Part-time PhD & Study Balance

Helen Palmer

Film & TV Studies Department. I’m a part-time PhD Researcher as I’m a Co-Director of a marketing consultancy, Palmer Squared, with my twin brother Andrew. We specialise in the arts, heritage and cultural tourism sectors and most of my spare time (!) is spent going to the theatre, cinema, art galleries, museums, festivals and heritage attractions – a complete busman’s holiday! Working thesis title: Sexual Repression and the Romantic Ideal in the Dream Ballets of Hollywood Film Musicals 1938 – 1957

There are a number of questions that I’m regularly asked about doing a PhD part-time whilst working full-time – how is your PhD going and how do you manage to balance work and study (never mind a social life!)?  Well the answer to those questions is always the same – to the first question – slowly, and to the second – if I ever find the balance I’ll let you know!

Clocking the hours

A colleague of mine who had completed a PhD whilst working full-time advised me to allocate a minimum of 15 hours per week to dedicated study, recognising that this will build over time, particularly in the last year.  In my first term I took advantage of some of the free training sessions available to post grads to help with developing my approach to study and picked up a lot of useful tips, particularly with reference to note-taking, setting out the parameters of my research and planning my approach to study.  I had a four year gap between completing my MA and starting my PhD so felt a little rusty to say the least.  Of course what I discovered was that I needed to allocate dedicated time in the week to study, so at Christmas I took the decision to ringfence a day in my working week to focus exclusively on my PhD.  My business partner (also my brother!) has been great in respecting that day and all was going well until a couple of months ago.

Impacts of success in work

As a marketing consultant working in the arts, no two days are ever the same and work naturally ebbs and flows with no recognisable pattern.  Just to get political for a moment, the arts sector has suffered greatly due to national and local government funding cuts and my business has felt the impact of such measures with a difficult start to the year.  But it’s like buses, you wait for one to come along and then three turn up!  My brother and I are actually directors of two consultancy businesses plus Joint Head of Marketing for a biennial festival taking place this autumn, and in the last couple of months we’ve been successful in winning new clients too – great for our businesses and our bottom line but not so great for my PhD studies.  My precious one day a week has all but disappeared in the last two weeks due to the pressure of work and having to travel around the country to work with clients.

Getting back on track with time management

I always thought that I’d have much more flexibility as a consultant, hence fitting in a PhD in the way that I’d managed to complete a Masters whilst working full-time.  But a PhD is a different beast and requires a different approach and particularly a different writing style.  So to claw back some time I took a week off work at Easter to dedicate to research and writing as well as recharging my batteries.  I anticipate that most bank holidays, like today, will be spent as PhD days, so no enjoying the glorious sunshine for me…

I’d like to think that I could spend one or two evenings a week working on my PhD but I’m either out a work related event, travelling home late or frankly just too tired.  So I try to allocate one day at the weekend for PhD study, as well as the day in the week, as there are no work phone calls and I can ignore work emails too.

I’m the only part-time PhD researcher in my department (film and tv) so I’ve learned not to compare my progress with anyone else.  I’m glad that I chose an area of study that I already know well as it’s related to my Masters dissertation, that certainly makes a difference.  I fear that if I’d chosen a completely new topic I’d have had thoughts of throwing in the towel by now!

It’s good to talk

I’ve had to make a difficult decision in the last two weeks and that is to defer my planned summer archive visits to Los Angeles and New York to January 2014.  I’m thankful to my tutor, department and the Graduate School for being so understanding and supportive.  My professional workload is such that I simply can’t fit in the trip and the pre-trip required research.  I’m lined up for a busy summer and autumn so I’m aiming to keep plugging away at the PhD in the snatched time slots I’ve allocated so as to not slip too far behind.

I’ve found that it’s helpful to flag up concerns early to my tutor so that we can discuss my priorities and arrange appropriate deadlines to fit around my busy work life.  So today I’m finishing rewriting my first chapter and my aim for this academic year is to complete that first chapter to a standard that my tutor and I are happy with, and to have agreed the thesis chapter structure.  The literature review will probably have to wait until autumn when I’ll be in my second year but technically I’ll still be a first year!

Top tips for time management

I wish I had a great list but my main advice is to not sweat the little stuff!  Every PhD is different and everyone has to deal with unexpected turns in their lives.  Whilst we all may have an ideal way that we’d like to complete our PhD, the reality is very different and that’s all part of the experience.  I’m a completer finisher by nature so I’m determined that I will go the distance and submit a thesis even if it takes me the full 5 years – I completed my Masters over 5 years due to work interruptions.  Having to earn a living, run my own home, deal with family commitments and maintain some sort of social life helps me to put things in perspective when I’m feeling stressed about my lack of available time for my PhD.

4 thoughts on “Part-time PhD & Study Balance

  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful Ph.D. experience of Mr. Helen Palmer. It is quite similar to my own as I am also pursuing a part – time Ph.D. and that too being into a medical profession. I always wanted to pursue a research programme in my interest area, but I was not getting much time to get myself enrolled into a regular program. So, I chose a part-time program thinking that it would be easier but soon I realized that I was wrong as then also I was facing the same problem of time management. I talked to my guide regarding this, but nothing productive came out. I thought of taking help of a friend but could not find one who had any idea of my topic and research area. Then I came across a professional thesis writing service providing company and had a conversation with them regarding the problem I was facing, and I found their consulting team really supportive. Now I am about to finish off with my project within time under their guidance.

    1. It’s great to hear your story John. Finding work/life balance is not the easiest thing to accomplish, so kudos to you and good luck with your thesis!

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