Avoiding getting bogged down in the Swampy lowlands


(Image: The wetlands of Sudd in South Sudan.)

Victoria Pendry (@VictoriaPendry1)  is a freelance education consultant based in York specialising in Education and International Development. Most of her work is as the CEO of the The Curriculum Foundation (CF), a not-for-profit, internationally orientated social enterprise working with Governments in Low- and Middle-Income Countries to improve access to, and the quality of education. She is also a researcher forging her way (at 47 years young) through a part-time EdD at UCL where her focus is on teacher education in low resources settings.

‘In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing ‘messes’, incapable of technical solution. The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or to the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of greatest human concern.’

(Schön, 1984, p. 42)

Focus has been one of the hardest aspects of both my (interlinked) professional and researcher roles. The education landscape is vast and ever-changing, especially when you work internationally. To have the relative freedom as a consultant to respond to opportunities that wink at you over unexpected horizons is a mixed blessing particularly when this is combined with a newfound access to shiny academic journals, inspirational questioners, and totally unmissable webinars full of new thinking and challenges to previously held assumptions. This combination of opportunity, shifting priorities and the discovering of yet more ‘unknowns’ creates a busy environment which could arguably be described as ‘messy’.

So, I frequently find myself in what Schön describes as ‘swampy lowlands’ where principles of quality education are complex in countries where class sizes regularly exceed 100 mixed-aged students and where characteristics of effective teaching are hard to define when teachers are hardly paid and hardly trained.   It would be easier to step out and stand back seeking quick-fix solutions. But such solutions are often shallow and superficial, lacking in contextual relevance. Consider the teacher for example who is handed a guidebook on Peace Education in English where her 1st language is Dinka, her second language is Arabic and her third is English – and then the materials suggest websites and videos in a land where internet penetration is less than 7% and she can’t afford the data anyway. So I prefer to remain within sea of swampy possibilities, a place of struggle and adventure in order to get to the heart of the matter, driving lasting change for a better world.

Using reflective thinking to help

It was during our first EdD Module on Professionalism with Dr D’Reen Struthers that I considered in more detail the value of reflective thinking as a reflective practitioner to help me continue to juggle all of my roles and responsibilities. (I’m a governor too and a tangled mum of teens). I consider the oppressive ‘circle of certainty’ and swampy lowlands be interlinked due to their focus on the need to look for solutions ‘amongst’ rather than from ‘beyond’. This is also one of the challenges of juggling in-depth research and solution focused consultancy.

Like many practitioners, I also tend to be over-critical of my own professionalism – some would suggest Imposter Syndrome – but my career has featured rapid change through new pastures which have made it entirely necessary for me to be hypersensitive to my environment.

When consumed with the challenge of navigating these lowlands with their supercomplex web of uncertainties within a liquid modernity of increasingly rapid change, D’Reen would remind us of the importance of getting in our helicopters to take a look at our swamp from another perspective from time to time. It’s admittedly difficult to see the new growth and possibilities when you are working within uncertainty and change, so standing back once in a while, is a worthy investment in time.

Operating predominantly within these swampy lowlands as a freelancer and part-time researcher requires one to keep a keen eye on the signs of burnout.  Messy terrain can be suffocating and one can become blind to possibilities ‘just behind’ or ‘just underneath’. To survive and thrive I have found that a commitment to enabling others and regular, purposeful visits to the hard, high ground are essential aspects of my blended researcher/professional journey. One way to do this is by talking and about my research with others.

On this hard, high ground I can pause, take a look at the whole landscape, and look to further horizons which may offer innovation and new learning. This ‘step up and out’ gives me the energy and perspective to dive back into the lowlands where ‘the problems of greatest human concern’are waiting to be solved.

I value the struggle and beauty of the swampy lowlands, but it’s not an easy journey. I’m grateful for the watchful and kind eyes of my EdD and CF community and for the people of South Sudan who constantly inspire me with their resilience and imagination.

The study habits of a full-time educator, part-time EdD student

Nathan Douglas ( @Nathan_DHT_EdD) is a full-time Deputy Headteacher at a large, multicultural primary school in Birmingham. He has over twelve years’ experience in primary education, and currently leads on curriculum design and implementation, teaching and learning, the spending of the pupil premium grant and attendance. Nathan is a part-time EdD student at Birmingham City University, where he is researching professional identity in a teacher retention context.

Study habits come naturally, don’t they?

Study habits are what I see as the important tools and processes that I use to read, make notes and write-up my thinking. Whether that is for reading and notetaking, ongoing writing for personal reflection, or something for my Thesis, my study habits allow me to ‘get there’ (Or, as close to ‘there’ that I can be)! Having study habits and knowing what yours are, in order to get the best from them, are important on the doctoral journey.

Study habits come naturally, don’t they? The academic ‘jump’ from Masters-level to Doctorate-level is vast; and, despite enjoying successes at previous-level studies, my study behaviours did not simply appear to me as fully-formed habits that were good-to-go. I have just started my fifth year as a part-time EdD student, and this something I have become acutely aware of.

Study habits as ‘a journey’

I have come to understand everything on my EdD course as ‘a journey’. This sounds a little clichéd – and I am aware of that – but it is genuinely true. When reflecting on my studies, everything, including my study habits, are a journey of sorts. My supervisors were constantly reminding me to accept change, prepare for the unexpected, acknowledge there will be setbacks. This was – and is! – hard for me, so, try I had to.

Yet, there actually does come a point in your studies where, all of a sudden, like the proverbial lightbulb moment, things slot into place and suddenly make sense. Maybe it’s an article that provides the missing jigsaw puzzle piece or the supervision you needed to put you back on the straight and narrow (rather than the rabbit hole you were in ten minutes prior). Very recently, I have found myself developing more effective study habits, which manifests in the outcome of better writing…all because I’ve gone on a journey!

What are my study habits?

When I do the following, my writing is slower than it used to be, but its quality improves significantly.

