This post was by Rachel V Staddon (@StaddonRachel). Rachel is a tutor at the University of Sheffield, and is currently awaiting her viva for her thesis on mature students and their attitudes and experiences of learning technologies and technology-enhanced learning.
It can be difficult to maintain connections when you’re a part-time PhD student. You’re part of the department, but sometimes it feels less so than full-timers, particularly if you’re often busy elsewhere with your job or other responsibilities. Sometimes your supervisor won’t respond, and you have to play the fun game of Ghosting or Out of the Country?
As a part-time student, it’s easy to be forgotten about. Maybe not by your supervisor so much, but perhaps by your department and your institution. I sure was. There may be a number of reasons for this, from starting at a weird time of year (I started in March, and this caused a great deal of confusion), to just not being around to say hello to people in the corridor and remind them of your existence. Since I didn’t start at the ‘normal’ September time, I didn’t have an induction, I wasn’t given any of the paperwork or added to any mailing lists. It was only as I approached the end of my PhD that my department realised I had never been enrolled on the Blackboard course, and so I couldn’t physically submit my thesis until that had happened.
The problem I encountered throughout my PhD was that I didn’t know what I didn’t have, so it wasn’t just a case of going, “I need this” to the relevant people. It became something of a fact-finding mission. If you’re ever in this situation, or any situation where you’re not sure what to do, remember that your supervisor is your very best resource. I started by asking my supervisor explicitly to find out what I needed to do. This raised problems in itself – my supervisor often went overseas for weeks at a time, and had very intermittent internet access. I therefore had to plan my time and questions carefully around my access to my supervisor as well as my work. This is tricky as a part-time student, but the thing I found most useful was keeping up regular communication with my supervisor throughout my PhD. Even if our supervision meetings themselves were irregular, I sent him an email every month or two with a brief sentence on my progress (or lack thereof) and a question. Sometimes the question was about my work, an article I’d read, a specific book I couldn’t find, or about the logistics of the course. It didn’t matter – it maintained a connection, and prompted him to remind me when he would be out of the country so I didn’t schedule anything that involved him at that time. Keeping your supervisor informed about your status is really important, especially as there are two people in a supervision relationship, and they are both allowed time off! I also recommend keeping them informed about difficult points in your life, such as bereavements, house moves, and mental health changes, all of which affected me multiple times, sometimes simultaneously. As long as your supervisor knows about these things, they can signpost you to support resources, and generally cut you a break.
It is also important to maintain connections outside of your specific PhD and your supervisory team. Don’t forget about your life – friends, family, pets, they all provide support. There’s also the rest of your department and your institution. Maybe join a society in the Students’ Union, or have a Skype coffee with a fellow student if you’re long-distance. I also found that asking my department how to be more involved helped as well. From this, I was able to do some teaching on the Education MA, which was fantastic for my confidence; it also broadened my subject knowledge, and enabled me to get to know some students who weren’t my PhD participants. Other things I found useful were getting involved in others’ studies as a participant (great for doing before you start your own instrument design), chatting with student reps, and attending departmental meetings and seminars.
Overall, you may sometimes feel like you’ve been forgotten about as a part-time PhD student, but there’s lots of ways to maintain connections. Your supervisor is your top resource, but there’s plenty of support out there, so don’t be afraid to ask for it.