The challenges of the part-time student

I have been teaching part-time masters students in project management for a number of years now and have always been impressed by the dedication that delegates have to the course and the associated challenges of completing assignments whilst holding down a full time demanding professional role as a project manager. To date however this has been admiration from afar, with no real conception of the reality of life as a part-time student.  I have been fortunate in that all my academic studies to date both undergraduate and masters level, have been of the full-time variety, completed at a time of my life before real responsibility in the form of husband and children arrived.  

Until now, that is. I registered as a part-time doctoral student in the School of MACE in Manchester last September.  This has brought the reality of part-time studying into sharp focus for me and has increased further my admiration for all part-time students, particularly those who constantly strive for excellence in every module they undertake.  So here are a few critical reflections on my first few months as a part-time PhD student. I hope they are helpful and reassuring to those of you on a part-time study journey, particularly those embarking on the dissertation phase of the MSc programmes

 1. Academic study and the demands of the day job exercise very different regions of the brain. 

I constantly feel that my brain is simply not big enough to fit all the information I require for both jobs in, and if I could invent a piece of technology it would be removable slots in the brain in which I could insert the required databanks – one for the day job, one for studying and one for managing home, family and husband!  In the absence of this I am muddling by, with the help of three different sets of lists for each area of life and a smart phone to connect them all together.

 2. Academic study rewards deep reading and thinking about a topic. 

The luxury of having free time to do this is simply not afforded to the part-time student.  Instead study time has to be carved out of a busy day, often when one is tired.  I have surprised myself with what can be achieved even in relatively short chunks of time, and with a 8 and 4 year old, often on inadequate levels of sleep.  So don’t be overwhelmed by the study required, break it down into smaller manageable chunks.

3. Form new study habits

The key to successful part-time study is to form good habits.  Little and often is the mantra oft quoted by my Professor @AndrewWGale – and it is very good advice.  If you can set aside protected chunks of time for academic study, which are regular, achievable and sacrosanct then you will make progress towards the end goal.  Apparently the human brain is very plastic, in that we can mould the route ways in the brain to form new connections, routines and habits.  It only takes 3 weeks to reprogramme the brain in this way, so if you persevere with your new study habits for 3 weeks, then they will start to become part of a new routine and will pay dividends. To leave you with a challenge, the prolific writer, Anthony Trollope was also a full time post office manager – He did all his writing between the hours of 5am and 8am.  In contrast Truman Capote, wrote while lying horizontal on a couch, with a sherry and cigarette for company!

Find the habit that works for you and stick with it

4. Productivity improves morale. 

Instead of focusing on the study not yet achieved, the articles not yet read, the books not bought, the interviews not done, focus on what has been achieved. Celebrate small wins which will generate the impression of productivity, in turn raising levels of morale so that the next assignment mountain can be climbed.

 5. Do not give up

Visualise yourself at the end of the study journey.  You will get there and the feeling of satisfaction and relief will be palpable.  For myself, I image graduating from The University of Manchester, in about 2017, with my kids, who will be 13 and 9 respectively, looking proudly on!

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