the part time doctorate- no glory in the ph without the d

This is a guest post from Karen McAulay, Music and Academic Services Librarian and concurrently Postdoctoral Researcher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  Karen has worked in the Whittaker Library at RCS  since 1988.  She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Karen graduated with a PhD in Music from the University of Glasgow in 2009.  Her book, Our Ancient National Airs: Scottish Song Collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era, was published by Ashgate in March 2013.

In October 2012, she embarked upon a 3-year AHRC-funded project at Glasgow University, seconded as part-time postdoctoral researcher to the Bass Culture project looking at accompaniments in Scottish fiddle music.  Between October 2015- April 2016, Karen was awarded an Athenaeum Award by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, enabling her to commence part-time research on her new project into the Stationers’ Hall music collection at the University of St Andrews, and her research role has since been extended until August 2018.

At 21, I went to Exeter as a postgrad. I did a research Masters there, changed topic for my PhD, and ran out of time because I started a postgraduate librarianship diploma instead of trying to complete my thesis first.  In fairness to myself, I did get the job and the pension-plan that I had decided were a priority.  At the time, I couldn’t imagine myself as a lecturer, so putting my research to one side felt sad, but not a tragedy.

If you had told my 24-year old self that I’d start another doctorate part-time alongside a full-time job, with three sons and a husband traipsing through my “study” (an alcove in the dining-room) at regular intervals, I don’t think I’d have believed you.  Adjusting to the realisation that I was no longer a PhD student had been at times uncomfortable, but I now had other priorities.  Indeed, I was a church organist as well as a librarian, and I even took up writing light fiction as a remunerative side-line, until the boys came along – life wasn’t dull.

James%2520Simpson%2520flute%2520chart%2520001%5b1%5dHowever, finding three old flute manuscripts in an old cupboard at work revived my interest in research, and one thing led to another PhD.  By now aged 46, I chose a completely different topic that I considered relevant to one of the courses offered at my workplace, and using resources that would be geographically easy for me to visit as a part-time student.  I was also incredibly lucky to find a great supervisor at the university on my doorstep.  Fitting in supervisions was something that had to be carefully planned around my work, but I regarded my trips across the city as a distinct advantage.  Studying at a different institution to my own workplace meant I was able to separate my dual identity as full-time librarian and part-time postgrad, and I found that very helpful.

There are many different routes to getting a PhD these days.  Whether you’re studying full or part-time, you may well seek paid employment of some kind.  If you choose the work to fit in round your research, then obviously it’s nice to find something that will benefit your CV, whether it’s teaching, admin, lab-work or some other relevant activity.  Some people will be fortunate enough to find creative work, or work that’s a complete contrast to the research.  However, when you’re fitting in research around an existing career, then the work choice has already been made, and the big decision is in committing your “spare time” to research.

Working full-time, you’re always conscious that your PhD is what you do in the time that’s left over. It is as important to you as it would be to any full-time researcher, but you can’t allow it to impinge upon the day-job.

Karen%27s%2520week%2520chart%5b1%5dIn my case, with a family as well, shopping and domesticity were also something of a priority at weekends. You can’t concentrate on doctoral thoughts when new school shirts, swimming lessons or piano practice are clamouring for attention!  And I was still a church organist. That paid my uni fees.

I had five years in which to complete my thesis. This time, personal pride meant that non-completion wasn’t an option.  In my last year, I signed up to Academic Ladder just to get myself a support group, and logging my progress forced me to be accountable. I had progress charts and deadlines pinned up beside my computer; online shopping became the new normal; and because my husband had two knee replacements that summer (one before thesis submission and one before the viva), I paid a gardener to tidy the garden. Neither of us was in a position to do it!

Do I make it sound like a hard slog?  Let’s be honest, any PhD is hard work. It’s hard work if you devote three full years to it, and it’s hard work if you spread it over five years and fit it in around the day-job.  I think I’ve always been fairly organised, but multi-tasking my work, a family and a PhD certainly helped my time-management skills.  It also demonstrated that I have quite singular determination when I really want to do something!

Office%2520alcove%5b2%5dIt has also been good for my self-esteem.  After I’d abandoned the first PhD, the most painful thing was the gradual realisation that I had been considered capable of doing it, but hadn’t lived up to my potential.  It’s disappointing to realise that you’ve sold yourself short – there’s no glory in being a Ph without the D.  Successfully finishing the second PhD meant that I could finally put to rest the ghost of the first.

