The hidden challenges of a Workplace-based Doctorate

by Tegan Darnell, Research Librarian, University of Southern Queensland

There are those things no one tells you about being a parent. Usually people say ‘Congratulations!’ like being pregnant is some sort of remarkable achievement. Nobody tells you the truth. The nurses don’t tell you that you will be so sleep deprived that you will drive straight through red lights. No one will admit that there will be days when you truly want to leave your kids at the park. Certainly no one tells you to start saving for electronics (I recommend you start saving now). It is the same with starting a Doctorate while working full time.

I expected late nights, intellectual challenges, and workplace negotiations. These things turned out to be less difficult than I expected. With this post I expose some of the hidden challenges I have come across when attempting a major research project while working full-time in a professional position. The things no one told me…

Ethical complexity

Considering the volume of literature published over the past thirty years or more that has lauded the benefits of situated action research to the learning organisation and its relevance to professional learning, I assumed that it would not be difficult to present a case for an insider-researcher model. A research model where the researcher is participating in a project with the people they work with is still considered very risky in the world of academia. My confirmation of candidature process included two revisions and took over seven months. It appears that there is still much work to be done before I can confidently apply for Human Ethics approval.

Existential crises

OK, so, some of this was to be expected. The questions that have arisen as I start to critically examine my professional practice are complex: why do we consider ourselves a profession? is there actually any role for the profession as it exists today at all? why did I end up in this particular profession (and am so passionate about it) when I appear to disagree with so much of what it does?  I could go on. As it is, let’s just say that I am having many sleepless nights wrestling with these questions. This leads nicely into the next challenge.

Headspace shift

One minute you are trying to help someone troubleshoot referencing management software and the next minute you are trying to abandon the idea of the value of referencing at all. One second you are making vegemite sandwiches “cut-in-four-triangles-with-the-crusts-cut-off-please”, and the next you have to sit down and write about how the benefits of situated action research outweigh the risks to participants. It takes me about twenty five minutes every time I have to do a mental shift from “Where are my shoes, Mum?” to “Zuber & Skerritt (2002)”. These interruptions mean that you need more time than you expect, and you need to do some of the next thing.

Extreme time management

When adding a PhD into the mix of full time work and the rest of your life, you’ll probably have to schedule your meals, your sleep, and even your toilet breaks.  You will probably have to schedule time with your spouse and your children – I know I do. As a parent of 2 biological children and 3 non-biological children, with a spouse, a farm, a parent with a disability, and house renovations to contend with, I also schedule myself into Time Out. This usually involves some sort of gore film or video game, whilst telling everyone to *ahem* go away (in a less than civil fashion). Self-care is incredibly important to add to the whole mix.

Surprising reactions

Don’t expect everyone to be happy for you or supportive. There will be those who will tell you to your face that you won’t be able to do your job properly, or, that you can’t possibly commit to research, work, and be a decent parent. Then there are people who tell you that they would have studied if only it wasn’t for their spouse/mother/child/dog problem, and then look at you just waiting for you to withdraw from study.

There are moments when I wonder just how crazy a person has to be, but then I remember that I am me, and I think, “BA HA HA! Pretty crazy!” and it all makes sense. ;P

Dependence on ‘angels’

You will need one or more of these. Angels are the people who make you dinner, do your grocery shopping, repair your toilet, and buy you coffee. Sometimes they remind you to eat, or go to bed. Sometimes they tell you that you are awesome. Sometimes they tell you not to do any study over your Christmas break. The very best ones will tell you to “pull your head in” or that your writing doesn’t make sense. As much as it is your research, you can’t do it without the care, kindness, and goodwill of others, so at some point you will have to just accept it and stop feeling rubbish about it.

Just as someone telling you when you have a child, “Your boobs will never look the same”, I can honestly say about doing an advanced work-based research project: “Your job, workplace, and profession will never look the same”. And just like being a parent, when people ask you “Is it worth it?” I can honestly say, “Most of the time.”

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

One thought on “The hidden challenges of a Workplace-based Doctorate

  1. Wonderful article, Tegan. A lot of that applies to anyone doing study at any level while working full time. It certainly did for me aeons ago when I was doing my MBA. My husband very nearly walked out while I was studying, so make sure you recognise the sacrifices that your partner is making too. I didn’t give him enough time and have felt guilty ever since. You’ll go fine though, and will make yourself and your family, friends and colleagues proud. Already are, actually!

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