Eating an elephant (or doing a doctorate on the job...)

Picture credit: carix.com.au

Years ago I remember a colleague telling me that if you can't do a higher degree as a teacher then you can't do one at all. He had a point. Teachers work damn hard in term time, but if you're organized it's perfectly possible to secure weeks at a time totally free from conventional work. If doctors, lawyers, and other professionals can do it, teachers really have no excuse.
That colleague's exhortations prompted me to do an MSc in educational leadership, after which I vowed I'd never embark on such a thing again. I was running a boarding house, had a young family and, as well as the day job, was trying to keep myself fit. It was tough.
Fast forward a few years though and I found myself in a school with no Saturday lessons. A burning ambition developed in me to get to the top of the national qualifications framework (I'm competitive like that!) So it was that I enrolled for a professional doctorate at Birmingham in September 2011.
I had hoped to get in done in 4 years, but in the event it will have taken at least five. Here's the advice I'd offer to anyone looking to complete a doctorate faster than I have:
  1. Settle on your idea early and pin your supervisors down to agreement. The first two years on a professional doctorate like mine consist of compulsory modules, but in practice the second year can be used to frame your study and begin writing. Seize the opportunity.
  2. Start writing early - particularly the literature review. I prevaricated, believing that I couldn't really start until I'd done all my data collection. This was a mistake: write and read like there's no tomorrow, it will help crystallize your ideas early on.
  3. Use your supervisors mercilessly. I made the mistake of not sending them much until (I thought) I had nearly finished. Send them bits of chapters and don't worry too much about them not being polished. You need them to agree that your thinking is moving in the right direction. The polish can come later.
  4. Continue writing and refining even if your data collection remains incomplete. Again, I made a mistake here by dilly-dallying whilst I waited to collect the approved amount of data (in my case 20+ interviews).
  5. Read the university regulations very closely. I naively assumed my supervisors would prompt me here, but of course they didn't - I'm a grown up and they (rightly) expected me to sort myself out. It is likely that you will have to do some 'intention to submit paperwork'. I have now done this, but I do sometimes wonder whether if I had not pushed I would have been doing endless revisions for years to come. The cynic in me thinks that universities have a lot to gain from perpetual students... :-(
  6. Try to keep doing it in little chunks. We were constantly reminded in the first two years of this little phrase: 'How do you eat an elephant? Bit, by bit, by bit'. In the event I ended up doing very little for months and then bingeing on the thing in the holidays. This, I am sure, slowed me down. It took a while to get back into the the swing and I definitely suffered badly from switch costs. I am sure if I had been ruthless about keeping it on the boil from week to week my work flow would have been more efficient. Easier said than done, though.
  7. I found it really helped having other people to talk to - others on the course, and others in the wider community of post grads. For me Twitter was invaluable, if only for reassurance that others were in the same boat. With me on the journey - in my case still not quite finished - were @jillberry102, @thosethatcan, @chilledu, @_Andrew Francis and several others. Maybe if I'd spent a little less time on social media and a little more getting on with writing I'd have got it done faster too; but in my case the nature of my research required active social media engagement, so I was caught between a rock and a hard place...
If you're reading this and do decide to go for it - good luck. Do get in touch if there's anything I can do to help.

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