Lessons for life

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This post is from Jon Rainford (@jonrainford), one of the editors of the blog. Jon completed his PhD part-time with Staffordshire University in 2019. He has studied part time in various forms for over 12 years. Having interests in the Sociology of Higher Education and having worked in varied roles in education, his doctoral research focused on exploring the gaps between policy and practice in relation to widening participation in higher education. He now splits his time between teaching, research and developing the resources he wishes were there when he started his own doctorate.

As I sit here at my desk and look around, I realise how many of my daily habits have been formed through my experiences of studying and researching part-time. Whilst the doctorate was not my first experience of studying part time, it was the first time of doing it without quite as much structure. My secret to success is probably working out what structure works best for me and creating it. Here are a few suggestions of what has worked for me and might work for you:

You need a deadline

Even if you make them up yourself, you need specific goals and times to work to. Human nature is to prioritise the urgent things, especially if they are things you don’t like doing. For example, how many times have you panicked when you heard the bin lorry to put your rubbish out? This need for a deadline is most true when it’s a task you don’t want to do. If something is not urgent and you don’t want to do it, it rarely gets done.

Deadlines aren’t just for the big stuff

The focus during a doctorate is often on formal deadlines such as assignments (for taught and professional doctorates), annual review points, drafts and thesis submission, smaller deadline are often important. When dealing with a large project, focusing only on these deadlines is not an ideal strategy.

There is a saying that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Think of these deadlines as planning which bits to eat first. You may have already begun to do this by creating a project plan or you may be familiar with Gannt charts. In these, there will be dependent things you might need to finish before you move onto the next task. This can go some way to making those deadlines.

For me, I need even smaller deadlines. they just work to keep me on track and motivated. I also love visual cues so over time I’ve taken to using an adapted version of a kanban board. This is a visual way of tracking tasks to do, in progress and done. This visually helps me see where I am. Depending on the project, these might be things as small as emailing someone or reading a paper. They might be as big as a journal article or chapter. The great thing about this method is i can adapt it for what I need at the time. I can also merge work, research and life tasks, really helping to balance my time.

Have a variety of tasks on the go

Time is always precious but when you are juggling competing demands it can feel even more important not to waste it. This morning was going to be spent reading a chapter in a book. I started but the words wouldn’t go in. Previously I might have slogged it out and not really got what I needed out of the reading. Instead, I took the approach honed during the part-time PhD and moved to my desk and found an admin task that was on my list. As such I’ve had a productive morning and can try later with the reading. Knowing when you can and can’t do certain things is important. This does not mean just ignoring some tasks (if something sits on your list for a while, you might want to ask why) but it does mean being attuned to your own abilities on a given day and time. Having finite pockets of time juggling work and study taught me this and it does work.

Find your rhythms and build the rest around it

I am an early bird. I always have been. I know afternoons are not my most productive. Therefore, I plan with this in mind. It is too easy to be reactive to the world around you. One of the benefits of part-time study was the ability to focus my doctorate for those optimal blocks of time. I continue to do that. Now I juggle a number of paid roles in additional to continuing to research and write, I tend to follow those same patterns. I never start with email in those first few hours if I have writing or reading to do. It only gets done if all other tasks are off the table. After all, why would you dedicate your best hours to replying to emails?

Remember your strengths

One of the things I have been guilty of is forgetting these skills I have developed and how valuable they are. There is a reason the Open University is ranked so highly with employers. As well as the quality of its degrees, the skills part-time students develop, especially in relation to managing competing demands are worth their weight in gold. Taking some time to remember this and working out how to ‘sell’ these skills is important especially if you are looking to apply for jobs. I embraced the part-time nature of my own doctorate and hope you will to as it helps build some excellent skills that will live long after that thesis is complete.

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