1. Perseverence
  2. Tenacity
  3. Cogency

It’s the first of these qualities that I want to delve into and is probably the reason why on the one hand that many PhDers fall by the wayside but on the other hand makes for a highly skilled individual on the other side. Pursuing a doctorate is not like any other type of study, the researcher has to be prepared to fail every day, to pick oneself up again and keep on going. It’s not like learning for an exam, it’s a long game of learning new stuff, imagining solutions to problems that noone else has thought about and then convincing others that you have actually come up with a solution.

The second thing I will delve into is tenacity in terms of time – the continual battle to put the hours into a demanding doctorate whilst keeping all the other plates spinning. I love the example of the professor who illustrated by using the example of the mayonnaise jar and two cups of coffee:-

‛A professor stood before his philosophy class with some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.

He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls.

He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.

He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous ‛yes’.

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

‛Now,’ said the professor as the laughter subsided, ‛I want you to recognise that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things – your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favourite passions – and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car.

The sand is everything else – the small stuff. If you put the sand into the jar first, there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you.

Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical check-ups. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18 holes. There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented. The professor smiled. ‛I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.’

The last of the qualities that Matt Might talks about is cogency – the ability to communicate your research, to persuade others of its value. That’s the topic for the second workshop that Janet Wilkinson will lead.

Effective part time researcher Part 2

So, if you’ve read Paul’s blog post on the first part of the Effective Part-Time Researcher, you’ll see that he has created a ‘to be continued tomorrow’ opportunity for me to fill around the topic cogency in research.

I too am in awe of those who take on a PhD part-time.   It is a major commitment in time, mental energy and flexibility.  From the work I’ve done in the last nine years with part-time PhD researchers, and through supervision of part-time Masters students in their research and dissertation stage, I also see that there is strong requirement for making good choices. These are as varied as how you spend your time when you are in research mode, how you allocate time to your PhD and other major commitments in your life, the conferences and researcher environments you choose to be part of and also how you choose to work with your supervisors.

The second part of the Effective Part-Time Researcher programme focuses on how you find and develop your voice, how you use it to communicate with different audiences about your research and how you make use of and contribute to the supervisor relationship.

I am a maven for collecting techniques that others have found, used and recommended.  I’ll share some of the top tips of others and take a practical focus around the subjects of:

  • Writing.  How, when and what do you write?
  • Communicating your research to a variety of audiences
  • How can you get the best value out of Supervision?

Like Paul I will also draw upon a number of different resources during the session.  The Handbook of Academic Writing by Rowena Murray and Sarah Moore will feature (and we’ll draw on Sarah’s YouTube video for a discussion about writing).

The Engaging Researcher from the library of Vitae resources will be something else we refer to and The Thesis whisperer has a number of excellent posts we’ll refer to but this one on supervision will get us started.

Being cogent and building relationships in our work is dependent upon good communication and this will be thrust of the workshop as will my overarching wrapper about having a strategy.  Both are important so that you have a personal framework to make good choices about what you do and how you do it effectively within the time you have available to devote to your research.

Looking forward to it!

General

Paul Spencer View All →

I'm a former researcher into the microbiology of the mouth who now runs a skills development programme for other researchers.

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