  1. Ringfencing my doctoral study time and promise myself that I will keep to it: So many people say ‘turn off your phone’ and ‘shut down Twitter.’ I say: ‘do what works for you.’ I love tweeting about what I’m doing when I’m working; it helps my motivation (something else that’s really important). I enjoy a quick nosey scroll through Facebook for 2 mins. But, a few ‘likes’ here and there, and I’m back to it.
  2. Finding the most effective time for my own situation: I used to put whole days (6hrs+) to one side to accomplish one big job. Now, I sometimes study for an hour, or even less, breaking down the task. Less, but more often, has proven to be better at times, for me.
  3. Reading widely, reading little and often, and re-reading: This includes returning to the same book but a different chapter. Or, re-reading the same article again a few months later.
  4. Making notes under main themes/headings and sub-themes: I organise my notes/references in tables in MS Word and then categorise major themes in MS Excel. Both together helps me to see micro and macro knowledge. I also keep records of all of my references in an ongoing manner.
  5. Working actively with my notes: I cannot just write from my notes; there’s just there’s too many. So, I collate all my notes onto a mindmap, which helps to gather my thoughts, including things I’ve forgotten, and structure my thinking. In turn, this structures my writing.
  6. Accepting change to my motivation, habits and processes: Being flexible! I used to get easily frustrated when something did not go to plan or get ‘done’ on my first attempt. For example, now, I readily accept big obstacles and my judicious editing of ‘good writing’ as part of the thinking process.

What’s the point?

When people ask me, “Why are you doing a doctorate?”, my answer is, “Because I enjoy it.” In all of the study habits I’ve listed above, I forgot the most important one:

  1. Enjoy studying: If I am not enjoying what I am working on, I think reflectively about how I’m studying, when, where, how often, my methods and sources of motivation. When I find that something is a grind, I switch my focus to another area of my Thesis or simply get away from the screen. Some of my best thinking occurs when I am away from Word or Excel!

Getting It Done (and rewarding yourself along the way)

Leona McQuaid is a second year part-time PhD Student and Occupational Therapy Lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University.

A cork pinboard with lots of notes and  stickers, the central note reads 'make things happen'

In my attempt to manage the demands of a part time PhD alongside a busy full time academic role, I have developed a form of self-bargaining; I call it transactional thinking. This is where I set mini goals throughout the week and reward myself for doing them. We all set goals and have deadlines in the PhD process but for me, this is more about acknowledging the mundane progress being made. It’s about creating small, regular wins to maintain focus and motivation.

“If I read this paper first, then I’ll go for a run”. “If I write 600 words in my literature review this morning, then I’ll meet my friend for a coffee this afternoon”. “If I do 10 articles of data extraction this week, then I’m taking the weekend off”. You get the idea.

The goal, timescale and reward can all change but the simple recipe is; If I do X, then I can enjoy Y. The trick is to make the task specific and measurable so you’ll know if you have achieved it or not. Setting the reward up front helps to motivate me to get the task done and when I’m enjoying the run, coffee with a friend, time off etc. I can fully relax and be present, knowing the time is earned and there is no room for guilt. Involving other people and informing them of this method has really worked for me. It has allowed family and friends to see that I can still have a life and work on my PhD. They can also encourage me to get X done and help protect my PhD time especially if they are invested in doing Y too.

I’m not sure if this type of transactional thinking will work for everyone but I find not seeing my progress can be really demotivating. Whilst interest in my subject and making a valuable contribution to knowledge provide the intrinsic drive to complete my PhD, sometimes that isn’t enough to get through the hard work week-to-week.

They say a PhD is a marathon not a sprint so what motivates us to keep putting one hypothetical foot in front of the other? I have noticed that if I remove the reward or transaction element and only tell myself ‘I have to do X’, then the task becomes much more stress inducing. This leads to thinking of the many things I have to do and this can feel overwhelming.

All tasks, the PhD, or the marathon, can be broken down into smaller steps that chip away at the bigger picture – so that’s where I like to focus.  At this point I should divulge that I am an occupational therapist by background so breaking tasks down and creating specific, measureable, achievable goals is something I naturally gravitate to. But we can all do it, it might just take a bit of trial and error to gauge the right level of goal and reward for ourselves.

So whilst the bigger picture of PhD completion is motivating, we still need to lead ourselves to that point. Rewarding ourselves for constantly showing up and putting the effort in through transactional thinking can provide this.

We must not forget the bigger picture completely though. Whilst transactional thinking may be another tool in the box to help us along the way, we do need to lift our heads and take an overview of our work. For this, I have my Gantt chart. This helps align those small goals and transactions towards the bigger picture and timescales. If you are reading this and thinking ‘but my Ganntt chart is just a piece of paper or spreadsheet I never look at’ then may I suggest Team Gannt? This software offers visual feedback as you progress on a task, so all that reading, writing and thinking is colour progressing on your bar chart. Oh, and when you get to click the box to say a task is done… well, that is very satisfying indeed.

Whichever way you approach it, the work needs to be done for you to make enough progress in your part-time PhD. As of course does your paid work, family life, role as a mother, father, partner, friend, dinner maker, house cleaner, yogi etc. Doing a PhD part-time means we need to actively carve out the time to work on it, as we don’t have the same gift of structured time to dedicate to our study, as perhaps do our full-time colleagues.

Carving out small chunks of PhD time throughout the week lends itself to setting small but regular goals — and using my approach — small, regular rewards. So transactional thinking may be one way that can help you manage the many plates you are spinning, to get the work done, but to also enjoy yourself along the way with the other hats you wear in life.

Top Tips for Balancing Clinical Practice and a Part-time Professional Doctorate

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Allison Scott (@AllisonPoddem) is a professional doctorate student embarking on the design for her project. Her research explores the decision- making experiences o proxy decision makers for people with dementia lacking capacity.

There is no denying doing a PhD of any sort is hard and extremely time consuming, add in the pressures of daily life and in my case the pressures of working full time as clinical lead in a busy podiatry practice, not a week goes by without someone asking, ‘but why do you do it?’ The answer to me is simple, I love it, I love learning, I love the opportunities to meet people from different backgrounds and I love challenging myself. Despite this I can confess there are times when keeping the required level of motivation can be challenging and have therefore come up with these seven top tips for balancing them.

1.   It sounds simple but find a project you are passionate about.

If at the outset you do not have a topic that you care about, you will never commit the amount of time out of work needed to be successful. I am completely driven by the hope that my topic will truly impact and benefit the target population.

2.   Plan your time!

Spend a bit of time setting out a schedule, by doing this you are making a commitment to dedicate that time to the task. This helps to ensure you manage to carve out that much needed down time!

