How to get a PhD – the hard way

The Short Version: It’s been a long journey. I first registered for a PhD in 1999. It didn’t work out. I stopped for a while. Then I registered again in 2003 after moving to a different institution. It worked out for a while, but then the wheels fell off when my supervisor left, and my research contract expired. I stopped for a while again. Then I took up a studentship at Nottingham in 2006, and spent two years balancing childcare, family-life, and actually working on my research. Somehow I managed to get some studies done, then took another research job in 2008 while I wrote my thesis. I submitted in December 2009. My viva, in March 2010, went OK, but more work was needed. I was asked to revise and resubmit. I resubmitted in January 2011. Finally, on 17 May 2011 I had the email confirming that my revised thesis had been accepted without need for further amendments. Almost 12 years to get my PhD. I present the full story here in the hope that others may find some comfort in hearing just how long the journey can be, but it can be done. I won’t bore you (here) with what motivated me to start a PhD, or more importantly to finish one, but suffice to say I would have given up many years ago without what one of my previous supervisors called “a burning desire to do one”. You definitely need that. Oh, and a supportive spouse. Definitely one of those too.

Read on for the Long Version:

I first registered for a PhD back in 1999 at the newly formed Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. I had come straight out of doing a Masters in Intelligent Systems at Nottingham, and before that I had completed a four year Psychology degree at Edinburgh. For a lot of reasons, many of them to do with me, it didn’t work out so well, and after about six months it was clear I wasn’t really going anywhere and didn’t have any kind of focus that I could concentrate on. I was offered an RA post on a research project that was just starting up, with the idea being that if I was working as part of a team on a defined project I might have a better chance at forming my own research ideas and getting some work done on them. This was my first job, and I really enjoyed it. I was part of a small team working on an EU-funded research project, and it gave me a great introduction to the processes involved in carrying out research and working with international partners. The intention was to register for the PhD part-time, but it transpired that this would mean paying fees. My meagre salary at the time meant that this really wasn’t affordable, so I ended up withdrawing, thinking that I would first gather my research ideas and then re-register once I actually had some work I wanted to do.

In 2002, an opportunity came up at the University of Birmingham to work on the MOBIlearn project. It seemed like a great chance to work on a project that focused on something I knew I was really interested in, but hadn’t really thought about in the context of research: mobile technologies.  I was employed as a researcher/developer on the MOBIlearn project, again working with partners in the EU, developing software and tools to support learning in mobile contexts. I quickly realised that this was the sort of thing I had a passionate interest in, and as my software building skills developed through working on the project, I saw how I could actually start building things to support my research ideas. In 2003 I registered for a part-time PhD at Birmingham, with a small one-off fee paid by the project I was working on. Looking back, I wish I had spent more time on my PhD back then when I had the chance. It seemed like I had all the time in the world, and there was always more software to fiddle with, more Java to test, more blogs to read. I wish I had knuckled down and got some serious work done, but I’m sad to say that I didn’t. I built and tested a system for developing participatory simulations using SMS messages, but it was only a pilot and didn’t get much further than that.

My son (#1) was born in 2004, drastically decreasing the amount of spare time I had, and I never managed to get any substantial work done (ie studies!).  In 2005, the MOBIlearn project came to an end, my primary supervisor left for Nottingham, and I started working on another educational technology project in a different department. There was plenty of time for me to work on my PhD, and I’m pleased to say that around this time I did get a reasonable amount done, but in hindsight I wish I had spent more time actually running trials and gathering data instead of developing software which ultimately could have been a lot simpler than it was.

