You’ve finished that piece of work - got the ideas straight, discussed the secondary material, presented a clear argument. But there’s one more thing: proofreading. Your work needs to look perfect and read perfectly to get the attention it deserves, and this isn’t easy, especially if English is not your first language. The Gradgrind is …
by Rebecca Booth
Janus is the two-faced Roman god of transition, and a fitting symbol for the multiple roles of a part-time PhD student. I work full-time at the University of Oxford, and am a part-time MPhil student at the University of Roehampton, reading Cultural Studies. Currently in my second year of a four-year programme, I am waiting for the results of my upgrade status to PhD.
My research, an analysis of (sexual) violence, extremity and excess in contemporary French cinema, was awarded a fees-only bursary as part of the Vice Chancellor’s Research Studentship within the Centre for Research in Film and Audiovisual Cultures at Roehampton. Juggling a commitment to graduate study at doctoral level, part or full-time work, some semblance of a social life, and – shock horror – squeezing in any interests or hobbies outside of academia, is for the most part exhausting. It is also enjoyable and fulfilling. As one such Janus, I continually perform the ‘explanation’ dance to family, friends and colleagues. The following questions are regularly asked:
a) ‘You’re still at university? After seven years?’
b) ‘When will you stop (and get a real job)?’
c) ‘How do you do it?’
My typical response:
a) Yes, and I have three more to go.
b) I have a real job. I want a career.
c) With lots of (legal) stimulants. Well, coffee. And a serious amount of organisation.
Each time I am queried in this manner the doubt creeps in, and I automatically ask myself a more personal and important question: Why? Why do I do this? The general financial lull in the humanities, with so many articles warning potential humanities PhD students that they are wasting time – chasing a pipe dream with a future of debt and misery instead of a long and fulfilling career – is really not helping. Yes, it is taking me longer than expected to become an academic, but my funding is evidence that my research is not only important to me, but to the humanities. I refuse to be daunted. There is always hope.
For every horror story about qualified academics giving up or working for the minimum wage, there are inspiring and much-needed tales of optimism.
One of the PhD students in my department recently walked straight into a job on the faculty. My University is piloting an interdisciplinary doctoral training partnership scheme, of which I am an associate, giving graduates the opportunity to gain skills suiting a variety of professional roles within their industry, creating an extensive portfolio that extends beyond the academic and reflects the needs of contemporary theory and research. This is a clear example of a growing and definite focus on scholarships and funding, especially in the humanities, within higher education.
So, if you really want to pursue a part-time PhD, my advice is: do it.
If you are not lucky enough to support yourself, you will need to undertake extensive research into funding providers and schemes. This will be time-consuming, and it will be disheartening, but welcome to your part-time PhD. No one said this was going to be easy.
Although funding is highly sought-after, and in many instances political (I have heard countless times how other academics opted to pursue a PhD in a particular subject or theme that was not in their personal interest in order to receive full funding), there are options.
I struggled to find funding for my Masters, and after being told that my area of film, feminism and genre was not politically ‘sexy’, I ended up taking out a Career Development Loan, which I am still paying to this day.
After my Masters, my lecturers wanted me to stay on and pursue my academic career at the University of Southampton. I simply couldn’t do this without funding. I had tried the main routes – internally, and via organisations such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council – but other funding was linked to smaller charities, and looked like a minefield of multiple applications with no guarantee of success. I also looked at other universities.
After moving back home and struggling to find a decent job, I applied for several media-related positions but was not successful due to lack of experience, and couldn’t afford to undertake unpaid work to gain that experience. In my heart I knew I still wanted to pursue my PhD, and after constantly keeping an eye out across the academy, whilst temping for almost two years, I found a fully funded (maintenance and fees) scholarship at the University of Kent, as part of the 50th Anniversary Scholarships programme across a variety of disciplines. The scholarship was awarded through research groups, and my project, looking specifically at ethics within extreme film, was a fit. I was informed that my proposal was nominated by my research group as the first choice to be awarded funding, but unfortunately the research group itself was overlooked in favour of another. Having been so close to my goal was hard to take. I was losing faith as I found myself on the wrong side of the deadline for that academic year.
In a last effort, I saw that the University of Roehampton was advertising an internal studentship scheme. It started in January instead of October. I applied, and was absolutely thrilled when I was invited to interview. I was then informed that I was successful.
Despite my elation, this still left one obstacle. Unlike the Kent scholarship, this bursary was fees-only. Luckily my employers have been very supportive, and have allowed me some flexibility to accommodate visits to university. This is not always the case, so my advice, if you are currently in full-time employment, is to be open and ask about your options if you are successful in obtaining a fees-only bursary, or indeed taking a loan to cover tuition whilst you work to support yourself.
Work colleagues have commented that they interview many candidates with fantastic grades, but without any work experience. The skills I have gained from my working roles have hugely improved my ability to deliver presentations with confidence, draft correspondence and reports, proofread to the highest level, work to deadlines and manage a demanding workload.
I am not going to lie, it is an extremely hard slog, and consists of researching and writing before work (and thus very early mornings), during my lunch breaks, and on trips to the library after work. But, if you work out a reward system, and allocate time away from work and study so that you don’t go insane, it can be done. This is especially true if you have a good relationship with your work and university supervisors, allowing you to have some flexibility.
As a part-time student living in Oxfordshire, I do often feel isolated from the postgraduate community in Roehampton, especially as I find it very difficult to attend training workshops, research seminars, or social events. Even if you do live closer to your educational institution, I would advise that you connect with your peers as much as possible, whether that be asking your supervisors to pass on your details to other part-time students, or organising a group dedicated to part-time postgraduate study on social media, to have discussions about work, study and research, and to arrange social meetings.
Looking back, I have of course been naïve in searching for funding and opportunities across the confusing and rarely signposted landscape of higher education, and there are options I could have chased to different ends. But that’s life: I love where I am now, and I’m happy. Janus is also the god of passageways, transition and time: he is constantly looking to the future and the past, and is thus the inspiration for the month of January. My PhD journey started in this month, an unexpected and wonderful doorway into my chosen career. As a philosopher, whenever I find myself overwhelmed with doubt or stress, reflecting on the past and the future, I think of Janus and how lucky I am to be doing what I love.
If you take one thing from reading my story, let it be this: have hope. Especially if you are considering a PhD in the humanities. You can fit a PhD around your life, regardless of financial status, or other commitments, and you can do what you love.
In the words of Lena Horne: It’s not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it.