3.   Within your plan, set yourself some mini deadlines.

Despite the cohort of the professional doctorate when it has been a while since you met or discussed your project with anyone it can be all too easy to push it to the back of your to-do-list. By setting your own deadlines you are creating some personal accountability, driving you to keep going.

4.   Work at a time that works for you!

I find after a long day in clinic I struggle to switch to researcher mode in the evenings. It took a while to work out a pattern that works best for me, but I find getting up early doing 1-2 hours research work before a walk with the dog to clear my head really sets me up for the day ahead and gives me a sense of achieving something, chipping away little and often at my project. Managing my time in this way also frees up some guilt free family time in the evenings.

5.   Make time to do what you enjoy.

Constantly working between clinic and research will eventually get you down and can lead to you resenting both. Make sure to spend your down time doing what you enjoy. For me it is getting out into the hills with my dog for some much-needed escapism. It will often amaze you the ideas and different angles that will pop into your head when you are not staring at a screen hoping for inspiration.

6.   Learn how to say no

It sounds harsh however juggling time to maintain and develop the clinic, continue with your studies as well allowing time to enjoy yourself means that you are going to have to prioritise your time and miss some social events. Your friends and family will understand and are often proud to see the level of commitment you are making.

7.   Most importantly, ENJOY IT!

The process takes you on an undeniable journey at times the conflicting demands will be tough, and you will have to keep long hours but the sense of satisfaction and the impact on you, especially as a clinician are significant. Working through the taught element of the professional doctorate has taught me so much about myself and about my approach to clinical practice. Your confidence will grow, your ability to critique literature and use it to change and implement practice will flourish, your ability to engage meaningfully with others from all different backgrounds will develop and your interests will expand leading to more significant conversations with patients.

Surveys take longer than you think! Or: taking your time has benefits for data collection

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This post is from Sophie Payne-Gifford. Sophie is a social scientist at the University of Hertfordshire. She completed her PhD part-time from 2010-2016, mostly because she only won part-funding and had to keep her day job at NERC UKRI, a great job which had its definite advantages. She tweets at @GiffordPayne on food, environment, agriculture and research design.

Introduction

In this post, Sophie describes implementing a survey late in her PhD to demonstrate one of the advantages of doing a PhD part-time, the added time benefit. You know that saying, one woman can produce a baby in nine months, but nine women can’t produce a baby in one? It’s a similar tale, some processes can’t be sped up, even with additional resourcing.

Phase 1: Qualitative fieldwork

I started my social science PhD on agricultural innovation with a qualitative research design and conducted fieldwork from 2011-2013. I interviewed agricultural scientists, agrochemical companies, food processors and agricultural consultants and observed at a number of agricultural events. I was exploring what replacements for pesticides were available in the scenario that many were to be withdrawn under a proposed change in pesticide legislation.

After this round of fieldwork, I had a working conclusion: that many farmers were locked in to the regular spraying of pesticides and were unable to change their agricultural practice. However, I had made that conclusion based on conversations with only a few farmers and my theory was based on many other people’s opinions on what they thought farmers would do. I didn’t think this was fair, reasonable, or rigourous and to address this I wanted to talk to more farmers. But British farmers are geographically distributed, and I didn’t have time to traipse around the country again. Also, I had a simple-ish quantitative question that did not need me to visit their farms to answer:

If fungicide mancozeb is withdrawn, will you

  1. Use the other chemical fungicides available?
  2. Use genetically resistant seeds?
  3. Use biologically-derived treatments?
  4. Use mechanical methods of control, such as removing infected plants?

Phase 2: Being patient

In February 2013, around the same time as making this conclusion, I was at an agricultural event and met an industry organisation’s head of communications. I floated the idea to her: would she like to collaborate on sending a fungicide usage survey to the organisation’s ~1000 members? She was vaguely positive, so I emailed her in the Spring to start the planning process. Little did I know that getting approval and buy-in from the industry organisation would take months!

At some point in the Autumn of 2013 the Head of the Organisation needed to discuss the survey. I don’t remember what we discussed in detail, but I remember that it was an uncomfortable conversation. In hindsight I think she was checking my ‘politics’ were okay and in line with the needs of her organisation. She might have been checking whether I was pro- or anti-pesticide (I’m neither). She might have been checking who I was funded by, whether I was funded by a university, pesticide company or campaigning organisation and therefore what my agenda for the research was. She wasn’t alone, an agricultural consultant I approached for interview checked who I was funded by, before agreeing to an interview. I now know these kinds of checks are common when working with external organisations, but at the time it was confusing. However, apparently I passed the test, and got the go ahead.

The survey itself was ready to go by the Winter of 2013, and still I had to wait. This time, it was because the industry organisation wanted to put the chemical companies that made the fungicide on stand-by to give them an opportunity to respond to a finding that could potentially positively or negatively affect their business interests. The organisation wanted to act in the interests of its members, and so I waited until this communication had been issued.

A year after it’s conception, the survey was launched in February of 2014!

Reflections

What did I do to overcome these delays? In the main, I just waited. I had the extended part-time timeline working in my favour. No amount of extra work could make the bureaucratic processes move more quickly. As I still had another three years until I had to submit my PhD thesis, I knew I had time to wait for the collaborating organisation to be satisfied. And throughout this process of waiting, I had plenty to keep me busy as I was transcribing and analysing the data from the previous qualitative fieldwork, as well completing a new ethics application. There is much to be said for planning a project where the different workstreams overlap rather than become dependent on one another.

Plus, I was also (and still am) a confident and unapologetic qualitative researcher and at the time wasn’t worried about the prospect of not implementing the survey. I know how to construct a qualitative argument, draw on theory as well as use the requisite phrase in research discussions: “more research is needed…”

My waiting paid off, however. Nearly 80 farmers confirmed that, yes, they would continue to use fungicide mancozeb because market and environmental conditions lock them in to using chemical methods of crop protection. Had I been a full-time student nearing the end of my fieldwork, I couldn’t have waited a year to implement a survey. The benefit of stretched time had allowed me to conduct more rigorous research.

Not only did conducting a survey allow for quantitative data collection, it allowed for additional qualitativedata collection. Through widespread use of free-text boxes, growers were able to tell me why they needed to continue to use the fungicide mancozeb, adding invaluable additional insight.

