Four uncomfortable truths about part-time doctoral study…

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Ceri Coulby (@cericoulby) is a part-time online EdD student with the University of Liverpool. She is in her 6th year and is due to submit her thesis in October 2021. Her case study research is a narrative exploration of part time doctoral students’ experiences of personal transformation during their studies. Ceri also works full time at the University of Liverpool and lives with her husband, 14-year-old son and Labrador on the Wirral.

I started my online part time EdD in July 2015 after being turned down for a job mainly due to my lack of PhD or equivalent. It was made clear to me that if I wanted to go further in my career I needed to get that piece of paper. I was a reluctant student, having already dropped out of a PhD five years previously and having the emotional scars to prove it. Scowling, I enrolled on the EdD, with a deadly determination to get through it.

I was in a slightly better position this time around, my son was older and at school, and I had some experience of the reality of doctoral study. This was a mixed blessing, as I had found the previous experience lonely and confusing, and the aftermath left me feeling stupid and embarrassed. Hence the decision this time around to do an EdD with a taught component rather than a PhD.

My doctoral journey has been transformational, and whilst I cannot say I have enjoyed every minute of it, my overwhelming experience of the process has been joyful. The motivation for a ‘piece of paper’ a distant memory. However here I share four uncomfortable ‘truths’ I have learnt along the way, in the hope it might save other students some anguish on their own journeys.

  1. If you feel like an imposter, who doesn’t know what they are supposed to be doing a lot of the time, or if you are in a cohort and think everyone around you “gets it” and you are the only one who doesn’t- THAT’S NORMAL. This is actually a part of the process for the majority of students. Doctoral study takes you out of your comfort zone constantly, if it didn’t you wouldn’t be learning anything new would you? As hard as it is to accept, uncertainty and doubt will be your bedfellows during the doctoral journey and you are going to need to learn to live with them and trust in the process.
  2. You will likely be changed by doctoral study, indeed this is the topic of my own doctoral research. These changes can be wonderful, but also uncomfortable and distressing at times. During a doctorate you develop new skills and knowledge, but you also learn to perceive things differently, and from multiple perspectives. You may find yourself questioning some of your deeply held personal values and beliefs, or those of the people around you. During the process you may see your workplace and colleagues through a more critical lens. These changes in perception are usually irreversible; once you ‘see’ something you cannot un-see it. I don’t say this to put people off doctoral study; it is just something potential candidates should be aware of.
  3. If you have multiple commitments such as a full time job, family, or caring responsibilities, do not kid yourself that you will be able to fulfil all those roles to the same extent whilst also undertaking a part time doctorate. You may tell yourself ‘oh I will only work when the kids are in bed or early in the morning before people are up’ but you probably won’t be able to sustain it over an extended period ,. If you are a parent, part-time study will mean you spend less time with your family and you will feel guilty about it. If you currently work full time and like a spotless house and to cook every meal you eat from scratch, it is unlikely you will maintain the same standards unless you have help. You will need to be more flexible in your self-expectations and willing to compromise in some areas as the time and energy required by the doctorate itself is uncompromising. 
  4. Lastly, the difference between people who complete a part-time doctorate and those who don’t is persistence and self-belief. There will very likely be times when you consider quitting. It is a long, time consuming and at times hard journey, academically and emotionally. You read, write, refine, discard, abandon repeatedly throughout. Your ability to keep at it, even when you are not sure you are getting anywhere is crucial to your success, as it will pay off in the end.

Undertaking the EdD has been one of the best experiences of my life. I have grown so much as a person and am comfortable in my own skin. I feel that I have something to contribute personally and professionally. I am happier and more content as a result of my doctoral journey and would definitely recommend it to others, but as with most things that bring pleasure, there is a cost to be paid for it.

One thought on “Four uncomfortable truths about part-time doctoral study…

  1. Seeing your own work and that of your colleagues differently really resonated with me. We can never go back but the self-discovery is exhilarating and life-changing indeed.


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