A part-time and distance PhD


Earlier this month, I submitted my PhD in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the University of New England Business School.  I did my PhD part-time, while I worked full-time in the IT sector, and I did my PhD through distance, so my project had a few challenges along the way.  I live in Sydney but the university and my supervisors were in Armidale (about 600 km away).  It took me three years and 12 days to complete my PhD (from 2014 to 2017)—the normal timeframe is 6 years.  Here’s how.

I focused on my motivation.  Every doctoral researcher has a unique motivation to start and then finish the PhD.  We assume that PhDs want academic careers but more than half of PhDs don’t follow academic careers.  My motivation was simply to have the title of Doctor and to wear the scarlet gown and the velvet bonnet at graduation.  To help me through the sticky times, I found blog posts from recent graduations at UNE, showing photos of newly minted PhDs in their gowns and bonnets.  If I felt low or dispirited, I had a look at those photos, to renew my motivation.  I shared my PhD goals with my supervisors, wanting them to understand where I was coming from, so they would know where they could help me.

I sprinted from day 1.  Working full-time meant that my PhD was always going to be squashed into time outside paid work:  nights, weekends, holiday time.  But I knew that I wanted to complete it quickly, so I tried to be efficient with my time.  I also tried to remove friction where I found it—like getting stuck on endless searches for literature, or rewriting/tinkering with my Results chapters. You have to sense when to stop or when to move on.  Don’t let tedious university admin procedures derail you either—my experience was that you just need to do it and get through it.

I took a break when I needed it.  I had a period at work when I was rolling out a new IT system.  It was always going to be a hectic time, with almost no room for PhD work.  So, I took a leave of absence for two months.  I focused on the work project and didn’t have the stress of worrying about data analysis and writing up.  If your PhD is making you go crazy, I would urge you to take a break, as I did.

I looked after my health and wellbeing.  I found it all too easy to be welded to my chair, staring at the computer for hours.  But I tried to make time for my health and wellbeing.  Regular exercise was, I believe, one of the keys to maintaining sanity and keeping a good pace, during my PhD.  I took the dog for long walks and I swam many laps in the local pool.  Those moments away from the computer gave my mind room to reflect on my work, putting together new connections intuitively.

I built relationships virtually.  Being at a distance from the university meant most of my interactions were virtual.  I used telephone calls to introduce myself to people I’d not met before, then used email to follow up.  I avoided having email as my only communication tool.  I visited the university about twice a year during my PhD.  During those times, I always scheduled lengthy meetings with my supervisors, typically to deal with big issues or thorny problems, like what to include or exclude in my thesis.

I picked supervisors that matched my style.  There are heaps of sob stories from doctoral researchers about unsupportive or mean supervisors.  I was lucky—I had supportive supervisors, and crucially, my style matched their expectations.  In a meeting last month, they said I wasn’t ‘needy’, which made for a good match between us.  Now, looking back, that’s the key to success with supervisors.  I did not need or want a cuddly, hand-holding supervisor, nor did I need daily directives.  I thrived on autonomy and used my sense of confidence to forge ahead by myself, seeking an occasional helping hand when I needed it.

I built my research skills.  I used qualitative thematic analysis methods in my study.  I didn’t have those skills when I started my PhD, so I made sure I took courses and webinars to boost my capability.  The university offered a data analysis course; later I headed to Berlin to attend the user conference for my data analysis software, MAXQDA.  There I took several workshops and made connections, opening my eyes to the extended and sophisticated possibilities offered by the tool.  My investment was valuable—later in my project I used the tools to build my discussion and conclusion chapter, something I would not have thought about doing without insights from training.

I honed my writing skills.  In Australia, the PhD is examined purely on the thesis.  So, this piece of writing is the only output that matters.  At the start of writing up, I scoured both Patter and The Thesis Whisperer for book recommendations and I ordered them all from the UNE library.  I found plenty of conflicting advice (annoying!) but also good advice about the genre of academic writing and what superior writing looks like.  The more I practised, the better I got!  Now I know that high quality writing comes from revising and editing drafts.  Reading good academic writing is another key.  On reflection, developing my writing skills made a significant, positive difference to the quality of my thesis and improved my relationship with my supervisors.

I used my corporate project management skills.  Being in the corporate sector, I applied typical meeting management skills to my PhD.  Simple things like:  agreeing a monthly meeting schedule in advance, so the dates were booked in the diary; sending an agenda about three days before the meeting; keeping recordings of meetings; and crucially, sending sufficiently detailed meeting notes within 24 hours.  These things are boring but essential to help the project steam along.  There were times when I forgot exactly what was agreed and who had to take action after the meeting, so meeting notes helped me and my supervisors with that.  I set deadlines for myself and for my supervisors, especially for thesis reviews.  Those timelines were essential communication devices, to make it through a long project without tears.

Feedback is a gift.  I learnt this mantra at work on a long-forgotten training course.  I applied it to my PhD, every time I sent off my work for review.  Every piece of feedback is a gift, whether that feedback is negative, constructive or positive.  I judiciously ignored extremely harsh or needlessly arrogant feedback.  Some feedback is harder to take than others.  My personal tactic was to avoid getting caught up in the emotion of the feedback.  If I felt unhappy, I gave myself 24 hours, took a walk, punched a pillow and then came back.  My aim was to find the nugget or kernel of truth within each piece of feedback, then decide what to do.

I celebrated the positive.  I found it much too easy to get caught up in negativity, with plenty of ‘fix this’-type feedback during my PhD.  To counter that, I paid attention to when people said I was doing things right.  I used to, when typing meeting notes, write down all the positive keywords that my supervisors said on a sheet of paper next to my keyboard.  That way, I could glance back at it and remind myself about the good stuff that I was doing.  This was powerful for me, sustaining my motivation, especially when things were seemingly tough.

Finally, I gave back.  I made a point of helping others during my PhD.  It’s good to offer assistance, but I learnt something every time I helped someone.  I did several reference calls for the university, with students who were thinking about the PhD or the MPhil.  And I helped other doctoral researchers who struggled with setting up their research projects and with MAXQDA.  Helping turned out to be a good way of building my network for the longer term.