Recommendations

If you’re thinking of supplementing your research with a different type of data, remember that collaborating with an external organisation may take longer than you want.

Also, if you were to do the opposite to me and start with purely quantitative data collection and decide near the middle or end of your project to collect qualitative data, that it is equally time consuming, as you will need to:

  • submit a qualitative ethics application (another potentially long bureaucratic process);
  • recruit participants;
  • schedule interviews (for example);
  • transcribe, analyse and write up qualitative data.

Data collection is always time consuming if done properly, and more so if done in partnership with others. Remember that next time you think “oh, I’ll just send out a little survey.”

Four uncomfortable truths about part-time doctoral study…

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Ceri Coulby (@cericoulby) is a part-time online EdD student with the University of Liverpool. She is in her 6th year and is due to submit her thesis in October 2021. Her case study research is a narrative exploration of part time doctoral students’ experiences of personal transformation during their studies. Ceri also works full time at the University of Liverpool and lives with her husband, 14-year-old son and Labrador on the Wirral.

I started my online part time EdD in July 2015 after being turned down for a job mainly due to my lack of PhD or equivalent. It was made clear to me that if I wanted to go further in my career I needed to get that piece of paper. I was a reluctant student, having already dropped out of a PhD five years previously and having the emotional scars to prove it. Scowling, I enrolled on the EdD, with a deadly determination to get through it.

I was in a slightly better position this time around, my son was older and at school, and I had some experience of the reality of doctoral study. This was a mixed blessing, as I had found the previous experience lonely and confusing, and the aftermath left me feeling stupid and embarrassed. Hence the decision this time around to do an EdD with a taught component rather than a PhD.

My doctoral journey has been transformational, and whilst I cannot say I have enjoyed every minute of it, my overwhelming experience of the process has been joyful. The motivation for a ‘piece of paper’ a distant memory. However here I share four uncomfortable ‘truths’ I have learnt along the way, in the hope it might save other students some anguish on their own journeys.

  1. If you feel like an imposter, who doesn’t know what they are supposed to be doing a lot of the time, or if you are in a cohort and think everyone around you “gets it” and you are the only one who doesn’t- THAT’S NORMAL. This is actually a part of the process for the majority of students. Doctoral study takes you out of your comfort zone constantly, if it didn’t you wouldn’t be learning anything new would you? As hard as it is to accept, uncertainty and doubt will be your bedfellows during the doctoral journey and you are going to need to learn to live with them and trust in the process.
  2. You will likely be changed by doctoral study, indeed this is the topic of my own doctoral research. These changes can be wonderful, but also uncomfortable and distressing at times. During a doctorate you develop new skills and knowledge, but you also learn to perceive things differently, and from multiple perspectives. You may find yourself questioning some of your deeply held personal values and beliefs, or those of the people around you. During the process you may see your workplace and colleagues through a more critical lens. These changes in perception are usually irreversible; once you ‘see’ something you cannot un-see it. I don’t say this to put people off doctoral study; it is just something potential candidates should be aware of.
  3. If you have multiple commitments such as a full time job, family, or caring responsibilities, do not kid yourself that you will be able to fulfil all those roles to the same extent whilst also undertaking a part time doctorate. You may tell yourself ‘oh I will only work when the kids are in bed or early in the morning before people are up’ but you probably won’t be able to sustain it over an extended period ,. If you are a parent, part-time study will mean you spend less time with your family and you will feel guilty about it. If you currently work full time and like a spotless house and to cook every meal you eat from scratch, it is unlikely you will maintain the same standards unless you have help. You will need to be more flexible in your self-expectations and willing to compromise in some areas as the time and energy required by the doctorate itself is uncompromising. 
  4. Lastly, the difference between people who complete a part-time doctorate and those who don’t is persistence and self-belief. There will very likely be times when you consider quitting. It is a long, time consuming and at times hard journey, academically and emotionally. You read, write, refine, discard, abandon repeatedly throughout. Your ability to keep at it, even when you are not sure you are getting anywhere is crucial to your success, as it will pay off in the end.

Undertaking the EdD has been one of the best experiences of my life. I have grown so much as a person and am comfortable in my own skin. I feel that I have something to contribute personally and professionally. I am happier and more content as a result of my doctoral journey and would definitely recommend it to others, but as with most things that bring pleasure, there is a cost to be paid for it.

Lessons for life

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This post is from Jon Rainford (@jonrainford), one of the editors of the blog. Jon completed his PhD part-time with Staffordshire University in 2019. He has studied part time in various forms for over 12 years. Having interests in the Sociology of Higher Education and having worked in varied roles in education, his doctoral research focused on exploring the gaps between policy and practice in relation to widening participation in higher education. He now splits his time between teaching, research and developing the resources he wishes were there when he started his own doctorate.

As I sit here at my desk and look around, I realise how many of my daily habits have been formed through my experiences of studying and researching part-time. Whilst the doctorate was not my first experience of studying part time, it was the first time of doing it without quite as much structure. My secret to success is probably working out what structure works best for me and creating it. Here are a few suggestions of what has worked for me and might work for you:

You need a deadline

Even if you make them up yourself, you need specific goals and times to work to. Human nature is to prioritise the urgent things, especially if they are things you don’t like doing. For example, how many times have you panicked when you heard the bin lorry to put your rubbish out? This need for a deadline is most true when it’s a task you don’t want to do. If something is not urgent and you don’t want to do it, it rarely gets done.

Deadlines aren’t just for the big stuff

The focus during a doctorate is often on formal deadlines such as assignments (for taught and professional doctorates), annual review points, drafts and thesis submission, smaller deadline are often important. When dealing with a large project, focusing only on these deadlines is not an ideal strategy.

There is a saying that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Think of these deadlines as planning which bits to eat first. You may have already begun to do this by creating a project plan or you may be familiar with Gannt charts. In these, there will be dependent things you might need to finish before you move onto the next task. This can go some way to making those deadlines.

For me, I need even smaller deadlines. they just work to keep me on track and motivated. I also love visual cues so over time I’ve taken to using an adapted version of a kanban board. This is a visual way of tracking tasks to do, in progress and done. This visually helps me see where I am. Depending on the project, these might be things as small as emailing someone or reading a paper. They might be as big as a journal article or chapter. The great thing about this method is i can adapt it for what I need at the time. I can also merge work, research and life tasks, really helping to balance my time.