And the truth of the matter is that I loved every minute. I loved, and still love immersing myself in research.  I never doubted that I would finish it, and it has genuinely been life-changing. It hasn’t made me richer, but it has certainly opened up many interesting opportunities, and offered me the chance to get involved in further research projects.  Once, I couldn’t see myself lecturing, but now my CV is full of conference papers, and I’m in the middle of studying for a PG Cert in teaching and learning.  And once, I took pride in having published 30-odd magazine stories and a serial.  Now they take their place after a book and a quantity of scholarly articles.  I’m very good at narrative!

If I do have a regret, it’s that I didn’t do my PhD sooner, but common-sense reminds me that I did establish a career, have three children and get them all started in primary school before the time was right for research again.

Part-time doctoral research? It may not suit everyone, but it certainly suited me!


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Karen McAulay, part time PhD, PhD, second PhD and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to the part time doctorate- no glory in the ph without the d

  1. Bob says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s always good to hear from a fellow part-timer. How exactly did you use Academic Ladder? Did you hire a coach? You mentioned a support group but I didn’t see a forum or any community platform on the website. I’m interested as I think I’d need something similar at this point. Thanks!



    It is nice to know of the inspiring story of being a part time Phd candidate…thank u for ur study photo n the time management pie chart…i think i am trully inspired by your sheer determination and passion as a researcher!👍


  3. Mark Read says:

    Thanks, Karen. I enjoyed the read. With three kids, a job that depends on being available for work each morning but maybe not getting any, it has taken me seven years so far (minimum 6 at my home institution).

    I agree. Doing a PhD means putting a lot of plans long and short term on hold. And not just my own plans. But being a role model to my kids and scratching a research itch I didn’t even know I had until I started have been the highlights. And meeting great people who I would never ever have met otherwise.

    Bob. Follow part-time PhD’s on Twitter. We form little work gangs occasionally, over weekends, in the evenings, cheering each other on virtually. It’s a motivation for me that others in the same position know I am working and they are writing too at exactly the same time as I am. Virtually patting each other on the back at the end. Come on in. The waters’ lovely. @theworkfluss


  4. Thank you for the lovely post, Karen. I’ve just switched to part-time PhD after started working full time and having a small toddler. And being a church organist at weekends! I am so glad I came across you and your blog with very interesting content for the organists.
    As life goes by, my PhD is usually at the bottom of the priority list – it is just life as usual. SO It will be great to be part of community of part-times and get inspired by others.
    Thanks again.


  5. raccontando says:

    Hello. This was an interesting read. I am about to submit and also have three children – the last two came along a year into my PhD! I must admit I have found it really hard-going at times. For me the biggest problem was not so much finding the time (although that was challenging as I work too) but the space! I have grown quite good at ignoring background noise (Peppa Pig etc) as my desk is in the lounge or kitchen. Ironically, we are about to move into a slightly larger flat with a study – but by then (fingers crossed) I’ll have submitted.


  6. Laura says:

    “It has also been good for my self-esteem. After I’d abandoned the first PhD, the most painful thing was the gradual realisation that I had been considered capable of doing it, but hadn’t lived up to my potential. It’s disappointing to realise that you’ve sold yourself short – there’s no glory in being a Ph without the D. Successfully finishing the second PhD meant that I could finally put to rest the ghost of the first.”

    Thank you for writing this. The paragraph above really resonated with me. I also quit a first PhD for several reasons. I’m now searching for the “right” PhD, 5 years later. There’s unfinished business… a wrong I need to put right… potential I need to live up to. Your article has given me hope just when it is needed.


  7. Bob says:

    Thanks for the invitation Mark. Would love to jump in, but I’m not on Twitter. Perhaps it’s time I got onto the bandwagon. How do the part-timers find each other on Twitter? It’d be nice if there was a platform for all of us part-timers to stay in touch. I’m thinking perhaps a Facebook group. I guess that isn’t much of a step up from Twitter, but it has a few more features.


  8. Mark says:

    Hi Bob Search e.g. @PHDStudents @WriteThatPhD @PhDForum I think they all have websites as well. Plenty of others. Then pick up individual students’ tweets or other accounts to follow from there. Best wishes.


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