Tag Archives: thesis


Addendum to Learning How to Think – great resources in Allison Seaman’s post on Personal Learning Networks here!

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April 7, 2013 · 5:13 pm

No time to think: Juggling full-time work with a full-time PhD


Image David Yu, 2006

I’m just over a year into a full-time administrative post in higher education that I really love. I’m also in my last year of a ‘full-time flexible’ categorization on a PhD intended for those who work full time in higher education (I get to revert to “part time” next year and continue on longer than a typical funded student).

While there are considerable advantages to working in the very field you are studying (“applied” reflective learning at its best), I really discovered how challenging it can be this semester trying to keep up with an extra course in my workload as well as work on ongoing reading for the dissertation (my core course assignment).

The biggest thing I’ve really had to face this semester in taking on an extra course is how to adapt my learning trajectory for the PhD to the concurrent life as an administrator. I had finished my coursework and comprehensive exam before this job really kicked in.

My output, relative to full-time students who may work or serve as research assistants, feels considerably lower as my time to connect to school as a student is very limited. My paid work demands often bleed into my weekends and evenings as well.

Happily, the course I’m in focuses a lot on process and my subject area was to generate as much work toward my literature search and my dissertation proposal as I could (other students had to work toward a media production project but some of us there to expand our understanding to inform our theses were able to substitute the writing for the media production project).

The biggest process lesson I learned related to how academic life fits into a full-time profession. Sadly, I realize how little time I actually had available, how easily work intruded in on that precious time and how difficult it can to be sure you have a good brain when the time arrives and not be caught in some fog that renders the academic time less productive than it should be.

Problem One was the difficulty ‘saving’ one’s quality brain time for the task of academic writing rather than using it to think through policy or strategic ideas for my faculty team at work. Both spheres of my life needed some quality thinking.. and it wasn’t any easier getting that done ‘on the job’ for the job… hence the bleed into the restful quiet of my Sunday mornings when all sorts of insights would pop into my head that, if given a few minutes, would frame up the work week better for me and for any number of people on my team. Times when the thesis got the best of my good thinking time, my work week would often run less smoothly or important plans would be put off, unformed, and people left to cool their heels while they sat on my desk.

My longtime faculty mentor, Dr. Linda Muzzin, once presented a paper about the experiences of Aboriginal faculty that was captured by the phrase “no time to think”. So, my experience certainly isn’t unique. But I have learned a few things in taking a course again after starting work in administration:

  • stop putting the thesis last in the daily roster — the week will fill up and the end of the day you’re too exhausted to ‘think’
  • keep putting family time first — a plan for a short time spent together pays dividends more than the tension that grows when kids/partners become impatient with being tuned out on a regular basis. A ‘family time’ planned together at the start of the day gets me my alone time.. and a nice break when I come up for air.
  • don’t re-invent the wheel — I realized after this comment from Dr. Megan Boler that the rumination of the wheel can pertain to more than missing the relevant work of others in your writing. My search for new and relevant literature was useful. But so was re-visiting of the literature I’ve gathered over the years to start organizing it better. It was very time-consuming, still has more to go but is already turning out to be very, very useful. I needed to stop feeling like I had to have insights from literature read 5 years ago fresh in my brain at all times to start writing and needed to start building something that would enable me to access that literature quickly as I needed it while writing. This was huge.
  • stop spinning the wheel you have — that’s the experience when you keep spinning around the same paragraphs or ideas, week after week. It has been my personal specialty. It’s rumination broken up by the demands of daily work, but rumination all the same. I need to get better at hitting ‘save’ and then ‘moving on’ rather than re-opening and re-saving, in each window of time I have. I’m learning to put something down and move on as best I can. That was another big lesson for 15 weeks.
  • Dealing with Digital. I realize the degree to which digital literature has been killing me the past year or so. 🙂 I used to write in my office where my library was always on hand. Finished papers usually finished with a pile of highlighted journal articles and open books scattered in piles around me. But having digital files of journal articles and e-books have messed up my process. My biggest problem with digital references — finding them. An early session on ‘ref-works’ and the acquisition of a better annotation software that accepts my mark-ups and captures my comments has already saved me a ton of time. Getting used to the process of organizing my comments, along with my material, has been my biggest new process adaptation this semester. The ongoing work will be building a better digital archive of the hundreds of references I have digitized already, but have no idea what folder they’re hiding in (or on what USB, or what hard-drive, and so on).

The learning I’ve gained about process in this course may not seem like much, but I’ve really seen that the tools you use to approach ongoing study matter as much as the insights you might have, particularly when you have so little time to devote and no time to waste time ‘spinning’. The weeks in administrative life fly by as it is, and the demands on academics are huge to find the best ways to continue generate truly original insights that they can then bring to others through publication while also juggling the service and administrative demands of the job.

There’s a growing push inside the college system for administrators like me to work toward doctoral credentials. In looking at a twitter feed on the topic of part-time PhDs this past week, I noticed that people are commenting that subject you study and why can have an impact on your ability to manage the load.  When your time is so limited, it is understandable that one could get tempted into believing you should just ‘shop’ a course calendar to find pre-determined insights to pluck and drop into your work. More open or challenging courses would seem unreasonable to explore as ‘not relevant’ to what you need today. But what about what you don’t know today?

Sure, it is easy to get frustrated by ideas that are slow to come on because you just don’t have the time to percolate them that you used to have before working full-time. But indulging the temptation to keep to what you know now might limit the student life you’re engaged in to ideas they already know to be true, rather than opening the experience up to the truly transformative learning opportunity that graduate school can (and should, in my opinion) provide the individual who undertakes it.

In my own case, the readings alone were readable, but not always ideas I could process quickly or reference back fluidly. So those weeks, being an administrator while being a student was frustrating as the hours needed to truly capture the insights were not available to me. That said, when things worked, nothing beat the satisfaction of the weeks in which the ideas did gel, the insights were captured and I was able to join the class and share in those great classroom moments and discussions as both a contributor and receiver to push our collective understanding further along. On those nights, I would always leave class exhilarated and full of ideas, much as I did almost every night during those first couple of years when I started the doctorate.

Life lived with an extra course inserted into it was close to impossible at times to manage, but looking back, I still managed to get a lot more out of it toward my dissertation phase than what I’d initially read on the course description. In struggling (and sometimes failing) to make the course ‘work’ inside the new realities of my life, I was forced to dig for better tools and strategies to cope that will be really useful in managing the independent work of thesis completion. I am grateful to the course for not only the interesting literature reviewed and discussions had, but also the pedagogical structure that asked me to consider process as one of my key learning goals to document. It required me to give the time to consider how the process was going to have to be set up in order to work effectively for me at this time in my life.

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