Have a variety of tasks on the go

Time is always precious but when you are juggling competing demands it can feel even more important not to waste it. This morning was going to be spent reading a chapter in a book. I started but the words wouldn’t go in. Previously I might have slogged it out and not really got what I needed out of the reading. Instead, I took the approach honed during the part-time PhD and moved to my desk and found an admin task that was on my list. As such I’ve had a productive morning and can try later with the reading. Knowing when you can and can’t do certain things is important. This does not mean just ignoring some tasks (if something sits on your list for a while, you might want to ask why) but it does mean being attuned to your own abilities on a given day and time. Having finite pockets of time juggling work and study taught me this and it does work.

Find your rhythms and build the rest around it

I am an early bird. I always have been. I know afternoons are not my most productive. Therefore, I plan with this in mind. It is too easy to be reactive to the world around you. One of the benefits of part-time study was the ability to focus my doctorate for those optimal blocks of time. I continue to do that. Now I juggle a number of paid roles in additional to continuing to research and write, I tend to follow those same patterns. I never start with email in those first few hours if I have writing or reading to do. It only gets done if all other tasks are off the table. After all, why would you dedicate your best hours to replying to emails?

Remember your strengths

One of the things I have been guilty of is forgetting these skills I have developed and how valuable they are. There is a reason the Open University is ranked so highly with employers. As well as the quality of its degrees, the skills part-time students develop, especially in relation to managing competing demands are worth their weight in gold. Taking some time to remember this and working out how to ‘sell’ these skills is important especially if you are looking to apply for jobs. I embraced the part-time nature of my own doctorate and hope you will to as it helps build some excellent skills that will live long after that thesis is complete.

‘Life in the Part-time Lane’

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This post is from Ruth Tudor (@AuntyOof). She is a pastoral support tutor in an institution supporting students from further education through to higher education.  All her higher education has been achieved through part-time distance learning, including her research degree on Care Experienced Students which she is currently writing her thesis for.

I left school with few exams under my belt and what I had, the grades weren’t great. I definitely wasn’t going to university, so off to work I went and picked up SVQ level qualifications along the way.  Since then, I’ve barely set foot inside a classroom as a student, only as a teacher. Eventually I got bored with my dead end ‘career’ and started investigating the Open University.  I wanted to work and learn at the same time.  I had a mortgage and other financial outgoings, I couldn’t afford to study full-time.  I also didn’t have the confidence to study full-time.  I was in my mid-thirties I didn’t have the courage to walk into a classroom full of teenagers.  I also lacked confidence in my academic abilities.  I had left school with few qualifications I didn’t think I was clever enough to go to university.  If I was going achieve a university education the OU was the only way I could do it.

Learning to deal with feedback at a distance

I was a different way of life for me, writing essays, learning to reference but I was lucky in that I picked the right subject for me and although it was all new to me, I enjoyed it. What I did have to adjust to was the tutor feedback which came back in written form.  I had to learn to read and understand what my tutor was writing, I had to learn to accept that although I thought I had written a masterpiece I hadn’t and there were things I could have done better and there was always the knowledge that I could contact my tutor for additional support if needed.   

Finding my secret weapon

I also discovered a talent for being organised I never knew I had and it turned out to be my secret weapon.  I don’t think I could have survived if I hadn’t been able to get myself organised around my shifts, running a house (and then boyfriend, now husband) and fitting in the study.  For my first year there were face to face tutorials – 90 minutes away so that was a Saturday in the big smoke every month but it was worth it to get the time with my tutor and guidance for the assessment.  Some people find it hard not being physically guided in what to study, luckily, I settled into it. 

This was my life all through my degree and then my Masters – on a whole different topic as I didn’t fancy the Masters in my field.  Masters study was hard work.  My path to my Masters wasn’t as smooth but I still managed to pass. By then more work was online, less face-to-face tutorials and I definitely found the jump from undergraduate study to postgraduate study harder.  I had to learn to write differently but never had any problems with the reading and research side of things. 

Developing a distance learning skillset

There are important skills to be learnt for part-time distance learning.  Organisation is perhaps one of the most important.  Life will get in the way: work, kids, caring responsibilities, your health so it’s important to set aside our study time every week.  You also need to be prepared for good weeks and bad weeks.  Some weeks can be hard and you will wonder why you are bothering and other weeks you will sail through.  Then there is assessment (or feedback) anxiety and waiting for the results.  We all feel it.  No matter how long you have been studying you still want to know how good (or bad) you did.  You need to be disciplined, motivated and determined because there is no-one to tell you to sit down and study, you are responsible for your learning.  However, the skills I learnt at undergraduate and Masters level have helped me manage my research degree.

Doing the doctorate

After completing my Masters, I wondered if I should do an EdD?  Why not, the pinnacle of my educational achievement.  Back to the OU and here I am in my final year, writing my wee socks off.  I would be lying if I said it hadn’t been hard work and lonely.  I’ve had to work hard at building up my networks, particularly online and during a pandemic but isn’t that what Twitter is for?  Friendly stalking of academics?  Working and doing a research degree is brutal but it does let me consider my research alongside what I do for a living, practice what I preach even.  I think the discipline I have built up doing my Undergraduate and MA has stood me in good stead for doctoral study but it still hasn’t been easy.  I have my submission dates but other than that I am left, home alone, to work and study, during a pandemic.  I have a WhatsApp group with my peers and it’s a lifesaver, I have a critical friend who promises me I can pass this – all people I have met during my online life at the OU.

Finding enjoyment in a PhD with time and space: switching from full-time to part-time

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This post is from Laura Wilde. Laura is a part-time PhD student at Coventry University in the Centre for Intelligent Healthcare. Her thesis is exploring experiences of using apps and wearables for monitoring physical activity among people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). She is in her 4th year having completed 2 years full-time, a year away from studying, and then returned in 2020 part-time. Laura tweets @laurawilde24 and blogs about her experiences and research journey on her website.

