A Life in the Day of a Part/Spare-time Doctoral Student

My alarm goes off at about 07.00. I’m up by 07.15. I’m more conscious of helping my wife to get ready for work these days (e.g. take the ice off her windscreen), as she’s pregnant with our first baby. I enjoy our brief chat. Some mornings I’ll be up earlier to squeeze in an hour’s study at my desk in the spare room of our small townhouse. It can take 20 minutes before I’m in study-mode. I’ll scan over a couple of journal articles, highlighting key pieces. Some days I get distracted; I browse the web to get a sense of the life story of some interesting author related to my study. I listen to an interview with her/him, or a lecture she/he gave. I have always been interested in how and why people behave the way they do. This comes from my mother. Having lived in Limerick (city in the southwest of Ireland) all her life; she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of its people. Her stories – always respectful and, often, hilarious – make for fascinating insights into peoples’ thinking and behaviours. Since my teens, I have wondered if our decisions and behaviours are as much, if not more, influenced by intuition than rationality. Over the years, my growing interest in the interplay between rationality and intuition has led to me to conduct research on how organisations make strategic decisions for my Doctoral thesis.

I cycle 9km to work and listen to an audio-book or a lecture related to my studies en route. I love cycling. It keeps me fit, it’s faster than travelling by car, and it’s free; most importantly, it’s better for the environment! I’m at my desk between 8.30 and 9.00. My office is in Croke Park, an 83,000-seater stadium with great views out over the city. I really like my job. It is very important to me, and I always prioritise it over my studies. I feel that I am contributing, in a small way, to the development of Ireland’s children. I’m on my laptop and phone for much of the day, and there are regular meetings. I’m generally home at around 18.00. My wife is usually home before me and we prepare dinner. We sit, eat and chat. This is my favourite part of the day! I clean up afterwards. At this point I want to relax, but I don’t. I drag myself up the stairs to my study desk. Often, I feel selfish because I am not spending more time with my family and friends. However, none of them make me feel this way. They are very supportive of my study, as they know how much it means to me. My employer is also very supportive. Without all this backing, I just wouldn’t be able to do it.  Many would presume that the most challenging element of doing a Doctoral degree, on top of a full-time job, is finding the motivation and time to meet the profound demands it consistently poses. These are hard, of course. However, the most difficult part of pursuing a Doctoral degree, for me, is coping with the guilt of not being around for my loved ones as much as I could be.

I’m not one of those extremely motivated and high achieving people. Success, for me, doesn’t necessarily mean that you finish top of the class, climb the highest mountain, or win all the time. I believe that success is the self-satisfaction which is derived from the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming – particularly at nobody else’s expense. Success, for me, is peace of mind! This is the part I can struggle with as part of my Doctoral studies. My parents are getting older, and as my friends begin to have children, they have less free time to meet up. Last September, for example, I missed my first All-Ireland Hurling Final in 20 years; this is the biggest fixture in the Irish sports calendar, and an annual gathering of many of my oldest friends. I was under ferocious pressure to meet a submission deadline for part of my thesis. I felt equal pressure from the regret of not being able to be there. I, simply, couldn’t afford to take the time off. When studying at this level, such sacrifices in your spare time are inevitable. You need to be very protective (almost jealous) of your spare time outside of work. It doesn’t make it any easier when you miss days like this, though. I probably won’t see some of my friends again ‘til next year’s final.

There’s nothing I value more than time spent with family and friends; it’s nourishment for the soul. Sometimes, I ask myself why I am putting myself through the challenges for five years of this degree. After all, nobody’s forcing me to do it. Not giving into the guilt and regret is a constant battle. It is fuelled by periods of isolation, tied to my study desk. It is reinforced by the fact that, beyond brief politeness, my family and friends have little interest in discussing my thesis topic (understandably!). Of course, I can discuss it with fellow students and my supervisory team, but that’s only every few weeks. GCU’s staff and fellow students are very supportive in this regard. As a part-time and distance learning student, you don’t have the regular face-to-face, on-campus support that many full-time students have. There have been a few days when I felt like throwing in the towel – especially when under pressure to meet a submission deadline, and when life throws things at you like the serious illness of a loved one.

By about 22.00, I’m dizzy with tiredness. I often feel like I should’ve done more. Then I tell myself that I’m working full-time and not to be too hard on myself. I’m asleep by 23.00. As intense as the Doctoral degree is, I wouldn’t change it for the world. It feels right at my most deep, intrinsic level. This feeling is very difficult to describe. I continually desire to be a better person and to live a fulfilling life. I thrive on facilitating the development of others and believe that you can’t do this unless you consistently develop yourself. Since commencing the Doctoral degree, I have never been as focussed on and appreciative of the most important things in life. I spend less time concerned with low quality activities. Every week I engage in more meaningful ones, whether it’s going for walks with my wife, a cycle with friends in the Wicklow mountains, or sitting around the kitchen table having a good old chat with my family. Although the quantity of time spent with them may be less, I have peace of mind from knowing that the quality is now higher. Pursuing a Doctoral degree is a very serious commitment, especially in conjunction with a full-time job. It forces you to be honest with yourself and, as a Doctoral student, you must have the courage to live this honesty to both endure and enjoy the journey. The closer I get to the finish line, the more I believe that, ultimately, it is others that will benefit most from all that I am learning and from the person I am becoming. And that’s what keeps me going…


This article was first published on the Glasgow Caledonian University Graduate School Blog on April 18, 2018.


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