The writer on holiday (Jason Murphy)

Photo by Florian Klauer |
When I started my PhD while working full-time, one of the people who didn’t think I was completely mad told me that candidates who work full-time often complete their thesis in a timely way.

I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’.

This gave me a secret hope that getting through a PhD would be like other major projects that I've experienced. I thought it would just be a case of choosing a direction, then forming a plan that worked backwards from the end goal: a completed thesis.

I’m now coming up to the full-time equivalent of two years’ candidature, so I can look back at these early assumptions and ‘test their validity’.

In short, it’s not that simple. If you’re working on your PhD or Masters, or any research for that matter, I’m sure you didn’t have to read this far to spot my initial naivety.

I’m a full-time parent and also work full-time. Balancing parenting, work, and studies is challenging at times, but the upside is that I find the topic I’m researching incredibly interesting and this provides a lot of motivation. I don’t think studying needs to be approached as ‘white-knuckled learning’, which one of my former lecturers described as being really rigid about when, where, and how you learn. It’s necessary that I carry my work with me wherever I go and, as such, use my time flexibly in the evening and weekends to read, write, and reflect on the work.

However, this approach has some limitations. What a part-time PhD candidate misses is full immersion in the project; I’m assuming this because I don’t know any other way.

As a part-timer, you have to develop quick ways to switch between everyday life and thinking about an area of knowledge that stretches you well out of your comfort zone.

At the earlier stages of study, I found this really difficult, partly because I'd had a ten-year break from study, but also from the perspective of changing disciplines from the visual arts to commerce.

To find a grounding in my topic required an extremely steep learning curve, and my supervisors really challenged my assumptions about my area of enquiry and approach. I can look back gratefully, even at this incomplete point, and feel that the sometimes intense frustration of grappling with, and trying to connect, new concepts and apply them to my topic was both necessary and worthwhile.

However, I can’t help feeling that full-time candidature would have made this process a bit more fluid because I would've at least been spared the normal pressures of full-time employment. But I don’t have that luxury, and nor do I have any regrets.

I would've liked to be at the point of having submitted as I write this but, at the same time, my earlier assumptions have now become reality: My topic feels well grounded (for the time being at least), and those practical project management skills of being about to map out a project and break it down into small parts have started to reap rewards.

If anyone reading this is trying to figure out if it’s possible to complete part-time, I believe it is. Others have done it, and I’m hoping to be able to write a piece on this from my standpoint in the near future.

But back to providing some specific advice!

DeWitt Scott recently wrote on ‘dissertating while working’ for GradHacker, and I would add the following suggestions for those juggling full-time work and a part-time PhD:

1. Write often and write early. 
Don’t wait for the right time to write (pun intended). As a part-timer, even 20 minutes writing a day is better than waiting for a perfect slice of time during the week as this rarely, if ever, arrives. If you can get some words down, get them down.

2. Get organised and try some of the new tools that are available. 
Sure, Word and Endnote are established tools, but they’re not necessarily the best tools to use, not by a long shot. I use Scrivener for writing (as it facilitates non-linear planning and writing) and Sente as my reference manager. Sente is amazing, as it allows you to gather all your literature together and note-take on multiple devices (note: Sente is for Macs only). Evernote is another great tool for quickly jotting down ideas across multiple devices.

Look into the tools that suit your style early on and consider that devices like tablets can make it easy to take your work with you wherever you are.

3. In terms of writing productivity, ‘Shut Up and Write’ has been a great activity.
These sessions are run at many universities and are based on the pomodoro technique. The idea is that you write for a solid 25 minutes, or a pomodoro, then take a short break. You can do as many or as few of these pomodoros as you like, but the key is for absolutely focused writing. Phones, email, and all other distractions are off.

The thing I found about writing this way is that it results in a stream of consciousness process that doesn’t necessarily result in the most lucid prose! It’s about getting the ideas out of your head and onto the page, but this is a topic for a whole other post …

The RED team at La Trobe organise Shut up and Write sessions at Melbourne each week, and others are held at Albury-Wodonga, Bendigo, and Franklin Street. As well as being good for productivity, these sessions are also a great way to meet other graduate researchers. You soon realise that the challenges you face are shared by others, and there is solace in that.

4. The final thing that I will say, and this has been said to me many times by many others, is that persistence in the key. 
The writing of a thesis is a process that has ups and downs, highs and lows. It’s a journey. It can be really tough at times, but it can also be incredibly rewarding, even when you’re in the middle of it and haven’t yet completed.

Coming back to the somewhat abstract title of this article: It was Roland Barthes who wrote in Mythologies (1957) about the writer on holiday. Barthes proposes that this concept is a paradox, and that the writer can never really be on holiday. For me, this is the essence of a PhD thesis.

To really engage with it, one can’t afford to let it go, or completely stop thinking about it. Whether you’re part-time or full-time, this is probably an important point to keep in mind.


Jason Murphy works with the La Trobe University Graduate Research School (GRS) as a communications advisor. He manages the GRS website, social media, and newsletters that reach out to graduate researchers. His professional goal is to help make La Trobe a great place to do research. 

Jason's multidisciplinary PhD research focuses on the work of marketing professionals and how this contributes to ideologies that reinforce and perpetuate social class. Situated in the field of marketing, the project draws from work in the fields of marketing, anthropology, and the broader social sciences. 

His goal is to submit his thesis by the end of 2016 and pursue a career within academia. Jason tweets at @murphy_jason.