I started my PhD in January 2017 and successfully completed 2 years full-time. As I came to the end of my second year and my annual progress review, I was feeling stressed and burning out. I was also struggling with chronic pain (more on that on my blog). In 2019 I was really struggling with my mental health and suspended my studies (read about my mental health story here). At first, I really didn’t want to suspend but certain events meant that I really needed to take a break and pause my studies. After around a year away from studying, I returned in January 2020 switching to part-time via a simple form which was supported by my supervisors and the University. Returning to my studies after a year off is one thing, returning part-time was something else. In this post I am mainly going to talk about the switch to part-time and how this has impacted me and my studies (you can read more about my experiences of returning to my PhD on my website).

All-consuming PhD life to finding other things

My main motivation for changing to part-time was my own mental health and wellbeing and it was the best thing I did. Reflecting on when I was full-time, it was all-consuming and intense, I was never able to switch off and stop thinking about it. Don’t get me wrong, full-time was right for me at the time when I started my PhD, and I found the transition from working full-time to full-time PhD straightforward. However, after a year away from studying five days/week, staring at a screen trying to do the same PhD, was not something I wanted or needed. I am so grateful to have an amazing supervisory team who were extremely supportive and understanding of my circumstances and decisions. We met (and still meet) regularly and talk about the whole PhD experience.

When I went back part-time I made sure  I planned my week as Monday to Wednesday working on PhD (as much or as little as I could manage), Thursday attending and volunteering/working for Arty-Folks and Friday catching up on housework or reading (an actual book – not research papers!). Later, my Friday mornings consisted of volunteering at a Rabbit Rescue and in the last 6 months I have been working as a Research Assistant at Coventry University and Zipabout Ltd. Part-time also gave me flexibility with which days I wanted to work, for example, if I didn’t feel up to it on a Monday morning, I would work on a Thursday afternoon instead. My supervisors trusted me and had faith that I was doing as much or as little on my PhD as I could manage. They didn’t add any extra pressure of deadlines or meetings and let me lead the team. I am pretty good at managing my time, prioritising, and putting pressure on myself, so this wasn’t something I needed from my team and they knew that. Instead, they helped by encouraging me and being positive and enthusiastic about my work.

Same or different?

So, generally, what’s changed? Here are some things that I feel are the similarities and differences from studying part-time compared to full-time:

Same:

  • Same work to do – the PhD hasn’t changed; I am still doing the work I planned to do before I changed modes of study.
  • Same supervisors and institution – I wasn’t changing supervisors or switching universities, I knew the system and could talk to my supervisors about deadlines and expectations.
  • Same amount of time waiting for comments, feedback, ethical approval – these things I don’t have control over and up to the time other people have, but in some way its faster as I have spent less of my PhD time waiting.

Different:

  • More energy, enjoyment and enthusiasm to work on my PhD – I get quite excited about my PhD days now and look forward to what I am going to work on that week rather than being tired and frustrated.
  • Less stressed and more relaxed – the PhD doesn’t feel so fast paced and urgent, deadlines have shifted slightly to give me more time overall.
  • More time to think and reflect – having time away from the PhD and switching off also gives me an opportunity to reflect on the week or the PhD tasks, thinking about the barriers and how to overcome them, as well as the successes and to celebrate them.
  • More productive and focused – I am more focused. Less PhD time each week focuses me on what I want to get done that week (though this is not always the case, some weeks are just not productive and that’s OK!).
  • Fewer hours per week working on the PhD – giving me time to do other things like volunteering, art, working, etc.
  • More creative – having a varied week means that I am inspired by other things and have space to think outside the box generally which, I think, influences my research.

Time and space

Basically, the biggest positive change going part-time gave me was time and space. At first, this gave me time to reflect on transitioning back to my PhD and continue with my mental health recovery. Later, I had time for a part-time job thinking about career progression, gaining experience for my CV, and earning some money. Part-time gave me time to feel ‘ok’ about not working on my PhD all day, every day, and it was ok to do other things. I tended to plan my week in advance with activities and commitments, so it was busy but not overwhelming, and everything I planned was what I wanted to do and made me happy. But, possibly the most beneficial thing was having time and space to switch off from the PhD!

Moving to part-time also meant my submission deadline was further away giving me time and space to enjoy the PhD journey and the research itself, rather than needing to rush data collection, analysis and write up to get to submission.

Not without its barriers

Working part-time and juggling a part-time PhD can be a challenge in itself. Luckily, I am extremely organised and have fantastic employers who understand my PhD commitments. Finances can also be a barrier for some people, but luckily my Husband supports me with living costs and mortgage payments. Also, my tuition fees are covered with a studentship which paid a monthly stipend for the first 3 and a half years (or part-time equivalent) that I continued to receive during my year suspension.

A PhD is not easy, but I love research, learning and my PhD topic. It’s definitely achievable if you want it and you have choices and abilities to make changes to things that are not working. Now, part-time works for me, whereas previously full-time worked. There is no one-way to completing a PhD and it’s important to do what works for you. Give yourself permission to make a change and see where it takes you.

The benefits of the long haul doctorate

This post is by Dr. Bethan Michael-Fox (@bethmichaelfox). Beth is an Associate Lecturer and Honorary Associate in the School of English and Creative Writing at the Open University. Beth and Jon (the host of this fantastic website) worked together for a few wonderful years at the University of Bedfordshire. You can find out more about Beth and her work and research at www.drbethanmichaelfox.com

I began a part-time PhD in January 2012, passed my viva mid-December 2019, submitted my amendments on Friday 26 June 2020 and got ‘the e-mail’ on Monday 29 June 2020: ‘It is my great pleasure to attach your award letter. Congratulations Dr Michael-Fox’! So, my PhD took me eight and a half years to complete. And what an eight and half years it was!

As Jon Rainford suggests and the Thriving Part-Time project serves to demonstrate, it ‘is likely that for most part-time PhD students, the doctoral journey will be paved with varied life challenges both personal and professional’. During my PhD I was a full-time lecturer, became a mother, took a maternity leave, managed a drawn out and stressful move 300 miles away, became a remote doctoral student, followed my loyal supervisor to four different institutions, changed jobs, lost two pregnancies, shifted from having my fees paid to self-funding, experienced anticipated and sudden bereavements, volunteered, partied, had the occasional teary meltdown, got married, and made a lot of friends.

There are wonderful people, including my brilliant husband, who’ve completed a part-time doctorate in four years, and many who do it in under six. This wasn’t how it went for me, but I think there are benefits to taking a longer time. So, what are they?