I even managed to find a school that was interested in my research and agreed to let me work with their children. But in 2006, my contract at Birmingham came to an end, and none of the various grant proposals I had worked on in an attempt to secure funding for my position were successful. I was faced for the first time with the harsh reality of working on short-term research projects: there isn’t always another project coming up. With only one month left on my contract I found out I would no longer have a job, and I frantically looked around for something that could a) pay the bills, and b) not drive me insane. I took an IT/e-learning post in Nottingham (not at the university) which meant a 100 mile round-trip every day, five days a week. I did this in a Ford Ka with no air conditioning or CD player. It was tough going. I suspended my PhD at Birmingham to avoid fees, not knowing when or if I would be able to return to it. After working for a while in the IT post I realised that I really was committed to getting the PhD done, and to working in academia. I applied for a studentship at Nottingham, and was awarded a two year place with an annual stipend. This was shortly after the arrival of my daughter (#2), and we calculated that if I was able to spend three days a week looking after the kids, and we paid for childcare for the other two days, giving me two days a week to work on the PhD, then with all things considered (childcare costs, tax etc) in fact we weren’t far off my original salary for the IT job. This meant that my wife had to go back to work full-time so that we could cover all the bills, but it seemed like the only way my PhD would ever get done, and my wife was supportive of this.

I had always said I wouldn’t consider going back to doing my PhD full-time, but this option meant that I didn’t have to do any more hellish commuting, and I got to do the PhD properly. My supervisor was happy with me spending three days with the kids, on the understanding that the other two days were solid days of work (and of course there were weekends too, but having kids tends to eat up your weekend time). I managed to pretty much stick to this, but there were some harrowing periods of the children being ill, me being ill, and my wife being ill (generally in that sequence) that meant that weeks could easily slip by without much being done at all.

A number of consultancy projects helped to pay the bills. Because my studentship was tax-free, I still had my personal allowance to use up, so I was able to earn quite a bit of extra cash by working on software development and educational review projects.

My wife was incredibly supportive of what I was doing, but these arrangements were not easy for us. I spent three days a week with the kids and found it hard work, and looked forward to spending time on my work. My wife spent five days at work and really wanted to be at home with the kids instead. After a while we changed things so that my wife worked part-time so she got more time with the kids and I got more time on my PhD, but all of this was tough going for all of us. Well, the kids seemed happy throughout, but it was hard for us adults to keep things going. Keeping up motivation during a PhD is hard enough at the best of times, but when you see the strain that comes from organising childcare and working hours around doing one it becomes even harder to hang on to why you’re doing it.

There were many times when it seemed like I would have to give up and get back to work, either because of a lack of motivation to see it through (which made me think I shouldn’t be expending so much effort on keeping it going), or because of circumstance. Money was tight. I got used to having zero spending money purely for myself, but there were all the bills to pay and children’s clothes to buy and as a family we still had to spend money on things like having an occasional meal out otherwise we’d have gone insane.

In January 2008 we decided to move house so that we could get the kids into a decent school and be close to family. This meant more upheaval. We moved to a nicer area, but that meant our money didn’t go as far, and we had to buy a smaller house. Suddenly there was nowhere for me to work at home, and my office at Nottingham was 70 miles away. I converted the back of our garage into a makeshift office and worked in there, with only an oil-filled radiator for company. Somehow I managed to get a decent research study organised and the software built for it and found a school that was willing to let me borrow some pupils (thanks Ian!).

During the trials, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. The software broke. The hardware broke. A bus drove over my network cables, rendering them useless (I never knew the importance of the integrity of twisted pair cables until then!). It rained. There was a rescheduled sports day. I learned the hard way about the realities of carrying out research trials in the field. Literally, in the field.

Somehow I managed to run my studies and got enough data to write up a decent account for my thesis. Finally, at this point it actually looked like I might be able to write a THESIS.

