Studying part-time across borders

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Maryam Sani is the founder of ABS Educational Services www.abseducation.co.uk.  In 1993, she ventured overseas for a two-year stint teaching chemistry in Saudi Arabia. Her plan was to return to the UK and pursue a PhD in Chemistry. Instead, she lived and worked as a teacher, trainer, academic director, and educational consultant in Saudi Arabia for over 20 years. In 2019, she received a PhD in Education.

My PhD journey began after several years of trying to fit in with different routes while living abroad. The main obstacle was the research methods component which was previously a taught module and universities required that I spent the first year of the PhD studies in the UK. Later, I explored the  professional doctorate in Education (EdD) but it was not feasible to attend several mandatory weekend sessions each year. Advances in technology, pedagogical practices and a   casual conversation instigated the possibility of pursuing a PhD part-time. My passions are chemistry and education, at that time the underrepresentation of women in STEM was topical. With my experience in education, it made sense, to share insights into a society which outsiders viewed as closed, it was almost a dream come true.   I could study and spend time in a society which felt very much like home. Regular trips to the UK, extensive hours in Staffordshire University library during the summer and monthly Skype or face-to-face meetings with my supervisors.

So how was it studying part-time and abroad?

 Advantages

One advantage was my familiarity with the environment that was the focus of my research, certainly this would be different for someone entering a new environment for the first time.

The climate was great for me, working from home was a big plus. especially the daily schedule which began around 6:30am daily during the week. Although it may appear very early, life in Saudi Arabia begins before Dawn and schools generally start between 7:15 and 8:00am. It was convenient to read, and make notes early during the quiet time and have meetings later during UK working hours to maintain a reasonable work-life balance.  

While  the opportunity to conduct research overseas was great, it was the response of academics in the universities and students that took me by surprise; they were truly honoured to be the subject of my research and wondered why I had chosen them and their country. This was encouraging and at times amongst the driving forces to complete the PhD; they wanted everyone who was vaguely interested to read the research.

Studying part-time gave me the flexibility to use an extended period if necessary, it reduced the pressure of the 3-year deadline. Nonetheless, my goal was to complete within 3 not 6 years and I completed in just under 4 years

Disadvantages

Access to resources, at time that was difficult. When I was in the UK I bought books that were essential and learned quickly to utilise my phone in taking photographs of relevant pages from other books and journals, later I discovered Evernote which became my digital personal assistant. I still needed access to a library for additional books especially when writing the research methods chapter. To gain access to a university library , my principal supervisor wrote a letter of request which I presented to a local private university and used their facilities when needed thereafter.

For a person who likes to discuss issues, I faced two problems:

The only PhD students in the UK that I knew were also part-timers, with busy schedules. I connected with other students and academics through Twitter but in-person conversations were absent. Personally, I really missed attending conferences that were held in the UK, it was difficult to plan for them as a comprehensive calendar with the major conferences, has not yet been created. Furthermore, most conferences take place during the academic year, but, as I was limited to UK visits mainly in the summer I attended conferences and workshops that were available then.

In Saudi Arabia, I knew many people who had completed PhDs but none who were in the throes of pursuing one. I didn’t think this was as useful as it may have been in a different setting as most PhDs had gained their qualifications overseas and the challenges they had experienced were very different from mine.  Yet, I underestimated how beneficial it would have been to share our thoughts if I initiated a local researchers network. After completing my PhD I joined a researcher’s network in Jeddah organised by @YousrahOsman who reached out on Facebook.

Transnational PhD studies are important for understanding perspectives from within the socio-cultural context of the research environment. The lived experience adds value to the research in the same way that non-verbal gestures can enhance the spoken word. In the case of my studies, I could see the efforts expended by the staff in the Saudi universities to ensure that my research plan was executed effectively. This was motivating and would not have been evident if I had been in the UK. I completed my part-time PhD in less than 4 years It was never my intention to study part-time, but family circumstances made a full-time commitment impractical. Furthermore, it was necessary to be present in Saudi Arabia so that I would have greater access to the participants and the universities. The self-discipline that is necessary for PhD studies is immense, my UK supervisors, Professor Emerita Tehmina Basit and Dr Lynn Machin, were fantastic in supporting my research and checking in frequently. I benefited from working diligently on a full-time schedule knowing that additional years were available if required. Periods of procrastination increased my time by about 8 months, on reflection, these could have been avoided if I started a researcher’s network locally and been more active with PhD students in the virtual world.


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