Finding the time to complete a part-time PhD

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This weeks post is from Melanie Simms (@SimmsMelanie), Professor of Work and Employment and Head of Management Subject Group at Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow. She completed her PhD in 2006 from Cardiff University researching trade union organising. The thesis took 6 years part-time alongside a full-time research associate position. She was supervised by Professor Ed Heery who had also completed his PhD part-time; which helped a lot.

My main lesson from the PhD process was how to fit research in around the ‘edges’ of other responsibilities. For me, the activities of research break down into slightly different sets of tasks which need to be dealt with differently; synthesising literature, data collection, data analysis, reflection, writing, and editing. Knowing how to schedule each set of activities has taken time, but the basic approach emerged during my PhD.

Lesson 1. Work out when you can do particular tasks

I’m an early bird and mornings are the best for concentrated tasks. For me, writing must be a morning task. At latest, before lunch. General admin, contacting research participants, and editing can all be done afternoon. I cannot work in the evening. I’d rather go to bed early and get up an hour earlier, then work in the evening. Find your pattern and use the natural rhythms of the day to schedule the PhD around other responsibilities.

Lesson 2. [My] Writing is slow

I love writing, but I am slow. 500 words a day tops, especially academic work for publication. I learned during my PhD that 500 words a day is 2500 words a week. And 10,000 words a month. For writing I need to be at my most alert. So writing something in the hour before I open my emails is essential. It won’t be a brilliant 500 words, but once I have 10,000 I can edit and sketch out what I need to do to get the detail right, fact check, find a quotation or whatever. It doesn’t suit everyone, but does me. Watching the word count tick up day by day towards that first draft is highly motivating. And when I get to my 500 words, or the end of the time I’ve put in my diary, that’s it. I stop.

Lesson 3. Editing takes time

Sooner or later the chapter or the section has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s when the detailed editing can start. I think of it as a patchwork blanket where my first job is to make the sections. Then I can arrange them into a structure that makes sense. Then I can spend time carefully ‘sewing’ them together with links, summarising paragraphs, and signposting. That’s detailed work, but I find it easy enough to do during a slow afternoon.

Lesson 4. Some things that don’t feel like work are work

At the start of a new topic, it is always hard to get to grips with a new literature. It often demands close reading of texts which I can only really do when I’m fresh. For me that’s the morning. But immersing yourself in the literature doesn’t just come from reading. In fact for me, that’s the less important part of the task. Conferences, seminars, symposia, pub chats, arguments with friends and colleagues all expose me to key debates and ideas. I find it much easier to take on board new information when I listen and discuss, rather than read.

Lesson 5. Travel time is useful

Time on the train to reflect after a conference or event is a central part of deeply emerging myself in ideas. I’ve learned not to schedule work during those train journeys! I sorely miss that thinking time during 2020. Long journeys are also often crucial for data analysis and for stepping back and working out what the data is trying to tell me. Yes, Nvivo helps. Yes, coding is important. But telling a story that is true to the data can only really happen for me when I have time to step back. Knowing the story that I am about to tell is essential as it helps me identify which little bit I can work on tomorrow and how that fits into the big picture.

Lesson 6. My diary is my most important tool

So for me, the trick is to think of research tasks as needing different kinds of focus. Some I can do in the afternoon, some in the morning, some during travel time. It took experimentation to learn which needed what kind of attention, but once that was cracked, it’s a question of discipline. Diary planning helps me a lot – if it’s in my diary, I will do it. Slowly, slowly the project takes shape. It’s a long slog – but if you’re reading this, you knew that already.

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