An afternoon of advice on studying part-time for a PhD

LIRG logoLast month on 18th November 2022, I was delighted to take part in an event deigned for those interested in undertaking part-time doctoral studies.

The speakers at Routes and experiences of doing an LIS PhD were brought together by the committee of the Library and Information Research Group (LIRG) of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) to provide insight into the experience of undertaking a PhD while working, as well as provide practical information on topics such as making an application for a PhD place, and the different routes to earning the title of ‘Doctor‘.

Dr Leo Appleton (one of my own PhD graduates) chaired the session with the support LIRG Events Officer Ebony Burke. There were seven presenters in total, each of whom made use of a speaking slot of 20 minutes. I shared the virtual stage with:

While George and Denise looked back at their time spent in completing a part-time PhD, Gustavo, Laura and Kirsty related their experience to date of doctoral study while holding down a job.

The presentations that Alison and I gave framed the other five. Rather than focusing on our experience as part-time PhD candidates, we spoke mainly from the perspective of academics with long track records in supervising and examining PhDs, and leading PhD programmes in our own respective institutions. Alison‘s presentation entitled ‘Setting the context’ covered: (1) the ways in which a PhD may be conceptualised, for example as a qualification, a structured process focused on research apprenticeship, a development ‘journey’ – and much hard work; (2) motivations to register for the degree; (3) the criteria for award of the qualification; (4) the different routes to PhD (traditional, professional, by published works); and (5) the value of completing the journey.

In my own presentation, I shared 10 tips for successful part-time doctoral study.

I started with a nod to my own involvement with part-time PhDs. Until I prepared my slides, I had not realised that around 50% of the PhDs that I have supervised or examined have been completed part-time. My other ‘discovery’ was that my personal PhD archive of photographs and notes could be mined for illustrative material in my talk. I was also pleased to be able to refer the audience to the other examples that relate to the work of my current and past PhD students:

  • I highlighted the value that the ESRC-funded students in the Social Informatics Research Group at Edinburgh Napier University have found in undertaking a Masters in Social Research Methods degree as a precursor to doctoral study (slide 8).
  • I emphasised the importance of an engaged supervision team. It’s particularly useful if your Director of Studies (or another team member) has a forensic approach to feedback. The amount of green ink in the photographs on slide 12 shows the level of detail in the comments that I recently made on draft thesis chapters of my current student Rachel Salzano, and in the past when supervising Leo.
  • Leo‘s decision to focus his research on the UK public library sector (even though he was an academic librarian at the time) serves as a good example of the affordances of not tying part-time doctoral study to your work role. Leo also took advantage of the length of time it takes to complete a part-time PhD to undertake a longitudinal study (slide 15).
  • Dr Lyndsey Middleton (née Jenkins), who graduated at the same time as Leo, used blogging as a means of testing out her idea through writing. Her archived blog at shows the development of her thesis over the course of her registration time at Edinburgh Napier University.

As the first of the two speakers who have completed their PhDs while working as practitioners, George spoke about his ‘back to front’ PhD by Published Works at the University of Strathclyde. In his case, he assembled 11 of his works on the topic of resource discovery as the basis of his thesis entitled Resource discovery in heterogeneous digital content environments. In his accompanying critical appraisal of these publications, George was able to demonstrate the key elements for which a PhD is awarded: that this body of work had contributed to knowledge in a novel way, and that he had acquired advanced research skills. That his outputs would be of interest to academic peers was a given since the majority selected for his PhD were published in international, peer reviewed journals and conferences. George’s presentation demonstrated the value of the published works route to PhD for practitioners who already have a track record of publication on a distinct research topic.

As an academic librarian in North America, Denise is embedded in a professional environment where librarians are expected to engage in research just like academics, and – if they wish to progress in their careers – they should be qualified to doctoral level*.  In her presentation ‘My experience as a working librarian doing a PhD’ Denise spoke about the advantage of faculty status assigned to academic librarians in Canada, including the opportunity to take study leave to work on a doctorate. Denise also took advantage of registering for a PhD in the UK rather than her home country. This was to shorten the time it would take for her to complete her studies: in North America PhD students are obliged to attend a series of classes before embarking on any empirical work. Denise completed her thesis entitled How academic librarians use evidence in their decision making: reconsidering the evidence based practice model at Aberystwyth University in 2013. When speaking about her viva, Denise made reference to her ‘scary external examiner’. This made me smile because I was that very person! I should say, however, that Denise gives the impression that the viva was a worthwhile experience in her thesis acknowledgements. Here she thanks me and Allen Edward Foster (the internal examiner) for our ‘tough questions and suggestions that improved the quality of [her] thesis’.

As one of the speakers who is currently registered for a doctoral degree, Gustavo gave a good example of a PhD project that is based on a library collection in a presentation entitled ‘Combining curating and research: the adventures of an art librarian’. The theme of his research is Concrete poetry, i.e. poetry in which the form of the words (e.g. typography, shape) conveys the meaning of the poem more than do its linguistic elements (words, and their sound and meaning). Specifically, Gustavo is investigating the influence of Concrete poetry on conceptual art is the second half of the 1960s. Registered at the University of the Arts (UAL) in London (Gustavo’s former employer), he is using of the University’s special collections as his ‘data set’. His is the first collection-based PhD undertaken by a librarian, and supported by the library service, at UAL.

Although both Laura and Kirsty have only recently started their part-time doctoral studies, and are registered at different institutions, their experiences to date are quite similar. It was during the period of the pandemic lockdowns that both came to the conclusion that they would like to undertake doctoral studies, they have been strategic in selecting PhD topics related to their day jobs and identifying their supervision teams, they have thought very carefully about managing their time over their period of registration, and they are clearly enjoying the PhD journey so far. They also said that they would be more than willing to hear from others thinking on embarking on the route to share advice on the basis of their experience to date.

Over the course of the afternoon the audience members joined the conversation by asking/answering questions and making comments in the chat as the speakers presented. Questions were also posed to the speakers at the end of each presentation. These covered a range of topics such as PhD funding, university-specific requirements for registering for a PhD by Published Works (e.g. number and type of publications required), opportunities for co-supervision across institutions, and the generation of outputs over the course of the PhD registration period. I particularly enjoyed reading the comments on the nature of tasty meal that Leo had in front of him in the image on slide 15 of my presentation. The level of interest in the content shared during the afternoon as evident in the questions and comments was demonstration of an excellent event organised by Leo, Ebony and their fellow members of the LIRG committee. I am very pleased that I was able to contribute to its success.

*I have recently published a co-authored article in the Journal of Documentation on narrowing the research-practice gap in Library and Information Science. The literature review that prefaces the report of the empirical study in this work discusses this facet of academic librarianship in North America its impact: most publications about researchengaged LIS practitioners focus on the identification of determinants of research productivity with an eye on career progression in North American universities. (For those without subscription access to the Journal of Documentation, the accepted manuscript of this article is freely available from the Edinburgh Napier University repository.)

Sunset, Aberystwyth

Sunset, Aberystwyth on the day of Denise LaFitte’s PhD viva

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