Succeeding as a ‘non traditional’ student



This post is about the challenges of undertaking a part time doctorate, whilst working full time in a non-academic setting where I felt isolated from a learning environment. In particular it is focussed on how I tried to maintain momentum and motivation. I offer some suggestions about what worked for me, and hope that people who read this might avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way. It is written from the perspective of being a mature student (or in my case a very mature student), as I was nearing retirement by the time I finished.

1. The project plan

One of the most useful short courses I attended at the university was called “Staying motivated”. We were strongly advised to develop a project plan for getting to the end of the doctorate, and to produce it in the form of a gantt chart so that we could work out what tasks we needed to carry out, roughly how long they would take, and which tasks depended on earlier tasks (for example you have to collect your data before you can analyse it).

The plan wasn’t set in stone and I had to amend it several times, but it was helpful to check the plan regularly, so I could think about whether I was on schedule and which tasks were coming up next. A useful tip was to work out the date you expect to submit your thesis, and to print that out in a large font and fix it to the wall to remind you of your long term target.

It’s important to identify interim milestones, such as transcribing your interview data or finishing the first draft of your literature review, so that you can celebrate those achievements. You can think of it as being like the challenge of running a marathon. If you’re thinking about the finish line when you’re at the start you’ll increase the probability of giving up. Be kind to yourself, and just focus on getting the first 2 miles of the race or the next project milestone under your belt.

2. Managing risk

I found it useful to produce a risk register for my research project, which involved identifying the things that might go wrong and what I could do about it. For example I had planned to send out an online questionnaire to about 1500 health care workers, and there was a risk that these people wouldn’t complete it as they were busy providing care for patients. To reduce the risk of a very low response rate I went to several professional network meetings to explain the context of my research, and I was fortunate enough to persuade the local Medical and Nursing Directors to send out a covering letter encouraging their staff to respond.

A different type of risk to be aware of is ‘scope creep’. This is where the research starts with a defined study population which gradually expands. In my own research project I was tempted to extend my case study from one locality to a multi-site case study. My supervisor pointed out the implications of doing this, particularly the time and effort required, and fortunately I listened to his wise advice about sticking to the original remit.

3. Writing

Like many people I found it difficult at first to get down to writing my thesis. I was advised by my supervisor to start early, and although I was a bit sceptical I took that advice and produced a first draft of my Literature Review chapter before I’d collected any data. I found particularly helpful when it came to getting down to writing, especially the excellent article about “How to write 1000 words a day

What worked for me was to try to write little and often. Sometimes I worked on draft chapters for the thesis, other times it involved making notes in my research journal about random thoughts on methodological challenges or about an interview I’d undertaken. The journal proved to be very useful for when I came to write the reflective commentary section of my thesis.

Another tip I was given at an early stage was to write something for publication. I was advised not to aim for the most prestigious journals, but just to try to get something published. I did succeed in getting a paper published and it helped me feel more confident about expressing myself in writing.

4 Procrastination

When I was writing up my thesis one of the biggest challenges I had to tackle was the temptation to indulge in displacement activities. For example it can be very tempting to rearrange your workspace, experiment with different fonts, and check your inbox for email. This excellent cartoon by Tom Gauld sums up the struggle.

As long as you are aware when you are procrastinating you can decide what to do about it.

5. Supervisor

As with any other relationship, you need to work at the relationship with your supervisor. At the start it felt a bit like parent and child, but gradually it evolved into a partnership between equals. I was conscious that he was supervising several doctorate students, so I tried to rely on other people for the more mundane stuff and to prioritise how I used my limited contact time with him.

When we had agreed that I would send him a draft chapter to review I felt that it was important to stick to the date I’d promised to send it (or at least warn him if it was going to be late), rather than assuming he was sitting around with nothing else to do.

As a mature student I had to learn to take the feedback I received on draft chapters as constructive criticism, rather than reacting defensively. That proved difficult at first, as my supervisor was young enough to be my son, but we gradually developed a relationship of trust as I came to appreciate the sound advice he offered about how to successfully complete the thesis.

6. Support network

As a part time student I rarely visited the university campus, so I needed to develop a support network to keep motivated, rather than just relying on my supervisor. One of the most important networks involved my peer group on the doctorate programme. Most of us agreed to help each other, so we kept in touch by skype and email to exchange ideas. It proved especially useful to be able to touch base with other people who were dealing with similar challenges. For example, those of us using qualitative methods often compared ideas about our experiences of undertaking interviews and analysing the data.

I realised quite early on that there was nothing wrong about asking for help. I contacted a number of eminent people during the course of my research. Although a few of them did not respond, many of them were willing to spare some time for a chat over a cup of coffee, and offered insights into how I could improve the design of my research project or suggested contact names of other people with similar research interests.

And try to avoid the mood hoovers. I had one or two work colleagues who were very negative about the whole idea of doing a doctorate. They made comments such as “why do you want to do something like that at your age?” and “everyone knows that it’s easy to get a doctorate – universities give them away in exchange for the fees”. As well as academic support, most of us need people we can turn to occasionally for a bit of friendly advice and support when the going gets tough.

7. Present at conferences

Another piece of advice I received was to apply to present at a conference once I’d produced the first draft of my literature review and collected some data, rather than waiting until I’d completed my doctorate. I was a bit doubtful about this, but I decided to try and I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

The outline of my talk was accepted, I overcame my nerves on the day and gave my presentation at the conference, and a couple of months later I was invited to speak at another conference by someone who had heard my first presentation. I realised that most people feel a bit apprehensive when they speak in front of a large group, but that once you start speaking it is usually a rewarding experience, and you often get to talk to other people with similar research interests.

8. Exercise and meditation

And finally, what also worked for me was taking regular exercise. I found that after sitting staring at a computer screen for 2 or 3 hours I needed to get out in the fresh air for a run to clear my head. I realise that the running bit won’t appeal to everyone, but it is definitely worth taking regular breaks and getting out of the house. (I admit I’m cheating a bit here, as I was a regular runner before I started the doctorate and had completed the London marathon).

As well as exercise, I took up mindfulness meditation a couple of years ago. There are several different approaches you can use to reduce stress. Mindfulness works for me, and I even used one of the meditation exercises on the morning of my viva to help me feel focussed and to reduce the feelings of stress.

I hope these suggestions are helpful, and I can assure you that in the long run the effort is worth it.

Author Bio: Colin Cohen completed a doctorate at the School for Health in the University of Bath in south west England. Colin is what we call in the trade a ‘non traditional student\’: older, part time and not working in an academic field.