Gracienne Taking Leave of Her Father the Sultan (detail), Lieven van Lathem, David Aubert, 1464. J. Paul Getty Museum
When a student aspiring to a career in academia inevitably weighs up their life choices, there’s an abundance of opinions online attempting to help them make that decision (or, more often than not, to serve as clickbait or to scaremonger). They decry the poor job prospects, and the impending inability to relate to your friends who start the real process of ‘adulting’.
Conversely, when I took the decision to do a PhD I couldn’t find examples of postgraduates or academics who’d left the fabled ‘real world’ behind to embark on research in the humanities (although there are plenty of examples in the sciences and law, where the transition between practice and theory is arguably more seamless). For context, I did an MA part-time whilst working full time on a graduate scheme for a multinational corporation.
I took the decision to make my postgraduate degree entirely separate from my daily working life, in which I adopted a sort of unnatural alter ego I jokingly refer to as “corporate Becky”. I’d be horrendous at writing satire, but if I could I’d have tons of despondent inner dialogues to choose from of the down-trodden would-be academic stuck trying to sell sex toys (yes, literally) or debating packaging design for household products.
Although I’m grateful for the experience, I went into it entirely naive of the moral and political implications of the industry in which I was about to work. While it turned out I could do the day-to-day of the job well, and was recognised for it, I became increasingly disillusioned with the homogeneity and ethics (or lack thereof) of the corporate environment.
I’m now hoping that by writing about my experiences in a series of posts it might help others either grappling with a decision after finishing their undergraduate degree, or indeed those who right now find themselves staring out of the office window, woefully contemplating just how they managed to abandon their values and morals for the £££. Or maybe that was just me?!
Part-time Postgraduate Study
As the first post in this series, I’ll tackle the concept of part-time study in general: the stigma surrounding it, its drawbacks and perhaps surprising benefits. Because Masters-level funding is so scarce (even scarcer than that which is available for doctoral study), part-time study is a route that should arguably be advocated ahead of the more recent ‘career development loans’ that have been made available as a form of student finance – and, inevitably, additional debt.
Anecdotally, it’s often the unspoken stigma that puts so many students off from going part-time, and spurs them on instead to accepting a bank loan – anything to avoid coming across as an otherwise satisfied professional who is returning to education for a hobby or to fulfil a personal goal. Part-time study therefore carries with it the idea that such students are non-committal and, ultimately, just not good enough. While it’s true that their applications weren’t in the top percentile to make them eligible for funding, it doesn’t mean their proposed research is not valid and that undergraduate study has to be the end point of a prospective academic career. Cutting applicants off before the Masters level is an incredibly early stage, and more should be done to advise students to pursue their course through different means, or gain the relevant experience to apply again next year.
Yet there is little transparency on the part of universities around the alternative routes to a funded PhD, and how a part-time Masters could indeed be the right one. In my experience, academia fails to acknowledge the benefits of part-time study as a valid part of an aspiring academic’s career path. I often felt the need to hide my work experience altogether in my applications, burying it at the bottom of my CV (incidentally, you’ll still find it there). I similarly hid my studies at work because I assumed they’d be viewed as irrelevant, even though one undoubtedly made me better at the other (and vice versa).
Still, while it could be the right choice, and is absolutely worth it if it leads to the PhD, there are drawbacks as well as benefits to part-time study.
- While I often wished I worked in an environment more conducive to my research (such as a university or library), a private company was the only place I could feasibly afford to work. It was as far away from the humanities as I could potentially get, as I spent most of my working days on excel. This made it harder to push myself to think differently in the evenings and at the weekends. It was also impossible at work to mull over a recent problem with my thesis or a new idea – I was way too busy, and in a different headspace.
- The second drawback can be summed up in one word: sacrifice. Long working hours, coupled with a lack of social life, in many ways makes this more of a commitment than studying full-time.
If you’d asked me around May 2017 whether I thought working in an irrelevant industry whilst studying something I was really passionate about had any benefits, I probably would’ve laughed to the point of genuine tears. Hindsight is, as they say, a wonderful thing – and now I can say that yes, there are some surprising ones:
- The length of the degree – two years instead of one – means your thoughts mature; the content of your dissertation will be more thought through.
- As above, you have time to go to more conferences and events, and even start speaking at them technically earlier in your career than your full-time peers.
- Despite the day job functioning primarily as a source of university funding, it’s still a fall-back if the academic route goes south – if only to sustain you.
- And finally, there’s the unquantifiable benefit it brings to your PhD application. Nothing says you’re committed to this more than being able to prove you actually studied for two years for fun, whilst holding down what for most people is a genuine and intensive career choice.
That said, I can’t say it’s something I’d repeat in a hurry. Full time study really is a luxury, and I know I wasn’t able to reach my potential part-time, although I definitely don’t regret the route I chose (or, rather, was forced to take), as it means I’ve taken an even more informed decision to pursue research.