The benefits of the long haul doctorate

This post is by Dr. Bethan Michael-Fox (@bethmichaelfox). Beth is an Associate Lecturer and Honorary Associate in the School of English and Creative Writing at the Open University. Beth and Jon (the host of this fantastic website) worked together for a few wonderful years at the University of Bedfordshire. You can find out more about Beth and her work and research at www.drbethanmichaelfox.com

I began a part-time PhD in January 2012, passed my viva mid-December 2019, submitted my amendments on Friday 26 June 2020 and got ‘the e-mail’ on Monday 29 June 2020: ‘It is my great pleasure to attach your award letter. Congratulations Dr Michael-Fox’! So, my PhD took me eight and a half years to complete. And what an eight and half years it was!

As Jon Rainford suggests and the Thriving Part-Time project serves to demonstrate, it ‘is likely that for most part-time PhD students, the doctoral journey will be paved with varied life challenges both personal and professional’. During my PhD I was a full-time lecturer, became a mother, took a maternity leave, managed a drawn out and stressful move 300 miles away, became a remote doctoral student, followed my loyal supervisor to four different institutions, changed jobs, lost two pregnancies, shifted from having my fees paid to self-funding, experienced anticipated and sudden bereavements, volunteered, partied, had the occasional teary meltdown, got married, and made a lot of friends.

There are wonderful people, including my brilliant husband, who’ve completed a part-time doctorate in four years, and many who do it in under six. This wasn’t how it went for me, but I think there are benefits to taking a longer time. So, what are they?

  1. You explore and discover. As Pat Thompson highlights, part-time doctoral students are more common in certain fields and often self-fund. This can mean flexibility. I started out thinking my thesis on engagement with death and the dead in literary and visual culture would be in English Literature. By the end of my doctorate I felt welcomed and embedded in the infrastructures of the emerging field of Death Studies, but it took me time to discover it. My research and my life are much richer for the friends, colleagues and interdisciplinary insights it has afforded me.
  2. You broaden your perspectives. I was reading both for my doctorate and the subject areas I taught in. This afforded the opportunity to engage in what Judith Butler calls ‘intellectual promiscuity’ and expand my thinking. I drew together ideas from disparate disciplines and was able to explore the ways in which ideas have flourished in divergent ways across systems of knowledge. I was delighted when my external examiner began my viva by commenting on how truly interdisciplinary my thesis was.
  3. You build robust networks. Working in a post-1992 UK university meant I was surrounded by inspiring colleagues completing part-time doctorates. They offered insights, facilitated ‘shut up and write’ sessions, and gently reminded me if I ever  veered toward defeatism that there were people completing their research in much more challenging circumstances than I was. What I didn’t have was a network studying death, or producing humanities research. Melanie Lovatt mentions co-convening a reading group to tackle the potential loneliness of the part-time doctorate. I started an online Zoom meet up once a month for postgraduates from any country, discipline or perspective studying death, dying or the dead. We’ve never missed a month and average between 6 to 10 attendees. These chats about life, death and research are often the most uplifting hour of my month!
  4. You graduate with super skills. I published along the way, honed and developed my writing style, proofread doctorates and read more on EthOS, edited a book, networked, presented at conferences, joined societies, completed projects, found people I loved co-publishing with, worked at two different universities, undertook projects, learnt a lot about myself and others, reflecting on the benefits and challenges of the process all the way through. It has given me a breadth of experience.
  5. You relate to students in new ways. Being a part-time doctoral student for so long has taught me a lot about empathising with and supporting students who are working, caring and studying. Undergraduate students have taught me an awful lot about manging these challenges too.

In reality, you can do all these things post-doctorate, or whilst completing swiftly. However, I don’t regret taking a long time. It gave me a pretty unshakeable sense of self-belief and confidence, along with a strong dose of awareness that one factor in my completing was plain good fortune and circumstance. There is stigma around taking ‘ages’, needing to resubmit, opting for a lower award or leaving all together. There shouldn’t be. The longer I took and more I learned about others’ experiences, the more I was able to uproot the myths I’d internalised about what ‘success’ was in a doctorate, or what it meant to have or not have one.

Do I have any advice? Not really! You don’t need it. You’re the one who knows your own situation, your strengths, the challenges you face, your most effective processes and preferred approaches. The one tip I would like to share is around comparing yourself to others. If I ever found myself doing this, it was helpful to ask: ‘are they in the same shoes as me?’ The answer was invariably no. I imagine it always will be for you. Though the support, solidarity, encouragement and community of others in similar situations can provide invaluable resources to continue, it is also true that our work, research, lives, approaches, personalities, experiences and aspirations are our own. They will shape, inform, constrict and enrich our experiences of the part-time doctorate.

Good luck with yours!

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