Part-time PhD at career end. Why did I do it to myself?

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This weeks post is from Katherine Christian (@KatherineChri15) from Federation University Australia. Her research interests focus on Early Career Researchers in the Sciences and you can find out more on her website

I did my PhD part time, and as a remote student with supervisors at the end of email and on regular video calls. This was less than ideal, but if it is the only option, it is still worthwhile.

My PhD studies came towards the end of my career, over 40 years after my undergraduate degree, rather than at the beginning. Unusual, perhaps, but during my career in management of medical research I had seen evidence of the very difficult work environment for early career researchers (ECRs) in the sciences in Australia and I wanted to do something about it while I could. My PhD project involved exploring the challenges for these ECRs, who were working in universities and independent research institutes, and their impact on the scientists’ job satisfaction and their intention to leave academic research. The advantage of making waves towards the end of a career is that it doesn’t matter if you create trouble for yourself and you can take advantage of having friends in high places. I have recently submitted my thesis, but I hope to continue this research on a part time basis, particularly exploring the environment during COVID-19 and looking more closely at the impact on ECRs of questionable research practices and poor leadership supervision which have emerged as major problems.

Having made the decision to do this research, part-time, while continuing my two part-time jobs in research, I needed to find a supervisor. That was actually very difficult. My PhD research was interdisciplinary, being about scientists but not actually science, and it didn’t seem to “belong” anywhere. Eventually I found Wendy, a scientist with an interest in higher degree education, who was able to help me over a second obstacle: that I didn’t have a higher degree. Fortunately, I did have research experience, had worked in scientific academia and I had recently published a text book about research management. I was underway, flying towards the next set of hurdles.

Wendy’s university was in another state, in a regional Australian university, spread (as were my supervisors) over three campuses. A campus visit involved catching a plane and a train, or plane and car journey, so I only visited four times in three years.

My introductory visit was a baptism by fire into the perils of interdisciplinary research. Wendy the scientist was away, so I met only my two other allocated supervisors, both social scientists. It was a very difficult meeting. They didn’t understand my world of science and had no experience or understanding of the environment I was concerned about. I didn’t understand theirs. We spoke an entirely different language! The last straw was being told social scientists don’t believe in evidence in the way scientists do, but instead simply use it as a starting point for considering the views of individuals. The fact that I was very senior in my professional experience while a rank amateur in social science academia proved very challenging for all of us. I felt I knew all about my topic, and not only knew what my question was, but its answer as well. The prospect of immersing myself in the literature for a year was torture, but the supervisors were insistent, and I was slowly brought into line and shown the “academic way”. Of course, this approach did end up being valuable. While it didn’t add greatly to my knowledge of the problems (which sadly were reproduced in various guises across the world) I learnt a lot about academic writing and the many forms it takes.

I had regular video calls with my supervisory team, but I was largely on my own in between. I took up all online courses and resources offered by the university and I was sent on a course to learn about qualitative research, which was very beneficial. In retrospect, it was quite a lonely experience being both part-time and remote. I missed the opportunities that come with being immersed in academia and I didn’t get to meet many other students. I couldn’t, of course, pop in to an office to ask any of my supervisors a quick question or bounce ideas with other students. COVID-19 helped my circumstances. Suddenly the university had to offer resources to students working at home and I was consequently able to participate in on-line seminars and in a writing group. I came to know some of the other students and to learn about their work and I felt a little more that I belonged. I wish I had had these opportunities from the start.

Three years of steep learning curve on all fronts, a change of one supervisor to another who provided a bridge between science and social science, and a lot of patient support from the whole supervisory team has brought me to the end of the journey. Would I do it again? Definitely. I have learnt a whole range of new skills, had my eyes opened to different ways of thinking and I have successfully “rocked the boats” I was wanting to rock. It has been very satisfying. If in doubt, I say do it!

Key points for the remote student – involve yourself as much as you can with anything which puts you in touch with other students or early career researchers, and take up all the training you are offered. The training will bring you in touch with other students and alert you to new ideas and approaches. The same applies to conferences – these days usually held by Zoom. Accept opportunities to present and to attend, and broaden the horizons which will otherwise be limited by your remoteness.

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