This post is from Laura Wilde. Laura is a part-time PhD student at Coventry University in the Centre for Intelligent Healthcare. Her thesis is exploring experiences of using apps and wearables for monitoring physical activity among people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). She is in her 4th year having completed 2 years full-time, a year away from studying, and then returned in 2020 part-time. Laura tweets @laurawilde24 and blogs about her experiences and research journey on her website.
I started my PhD in January 2017 and successfully completed 2 years full-time. As I came to the end of my second year and my annual progress review, I was feeling stressed and burning out. I was also struggling with chronic pain (more on that on my blog). In 2019 I was really struggling with my mental health and suspended my studies (read about my mental health story here). At first, I really didn’t want to suspend but certain events meant that I really needed to take a break and pause my studies. After around a year away from studying, I returned in January 2020 switching to part-time via a simple form which was supported by my supervisors and the University. Returning to my studies after a year off is one thing, returning part-time was something else. In this post I am mainly going to talk about the switch to part-time and how this has impacted me and my studies (you can read more about my experiences of returning to my PhD on my website).
All-consuming PhD life to finding other things
My main motivation for changing to part-time was my own mental health and wellbeing and it was the best thing I did. Reflecting on when I was full-time, it was all-consuming and intense, I was never able to switch off and stop thinking about it. Don’t get me wrong, full-time was right for me at the time when I started my PhD, and I found the transition from working full-time to full-time PhD straightforward. However, after a year away from studying five days/week, staring at a screen trying to do the same PhD, was not something I wanted or needed. I am so grateful to have an amazing supervisory team who were extremely supportive and understanding of my circumstances and decisions. We met (and still meet) regularly and talk about the whole PhD experience.
When I went back part-time I made sure I planned my week as Monday to Wednesday working on PhD (as much or as little as I could manage), Thursday attending and volunteering/working for Arty-Folks and Friday catching up on housework or reading (an actual book – not research papers!). Later, my Friday mornings consisted of volunteering at a Rabbit Rescue and in the last 6 months I have been working as a Research Assistant at Coventry University and Zipabout Ltd. Part-time also gave me flexibility with which days I wanted to work, for example, if I didn’t feel up to it on a Monday morning, I would work on a Thursday afternoon instead. My supervisors trusted me and had faith that I was doing as much or as little on my PhD as I could manage. They didn’t add any extra pressure of deadlines or meetings and let me lead the team. I am pretty good at managing my time, prioritising, and putting pressure on myself, so this wasn’t something I needed from my team and they knew that. Instead, they helped by encouraging me and being positive and enthusiastic about my work.
Same or different?
So, generally, what’s changed? Here are some things that I feel are the similarities and differences from studying part-time compared to full-time:
- Same work to do – the PhD hasn’t changed; I am still doing the work I planned to do before I changed modes of study.
- Same supervisors and institution – I wasn’t changing supervisors or switching universities, I knew the system and could talk to my supervisors about deadlines and expectations.
- Same amount of time waiting for comments, feedback, ethical approval – these things I don’t have control over and up to the time other people have, but in some way its faster as I have spent less of my PhD time waiting.
- More energy, enjoyment and enthusiasm to work on my PhD – I get quite excited about my PhD days now and look forward to what I am going to work on that week rather than being tired and frustrated.
- Less stressed and more relaxed – the PhD doesn’t feel so fast paced and urgent, deadlines have shifted slightly to give me more time overall.
- More time to think and reflect – having time away from the PhD and switching off also gives me an opportunity to reflect on the week or the PhD tasks, thinking about the barriers and how to overcome them, as well as the successes and to celebrate them.
- More productive and focused – I am more focused. Less PhD time each week focuses me on what I want to get done that week (though this is not always the case, some weeks are just not productive and that’s OK!).
- Fewer hours per week working on the PhD – giving me time to do other things like volunteering, art, working, etc.
- More creative – having a varied week means that I am inspired by other things and have space to think outside the box generally which, I think, influences my research.
Time and space
Basically, the biggest positive change going part-time gave me was time and space. At first, this gave me time to reflect on transitioning back to my PhD and continue with my mental health recovery. Later, I had time for a part-time job thinking about career progression, gaining experience for my CV, and earning some money. Part-time gave me time to feel ‘ok’ about not working on my PhD all day, every day, and it was ok to do other things. I tended to plan my week in advance with activities and commitments, so it was busy but not overwhelming, and everything I planned was what I wanted to do and made me happy. But, possibly the most beneficial thing was having time and space to switch off from the PhD!
Moving to part-time also meant my submission deadline was further away giving me time and space to enjoy the PhD journey and the research itself, rather than needing to rush data collection, analysis and write up to get to submission.
Not without its barriers
Working part-time and juggling a part-time PhD can be a challenge in itself. Luckily, I am extremely organised and have fantastic employers who understand my PhD commitments. Finances can also be a barrier for some people, but luckily my Husband supports me with living costs and mortgage payments. Also, my tuition fees are covered with a studentship which paid a monthly stipend for the first 3 and a half years (or part-time equivalent) that I continued to receive during my year suspension.
A PhD is not easy, but I love research, learning and my PhD topic. It’s definitely achievable if you want it and you have choices and abilities to make changes to things that are not working. Now, part-time works for me, whereas previously full-time worked. There is no one-way to completing a PhD and it’s important to do what works for you. Give yourself permission to make a change and see where it takes you.