The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time PhD Student

This week’s blog is courtesty of Sarah Hardstaff, who is a second-year part-time PhD student. Her research looks at economic ideas in the works of Mildred Taylor and Cynthia Voigt.

Doing a PhD part-time while working is not that unusual, but it sometimes makes you feel like the odd one out, or just odd full stop. Here I look at some of the things that make the part-time experience different.

  1. You don’t have to worry about selling out. But only because you’ve already done it.

 A couple of years ago, beloved poet and children’s literature professor Michael Rosen wrote a less-than-fond farewell to the outgoing and very much unbeloved education secretary, Michael Gove. Rosen presented a dystopian vision in which schools are completely governed by market forces:

Gove… leaves behind an education system bulging on the branch* waiting for the owners of giant corporations and education companies to pick parts of it off and gobble them up. Our children are already in schools working off multinational media companies’ digital worksheets disguised as “innovative learning” where strange disembodied voices say “fromage” and the students write “cheese”.

Now, much as I would love to sit in my ivory tower, perhaps twiddling my moustache and nodding in fervent agreement, I can’t. Because I a) do not have a moustache and b) work for a publishing company.

It’s me Rosen’s talking about. I am the disembodied voice that says “fromage”.

So there we have it. Apparent complicity in the breakdown of the education system by day. Writing about the importance of hope for a better society in children’s literature by night.

Pros: You actually have a real job, preserving you from ever having to utter the words “But doing a PhD is a real job!”

Cons: You are a bit of a hypocrite, and it’s probable that Michael Rosen will never want to be your friend or take you on a bear hunt. This makes you very sad.

  1. People think you are a robot. But you get to say ‘no’. A lot.

When I tell people about my double life, their response is often “You’re mad!”** What I think they’re actually saying is “Where have you hidden the timeturner?”

Alas, I do not have a timeturner. I wish it were so, especially when dealing with institutions set up to cater to mostly full-time students. No, I cannot come to that session. Yes, I know it’s compulsory. Yes, I do appreciate that it’s a great opportunity. Yes, of course I’m committed to my research.

On the plus side, my default answer to everything is “No”. Sometimes I take great pleasure in going through my email list and gleefully deleting invitations.

During my full-time MPhil year I ran around convinced the sky would fall in if I didn’t squeeze every last drop out of what is euphemistically referred to as ‘the Cambridge experience’. Ultimately, my research was successful in spite of all that running around, not because of it.

Pros: People are impressed when you manage to turn up to something. Sometimes you are so efficient with your time that you get a bit frightened and pinch your arm to check that you are not the Terminator.

Cons: FOMO.

  1. You are always out of sync.

People around the university are always talking about ‘term’. At first I assumed this was some kind of wading bird, but I’ve since inferred that it is something with cycles and duration, like the orbit of the moon, or the maximum time you can avoid going to the hairdresser’s before people start approaching you on the street and asking for directions to the nearest homeless shelter. (My personal best is 2 years.)

Like many academics, I suffer from imposter syndrome, and so I avoid using words that I don’t understand. When people talk about ‘term’ or, worse, ask me what I am doing when it ‘ends’, I smile and nod, and then change the subject.

Pros: People seem to like comparing their progress, despite the fact that a) everyone on a PhD will achieve goals at their own pace, and b) that way madness lies. You, on the other hand, measure your progress in comparison with precisely no-one. You also have to do lots of planning ahead, which saves you from last-minute panic.

 Cons: Thinking about how old you will be when you graduate induces existential despair. You are also not very good at responding to events quickly. For example, the more perceptive readers of this blog will have noticed that this is not a blog about horses, despite the fact that there was a very successful conference on horses in children’s literature at the weekend. Meg Rosoff was there! KM Peyton was there! Even I was there! I can only apologise that you are not reading about it. If it’s any consolation, it was wonderful.

In my imagination, this is what full-timers do all day. Their views may differ.
* Those of you familiar with my work will recall I love a good tree metaphor.

** Aren’t we all mad here?



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