With my school trials out of the way and my studentship coming to an end, I took another research post at the University of Birmingham. My supervisors there were supportive of me completing my PhD and happy for me to spend the ‘spare’ time that occurs during the ebb & flow of a research project working on my thesis, and I did that effectively. I got into a pattern of working late into the evening, getting chapters written and data analysed. I spent some quality time in my local library with a laptop, using Nvivo to work through my video footage and conduct a grounded theory analysis. I could see the end in sight. Sections became chapters and chapters became a thesis. Finally, in December 2009 I had a copy of my thesis ready for submission. I drove to Nottingham and handed it in. As I sat in the car afterwards I experienced an incredible feeling of relief and release, as if I had just been set free from prison. I can’t think of a better way to describe it. I am not ashamed to say that I was close to tears. At that point, I didn’t care what anyone thought about my thesis, it was enough that I’d written one and handed it in.

A few days later I starting thinking about the viva and realising that of course I cared what people thought and that this wasn’t over yet. My viva was scheduled for March, giving me plenty of time to prepare. I wish I could give some firm advice about how to prepare. I know I looked for some. In the end I just made sure I was familiar with the structure of my thesis, wrote some notes on my own copy about where the key arguments were, and highlighted sections I thought they would ask me about. My first trial was not very good as a study, but I learned a lot from it. I made sure I was ready to say that and to describe how Study 1 had made Study 2 better. That turned out to be a good move: knowing the weaknesses in my work and being prepared to admit them and discuss them.

My viva lasted for about an hour, which I gather is short. There were no truly unexpected questions, I did enjoy talking about my work once I got into it, and I was able to defend most of my decisions and methods. My examiners asked me to conduct some more analysis on some data that I had only summarised, and to expand my discussion section to be more critical of my work. I was told that I could be given three months to do this, as minor amendments, or if I needed longer it would need to be put through as revise and resubmit, giving me 12 months. Given the time needed to do the work, and my other commitments, I agreed with the examiners that taking the revise and resubmit option would be the most sensible choice. (I later discovered that revise and resubmit carries an extra fee, and was considering asking to go with minor amendments instead, but in the end I paid the fee and took the extra time, which turned out to be sensible.)

It took me a while to get back into the swing of working on my thesis. There was more video footage to analyse and then more writing to be done. The video took a while, and after that I was not really all that motivated. It felt again like I might never get to the end, and I was worried that even with the extra work my examiners might still not be happy with the result. But I got it done, and finally submitted my revised thesis in January 2011. After some delays due to postal problems and people being away at conferences etc, I finally on May 17 2011 received a copy of the joint report stating that no further work was required and that I was to be awarded the PhD.

I’m printing my thesis now, and will be graduating in July. Sadly I won’t get to wear the gown as we’re expecting baby #3 around then, so I will be busy with other things 🙂

Even this long version does not include all of the obstacles I faced during the years I have worked on my PhD. I hope that it can demonstrate that these things can be done, but please, if you can, don’t take as long as I did. Keep it simple, keep it quick. This was not an easy way to get a PhD.

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6 thoughts on “How to get a PhD – the hard way

  1. Wow, and i thought my PhD journey was complicated. Well done! its a major achievement and the fact you did it says alot about your commitment. Now enjoy the post thesis feeling, and the new baby

    1. thanks – who knows where that commitment came from, but somehow it kept me going. the post-thesis feeling is good indeed, I hope to use my new motivation to write some papers!

  2. Congratulations, and respect! I was told (by very supportive, but straight-talking spouse) that I had to finish my thesis before we had our first child – in fact my viva was just days before she went into labour. But thesis + children? I say again, respect.

  3. Jo Knowles

    Peter, this is a great story and a good reminder that getting your PhD is very much about resilience…total respect to you – and to your wife who has been outstanding in supporting you. Team effort and all that. All the best for the arrival of #3!
    Now you can look forward to that twitchy feeling in the evenings when you are watching tv etc (assuming the kids are all asleep) and feel vaguely guilty (‘isn’t there something I ought to be doing?’) until you remember that you’ve finished and been awarded the PhD. I had this lots in the first few months after graduation.

    1. yes you’re right that feeling is still there! my son even asked me “Daddy, what is it you’re going to be doing now, now that you’ve finished your PhD?” now *that* is the question 🙂

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