The part-time doctorate: when time flies and stands still

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This post is from Nicole Brown. Nicole is a Lecturer in Education, who embarked on a part-time doctoral journey as a (very) mature student. In her contribution she writes about the flexibility of time, as she has experienced it in her studies. She tweets as @ncjbrown

Doing a doctorate is difficult, engaging in that research as a part-time endeavour even more so. Drop-out rates amongst doctoral students are generally very high, but studies show that nationality, marital status, age, disciplinary research field and funding all play a part. And with that as someone who was working, older and not an English native speaker I was highly likely to not complete my studies. However, for me, part-time “doctoring” was not all doom and gloom. If I was to summarise the main concern and the main advantage of my experience of a part-time doctorate, it would be that time flies and stands still, at the same time.

I was no youngster, when I started. In the UK context a mature student is aged 21 or over at the start of their studies. Well, aged 39 when I started my doctorate, I was definitely an atypical student in my chosen institution. I didn’t feel mature, I felt geriatric amongst all the under-thirties-students of my cohort. But the thing is this: Time is strange. When we enjoy something, we tend to experience it as flying and the minutes and hours running through our fingers. When something is difficult or boring, then that same minute that just ran through our fingers suddenly feels like hours. It is this effect of the flexibility or stretchability of time that I was able to turn to my advantage as a part-time doctoral student. And here is the why and how:

Time is precious

Of course, time is precious for every student, but if you have to cram studying, reading, researching, marking, teaching, planning, supporting colleagues, school runs, cooking, household chores and any other family commitments in to your day, your time becomes even more precious. My day became a slick military operation of managing time, no time was ever wasted. If I needed to wait for a few minutes somewhere, I would use that time to be productive by reading and highlighting or making notes. Time was not wasted away with unnecessary tasks; every minute was purposeful.

A day is a day, is not a day

When it came to the weeks and months of field research, I noticed my full-time colleagues worrying and panicking if there were delays with the ethics forms or when interviews needed to be rescheduled. A day lost was indeed a full day lost. In my case, rescheduling a day wasn’t really a full day lost. I was “only” a part-time student, so in terms of equivalencies a full day lost really only converted into a half-day loss. And if there was more time at risk, then I focussed on work commitments and crammed all that into my days, and traded those for PhD days a few weeks later. Catching up with days lost felt easier to manage to me than for the full-timers.

Time to take a break

Because of that stretchability of the day being a half-day that can be made up easily, I think I took more breaks from my doctorate than the full-time students did. Like I said earlier, having a break from the PhD did not mean idling my time away, I had other things to do. But what it did mean that I had time away from the doctoral study and the brain work involved with that. We know that in order to become an expert in something we need deliberate practice, but also deliberate rest and sleep. Although the 10,000 hour-rule of practice for becoming an expert is disputable, the relationship between deliberate practice, deliberate rest and sleep is crucial. According to Pang expertise only comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep. And there was my gain! Any break I took or had to take from my PhD became a deliberate rest. Deliberate rest does not mean becoming a couch potato binge-watching the latest Netflix or Amazon Prime offerings. It means to take a break from actively thinking about and engaging with the problems on hand. For some people, deliberate rest may be taking time for exercise or arts and craft activities; for me, it meant dealing with the other tasks and commitments in my life. The benefit of such a deliberate rest is that your brain has time to process and mull things over and when you come back to the problem, you will be better equipped to focus and find solutions. However, I found my full-time peers worrying about losing out, slowing down, not producing enough if they took a break.

Ebb and flow

And so, the part-time doctorate is a tidal journey between the ebbs of quieter times and the flow of frantic interviewing and writing-up. Of course, it is all-too-easy to become complacent and drift into too many idle periods. In her youtube video for the University of Kent Vanisha Jassal therefore shares strategies to remain focussed and organised. However, being mature (or geriatric) has probably helped me with this, too. I always felt that I was not getting any younger. Yes, my life experiences as a teacher, translator, company director and mum had shaped me and had provided me with skills that were useful for the doctoral studies. But I felt I had to race to complete sooner rather than later, if I wanted to be taken seriously as a scholar and still have some sort of career options ahead of me.

I guess if there is one thing for the reader to take away from this it’s that time can play in your favour, if you are using it wisely between deliberate practice, deliberate rest and sleep.

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