  1. You explore and discover. As Pat Thompson highlights, part-time doctoral students are more common in certain fields and often self-fund. This can mean flexibility. I started out thinking my thesis on engagement with death and the dead in literary and visual culture would be in English Literature. By the end of my doctorate I felt welcomed and embedded in the infrastructures of the emerging field of Death Studies, but it took me time to discover it. My research and my life are much richer for the friends, colleagues and interdisciplinary insights it has afforded me.
  2. You broaden your perspectives. I was reading both for my doctorate and the subject areas I taught in. This afforded the opportunity to engage in what Judith Butler calls ‘intellectual promiscuity’ and expand my thinking. I drew together ideas from disparate disciplines and was able to explore the ways in which ideas have flourished in divergent ways across systems of knowledge. I was delighted when my external examiner began my viva by commenting on how truly interdisciplinary my thesis was.
  3. You build robust networks. Working in a post-1992 UK university meant I was surrounded by inspiring colleagues completing part-time doctorates. They offered insights, facilitated ‘shut up and write’ sessions, and gently reminded me if I ever  veered toward defeatism that there were people completing their research in much more challenging circumstances than I was. What I didn’t have was a network studying death, or producing humanities research. Melanie Lovatt mentions co-convening a reading group to tackle the potential loneliness of the part-time doctorate. I started an online Zoom meet up once a month for postgraduates from any country, discipline or perspective studying death, dying or the dead. We’ve never missed a month and average between 6 to 10 attendees. These chats about life, death and research are often the most uplifting hour of my month!
  4. You graduate with super skills. I published along the way, honed and developed my writing style, proofread doctorates and read more on EthOS, edited a book, networked, presented at conferences, joined societies, completed projects, found people I loved co-publishing with, worked at two different universities, undertook projects, learnt a lot about myself and others, reflecting on the benefits and challenges of the process all the way through. It has given me a breadth of experience.
  5. You relate to students in new ways. Being a part-time doctoral student for so long has taught me a lot about empathising with and supporting students who are working, caring and studying. Undergraduate students have taught me an awful lot about manging these challenges too.

In reality, you can do all these things post-doctorate, or whilst completing swiftly. However, I don’t regret taking a long time. It gave me a pretty unshakeable sense of self-belief and confidence, along with a strong dose of awareness that one factor in my completing was plain good fortune and circumstance. There is stigma around taking ‘ages’, needing to resubmit, opting for a lower award or leaving all together. There shouldn’t be. The longer I took and more I learned about others’ experiences, the more I was able to uproot the myths I’d internalised about what ‘success’ was in a doctorate, or what it meant to have or not have one.

Do I have any advice? Not really! You don’t need it. You’re the one who knows your own situation, your strengths, the challenges you face, your most effective processes and preferred approaches. The one tip I would like to share is around comparing yourself to others. If I ever found myself doing this, it was helpful to ask: ‘are they in the same shoes as me?’ The answer was invariably no. I imagine it always will be for you. Though the support, solidarity, encouragement and community of others in similar situations can provide invaluable resources to continue, it is also true that our work, research, lives, approaches, personalities, experiences and aspirations are our own. They will shape, inform, constrict and enrich our experiences of the part-time doctorate.

Good luck with yours!

PhD by publication: because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

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This post from Karen Campbell (@KarencampbellWP) follows on from her previous post ‘What is a PhD by Publication?‘ In this post, Karen addresses the benefits and challenges of pursuing this route. Karen is an education researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University. She completed her PhD by publication in May 2020.

Why do a PhD by publication?

If you are an expert in your field with a significant portfolio of publications under your belt or are working towards developing such a portfolio, why not write for publication and complete a PhD, hitting two birds with one stone? The scenario described highlights the option to complete a PhD by publication through either a retrospective or a prospective route. I took the latter approach and worked to produce and publish academic papers around my area of work to reach the end goal of a PhD. The publication route to a doctorate is essentially about meta-analysis. It’s about abstracting yourself from the micro-level of your data’s detail and considering the macro themes emerging in your publications. This shows how the body of work you have selected is cohesive, original and adds value by way of an original contribution to the knowledge. It’s a challenge but one worth embarking on.

Benefits

  • I have developed as a researcher. Having to communicate the aims, objectives and outcomes of my research work in the form of publishable papers has meant that I pay more attention to ensuring that the paper’s claims meet my research objectives. I am more aware of the necessity to make my research questions explicit, include caveats about the limitations of the findings, and signal further research possibilities.
  • Writing for an international audience necessitates close attention to detail and developing a critical external eye. I have developed as an academic writer. Through practice, I am more able to present a clear argument relevant to the aims and objectives of the target journal. Moving forward, this has given me the confidence to engage with journal editors to discuss possible papers.
  • I am a more effective reviewer of journal articles and conference papers. Reviewing abstracts and papers involves a close mapping of the work presented to the conference criteria or journal aims and objectives. Thus, the review process has altered me to the necessity to communicate my own work according to strict guidelines.
  • My critical thinking and problem-solving skills have developed from writing for publication. This includes decisions about what to include and what to leave out, ensuring the argument flows, handling reviewer comments, working within word count restrictions and paying strict attention to detail around referencing.
  • Engaging in a PhD by publication also serves to enhance your project management skills. The process includes selecting the appropriate outputs to include, developing your thesis research question and planning your critical review, highlighting the impact of your work and including refection on the research journey.
  • My confidence has grown as I have published, and my academic profile has grown. My outputs have increased and have become more varied. I have had a book chapter published and am now blogging. I intend to write a capstone paper around my thesis and publish my literature review as a stand-alone paper. I feel that my outputs are valuable as they influence institutional strategy and, more widely, they have informed policy developments in the wider Scottish widening participation landscape.

Challenges

  • It’s worth bearing in mind that by the very nature of this route, you are not automatically hooked into support mechanisms available to those undertaking more traditional full-time routes – the help, advice and resources available through graduate schools, for example. Full-time PhD students also tend to develop social networks for mutual support. Academic colleagues completing professional doctorates or Education doctorates (programmes that usually contain a taught element) participate as part of a cohort. They tend to have a peer group to interact with and derive support from.
  • Doing a PhD by publication can be isolating. To mitigate this, I approached three research colleagues, all of whom had PhDs, to ask for their help to mentor me through the writing for publication process. Thus, I built my own mini-community of support that would not have been available otherwise. This proved invaluable, and I now feel able to offer the same backing to others.
  • Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the journey takes a huge commitment in terms of time. The day job inevitably becomes the evening and weekend job so there’s no escape.

