An increasing number of health and social care professionals are taking on the challenge of studying for a professional doctorate. This is often driven by a passion to development their professional practice and the care they deliver through high quality and original doctoral research. No-one entering a doctoral programme does so believing that it’s going to be an easy journey and, for many students, the reality of part-time doctoral study soon hits home when trying to balance work, their doctoral studies and real life.
As the Director for the DProf in Health and Social Care (DProfHSC) at Anglia Ruskin University, and as a doctoral Advisor and Supervisor, I have supported and guided many students through their doctoral journey from day one to thesis submission and graduation. For many students, their biggest achievement was being able to balance work, studying at a high level and everyday life. In this blog I offer some suggestions that will help students get the balance right.
1. Where do you work best?
Much has been written about the environments in which students choose to undertake their doctoral work … where they will read, write and think. There are no rules. Whilst one student might work best at a clear and tidy desk, others might prefer to work in a coffee shop, in a library or even on the train. What is most important is that students seek out their best working place and, when necessary, establish workplace expectations. For example, if someone’s best working place is a home office then expectation number one must be that housework can wait until outside study hours. If housework always seems more attractive than working on that methodology chapter then the home office might not be contributing to the right balance.
2. When do you work best?
Are you a night owl or an early bird? When is the best time to fit study hours into hectic work and family lives? Working hours and family commitments often place limits on times for doctoral study but there are still decisions to be made. Some students rise early in the morning and study for a couple of hours before making the children’s packed lunches or going to the day job. When study part-time for my own doctorate, I had two young children so my study hours began at about 9pm and ended between midnight and 1am most nights. Most importantly for me, keeping these hours became a habit.
It is creating habits like these that enables progress and helps to fit regular study hours into busy lives. Where students sometimes go wrong is to assume they are a night owl when they might be better suited to working early in the day. It is worth trying different working patterns until the student finds the best strategy for them. It is also worth noting that best patterns can change. Frequent all-nighters might have worked as an 18-year-old undergraduate student but age and other commitments make this more difficult for more mature part-time doctoral students.
3. Align studies to the day job
Balancing work and doctoral study is much easier if the focus of the individual’s doctorate in directly connected to their day job. Such an approach makes it easier to break down time barriers between work and study. For professional doctorate students there there is already a necessary link with a clear focus on developing or improving the practitioner’s area of professional practice. Having this close link also makes it easier to have conversations with managers about study leave and financial support if there might be an apparent benefit to the workplace. The novels of Emily Brontë might make for a fascinating doctoral thesis, but will probably offer little to improving the care of patients in a hospital setting.
4. Plan, plan, plan … and achieve
It may sound obvious but careful planning is at the heart of success. For part-time doctoral students who have complex work, study and life commitments to balance, planning is even more essential. Realistic and achievable short, medium and long-term goals make it easier to monitor progress and celebrate successes. Such planning also helps to ensure that mandatory university deadlines are not missed. While six years might seem a long time to undertake research and submit a doctoral thesis, catching-up with missed deadlines can cause disruption to an already fragile balance between work, study and life commitments.
5. Don’t be distracted
Studying for a doctorate will require that students engage in a considerable amount of reading, both around the focus of their research and their chosen research design. Where students sometimes go wrong is in being distracted by extremely interesting but irrelevant material. Having the research question on a post-it note attached to a computer screen can help students to maintain their focus. The doctoral journey is already a long one so it is essential that students don’t make that journey longer by going down blind alleys that lead nowhere and certainly add nothing to the research. Time wasted on such distractions has to be clawed back from somewhere and the danger is that such time might only be found in work or family time.
6. Make Advisers and Supervisors work for you
The doctoral journey is a long one so it is essential that all doctoral students seek support and guidance from those who have already made the journey and have guided others on that same journey.
Advisers and supervisors can help students maintain forward momentum, meet deadlines and can help ensure they achieve the academic level required. Students need to remember, however, that advisers and supervisors will not chase them. Instead, it is students who need to make their supervisors work for them … they need to manage their supervisors. This can be done by planning for supervisory meetings and by ensuring that when actions and deadlines are being set, at the end of meetings, that these are also agreed for supervisors. Such an approach helps to ensure, as far as possible, that progress is kept within deadlines and that balance is maintained.
7. Ensure the body and mind are fit
Doctoral students are like finely tuned athletes who perform at their best when both body and mind are functioning well. When there is disruption to either, through ill-health or other distractions, then a student’s capacity to focus on their doctoral studies will be reduced. So doctoral students need to ensure that they take time to keep physically (e.g., Wednesday evening touch rugby) and mentally (e.g., spending quality time with friends and family) fit and don’t find themselves always sitting at their desks.
8. Learn from other students
No doctoral student is the first to make the doctoral journey. Many have come before and many more will follow. During these doctoral journeys students have learned much they wish they had known sooner in their own journeys. Students should take every possible opportunity to learn from fellow students by attending networking events, by participating in student conferences and by engaging with university graduate societies. Learning from fellow students can reinforce the need to ensure a careful work, study and life balance and can also highlight to students ways in which this might be achieved. If nothing else, networking with fellow doctoral students can also minimise some of the isolation commonly associated with being a doctoral student.
9. Do something everyday
One of the keys to progress with doctoral studies is to try to do something every day … or at least most days. That might be reading a research paper, reading a chapter from a methodology book, working on a draft thesis chapter or anything that helps the student move forward with their studies. This, again, is about creating habits and needs considerable determination because each day it can be hard to sit and begin reading or writing. This is, however, a habit that needs to be learned because the longer the time between periods of study the harder it is to begin working, the sooner goals begin to slip and the sooner there are further challenges to the work, study and life balance.
10. Celebrate successes
Finally, we come to one of the most important ways of helping to ensure the work, study and life balance but also one that most doctoral students, and those supporting them, do less well. The doctoral journey involves a number official and unofficial deadlines and goals and each completed landmark should be celebrated, marking the end of one stage in the doctoral journey and the beginning of the next stage. Most importantly, these celebrations can help maintain the work, study and life balance because family, friends and work colleagues can see that the student is moving forward. We should celebrate more often.
Being able to balance work, doctoral study and everyday life is key to successful navigation of the doctoral journey for part-time professional doctorate students. In this blog I have considered just some of the issues that students need to consider when seeking to maintain this balance.
To conclude, I would like to thank the 2018 cohort of DProfHSC students at Anglia Ruskin University for sharing their thinking on these issues at their last workshop.