Ten top tips for surviving part-time doctoral research

survival ringsAfter several false starts (three to be exact) I feel this giant research project is coming home. Getting lost has taught me a lot. I’ve learned from each encounter but never felt I was making progress. I realise now, my ideas about doctoral research were too hazy. I jumped in feet first not knowing where to begin but expecting all to be revealed in the next book, the next paper, the next person I spoke to – when it isn’t like that at all.

The research doesn’t take shape at the beginning. It develops as you read, reflect and read some more. Most of all, it emerges from conversations, with colleagues, family, friends – because only by talking about it – getting it out of your head and into the ether, can it become clear. Answering questions from others surfaces what you’re doing.

The process isn’t easy. Evenings, weekends and bank holidays have all been swallowed by a huge doctoral shaped hole. It’s lonely too. Developing survival tips and techniques is essential.  What’s worked for me might not work for others outside the field of qualitative educational research, or even some of those within it, but these are the lessons I’ve learned so far:

– Your research has to be personal; you need passion to stay the course, even when all around you seem less sure of your convictions.

– The subject has to inform your day job and make a difference to what you do. There’s never enough hours so a p/t Phd must have relevance to the greater part of your working week.

– If your passions lie outside work, re-consider a work related subject. The chances of completing are increased by the connections between research and daily practice.

– A doctorate is about learning to use the tools. Don’t be overly ambitious. Your PhD is unlikely to change the world. Aim for small changes in your chosen area instead.

– A PhD isn’t a mystery. There are set rules underpinning the process. Learning these will lay the foundation for research in the future.

– The regulations of doctoral research are laid out in dozens of books. Find the book which ‘speaks’ to you. Don’t be afraid to keep looking. When you find it, you’ll know it’s ‘yours’.

– See the component parts of your research holistically. A doctoral project is elastic. Like a cat’s cradle, its shape can move and shift so the component parts are best understood as linked rather than separate.

– Be confident. Develop the sense you have something worthwhile to say. Feel proud of the hours spent copying, cutting and pasting, losing files and feeling you’ll never get there. You will and your subject is unique, otherwise you wouldn’t be researching it.

 – Practice talking about your research. Learn to explain succinctly to anyone who’ll listen. Take every opportunity to present in public. Feel the fear and do it. The experience will be invaluable.

– The most liberating aspect is the freedom to think outside the box. Qualitative research contains permission to be creative. You’re looking for connections which haven’t been seen before. This takes imagination, sociological or otherwise. I needed to understand my research was personal before I could begin to claim the necessary ownership.

 It’s no exaggeration to say your p/t Phd will be a challenge and will dominate your life. You have to let it move in and take over.  Other advice includes join a research group, write a blog, give yourself deadlines, create targets then give yourself rewards for reaching them.

Sounds like another top ten tips in the making!