Top ten tips

  1. Write papers with a PhD by publication in mind;
  2. Find an enthusiastic and supportive Advisory team;
  3. Appoint yourself encouraging, knowledgeable mentors;
  4. Do as much outlining and writing of the critical review before registering;
  5. Set aside time for writing and set writing targets;
  6. Select publications that fit around a general theme;
  7. Don’t include everything for the sake of it;
  8. Find your ‘golden thread’;
  9. Develop a research question for the thesis;
  10. Consider where and how you will include reflection.

What is a PhD by publication?

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This post is from Dr Karen Campbell (@karencampbellWP) . Karen is an education researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University. She completed her PhD by publication in May 2020. She  blogs about her research on GCU’s Academic Development and Student Learning blog site. Karen has published widely in journals such as Higher Education Research & Development, the Journal of Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. Her paper, ‘How can universities contribute to the common good?’ won the Association of University Administrators’ essay prize in 2019.

What is it?

The PhD by publication is awarded to someone who has carried out extensive research over a significant period of time and who has a number of publications on related topics arising from this work which have been reviewed in high quality journals. It is a part-time route which involves a critical review of the articles by the author. The submission has to:

  • Demonstrate that the papers, when taken together, constitute a coherent whole
  • Show originality
  • Exhibit a sound command of established knowledge in the area
  • Make a significant contribution to the field

The point is that when analysed in such a way the papers become more than the sum of their parts. I see the PhD by publication as the topsy-turvy route to doctoral success. It is a degree awarded in recognition of an existing body of work, rather than at the end of a completely new research project. Effectively it’s a doctorate by RPL except instead of developing a portfolio you produce a thesis around your published research. To reference my own particular field, the process allows people who have not followed the traditional route towards a PhD to obtain recognition for the research they have done and the subject knowledge they have developed throughout their career. Thus it widens participation to doctoral level study. The route has a relatively long standing tradition in Europe, Australia and Canada but is less recognised in other parts of the globe although this is reportedly changing. Indeed in Northern Europe (e.g. Sweden, Finland and Estonia) it’s the norm for doctoral studies where candidates are required to publish three articles in peer-reviewed journals before being allowed to proceed to the viva stage.

Different universities have their own requirements but generally the submission will be made up of a collection of peer-reviewed books, articles or chapters which together form a coherent contribution to research. Joint publications are acceptable, subject to a clear statement as to the nature and extent of the relative contributions of each author. The submission must be of the same quality and research effort as that expected of a PhD by Research. The author is required to evidence that the body of work has a theoretical underpinning, is thematic, cohesive, contextualised to the wider literature and points to further research. It’s also about charting the research journey to highlight the development of key ideas over time and as such requires a significant element of reflection.

Is it a lesser doctorate?

Absolutely not, would be my response. Publishing from a thesis has always been an expectation of PhD level study. Yet, how many academics do we know who have completed doctorates via the traditional route but who have subsequently published little or nothing? This route allows both objectives to be achieved. Moreover, there is strong evidence that the model not only develops important skills such as writing for publication, responding to reviewer feedback and developing a research identity  it also offers a mechanism for universities to enhance their own research productivity by mobilising their PhD candidates to contribute more meaningfully to the research productivity of the university. The PhD by publication also positively reshapes what it is to be a doctoral student.

How many and which publications to select?

The straightforward answer is to select those papers that allow you develop your ‘golden thread.’ The outputs you select should show the development of your research over time, how and why the ideas emerged and the connections between them. It means stepping out from the detail of each paper and considering how the ideas and findings can be synthesised to create an original research question that relates to the body of work as a whole. For an excellent overview of how to review your outputs with the synthesis in mind read Susan Smith’s practical guide.

As to how many published outputs to include, there is no correct answer! Regulations vary from institution to institution and between countries. However, the rule of thumb is that quantity of published works submitted should be similar to the number of published works expected to result from an equivalent PhD by Research thesis in the subject discipline. Typically this may consist of either one or two books or six refereed journal articles, depending on the subject discipline and the length of the papers.  Seek guidance from your graduate school and other colleagues as to how many and what to include in the way of published works. In my case I selected five published papers based on three research projects two of which were automatically linked as one was a follow up study from the first.  The paper I selected as my starting point for my ‘golden thread’ was one which provided the context to the key argument – that immersion prior to entry enables widening participation to higher education. My contextual paper examines the role of widening participation for social justice and the common good. Subsequent papers were chosen to introduce the specific questions around widening participation my research addressed, each underpinned by a different theoretical perspective.  Developing my golden thread was, for me, the most important aspect of the entire process since, once I had it, I knew I was on track to demonstrating the triple whammy: coherence, originality and contribution.

How long does it take?

I’ve heard it said that the PhD by publication route is much shorter than the traditional one as all the research has already been done. I beg to differ. Consider the time required to complete the research, write it up into draft papers, submit these, address reviewer feedback and publish. Then there’s the time you need to reflect on the thesis’s originality, coherence and contribution as a whole to the body of knowledge. You need to develop your thesis research question and plan and write your critical review. The process also requires you to show the impact of your research and must include a significant element of reflection on the research and your findings; something else to factor in terms of time.

From the point of your proposal’s acceptance you are generally limited to a year’s registration to complete. If you count the time taken to carry out the steps above, however, and factor in work and other commitments the overall time is significantly increased. In reality it takes several years’ effort and, time-wise, often more than a traditional full-time equivalent.

Is it worth doing?

Absolutely, would be my response. If you are an expert in your field with a significant portfolio of publications under you belt or are working towards developing such a portfolio, why not write for publication and complete a PhD; hitting two birds with one stone? I took a prospective approach and worked to produce and publish academic papers around my area of work with a view to the end goal of a PhD. The advantage here (over the retrospective route) is that this tactic provides a focus for your research outputs. I found it helped my motivation to write thus avoiding the trap of always pushing publication to the side. For me, the PhD by publication provided a framework, a way forward from which I could see the path to submission.