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Posts Tagged ‘studying’

Wow the Open University is 50 years old today!

This snuck up on me! Fifty years ago, today, the Open University received its Royal Charter. I’m a huge fan, and thought I’d reflect a little on the extra chances the OU gave me. The OU is a much venerated UK university, that set out from the start to support part-time distance learning at home, giving people a chance who might otherwise be unable to study at university level.

The OU gave me a second chance after I dropped out of my science PhD, after falling seriously ill with a MS-like illness at just 22. Once I was finally diagnosed properly and started life saving chemotherapy treatment it made me nauseous and vomit for up to 8 hours every day, every single day, for years. I had to try something to take my mind off it, so started studying part-time with the Open University. The OU support staff thought I was too disabled to study with them by this time, but I tried. When I went to St Andrews University in 1990 I had wanted to study two subjects: Scottish history and computer science. But I could only do one, and was qualified for the latter, so stuck with that. But history – and especially Scottish history – was unfinished business for me. Now was my chance!

My first course in 1998 saw me jump straight in to second year history, and a course on Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600. Renaissance history basically. I loved it! It was phenomenally hard. I’d skipped the foundation year that teaches you to write academic essays, and analyse historical sources, and do art history and literature. So I didn’t make things easy for myself. Didn’t get the best course result, because of these circumstances. But oh it was brilliant. It also made me fall in love with Venice, and I went there later that year for the first time.

The next year I studied a course on family and community history. Yes that was good for me, a lifelong genealogist! I was able to use my family history stories in the essays for it. So, for example, I wrote an essay looking at my 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner running a rather posh boarding house in West End Edinburgh in 1871. At the other extreme I analysed the poor relief records for a 4xg-granddad John Hall, in 1860s Hawick, From my husband’s family I did a mini project looking at the extent of interbreeding (yes there was a lot!) in two Suffolk parishes where his ancestors lived. And for my final big end of year project I analysed Coldingham baptismal witnesses.

By this point I was well on my way to a history degree, and with credit transfer from my Computer Science BSc(Hons) I had extra points to shorten the amount I needed to study. But I took a big swerve in my final year, veering towards classical studies, with two courses. The first looked at the Roman Empire, particularly regarding power and identity. That was fascinating. Archaeology, mixed with written sources, visual images of gravestones and stuff, from all over the Roman Empire. I loved that. At the same time I studied a course on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which combined the literary works with the archaeology of Troy. Which I had a family connection with. That 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner was a nephew by marriage of Charles Maclaren, first editor of The Scotsman newspaper, who first pinpointed Hisarlik as the likely location of Troy.

Throughout my OU studies I studied from home, using course materials – published books, course books written by the course team, handouts, etc. – sent to me in regular chunky postal packages. This was supplemented by face to face tutorials, but for much of the 3 years I was too ill to attend those, even the ones nearby in Dundee (I lived in Cupar at this time). I was also too deaf at this time from my neurological disease, so couldn’t chat to a tutor by phone. So I was extremely isolated. But the course materials were almost all superb. The course books, written by the course teams, particularly wowed me. These were written collaboratively, to a very high standard. And were much better quality, in overall terms, than many science lectures I’d attended as an undergraduate student at St Andrews. In addition I had contact with other students through the FirstClass online computer networking system, which made me feel less isolated, and helped build up a community. 20-odd years on, long after the demise of FirstClass, I’m still in touch with OU friends I made then. The OU supported disabled students brilliantly, long before the Disabled Students Allowance started, and long before many other universities made any kind of provision.

I studied with the OU between 1998 and 2000, and by the end of my classical studies courses I had enough credits to earn a BA(Hons), joint history and classical studies. This then provided the foundation on which I studied further at Dundee, doing a taught MPhil and a PhD, both part-time, both in history (mainly Scottish). My OU degree was very well regarded by the lecturers at Dundee, and they particularly valued how it showed independent learning.

In more recent years funding changes by the UK government have slashed revenue to the Open University, and reduced the financial support for part-timers to extremely low levels. This is especially the case in England, where it is very unaffordable now to study with the OU, especially if, like I was, you already have a first degree. But I was retraining, in a totally different subject area, so needed a second chance. And many people are keen to study lifelong. The OU is at great risk now, but I will always be grateful to it for the support it gave me. And it’s an institution that should be very proud.

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Another day, another post looking back on my PhD days. I’ve been getting a little exasperated in the last few days, reading comments by full-time PhD students who are bemoaning their funding running out at the end of the third year, for both financial reasons and lack of time to complete. But this is the situation that many part-timers are in all the way through their degrees, especially humanities students, where funding is much scarcer than for science students.

Unlike full-time students part-time PhD students don’t have the luxury of being able to work full-time at a PhD, and instead have to squeeze it in at weekends and evenings as they can, around any job and for example family commitments. It’s difficult, it requires a lot of guts and determination. Some fall by the wayside, but many do complete. And I don’t think full-timers really appreciate just what part-timers go through.

I’ve been both a full-time and part-time PhD student. Part-time was much much harder. It required guts, sticking power, and sheer determination to complete. But the sense of self-reward at the end was huge.

I just wish some full-timers would stop moaning about their funding running out, and think about other options. Get a job if you can, and switch to part-time study for the rest – it can be done!

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I’ve been a PhD student twice. Initially I was a full-time computer science PhD student. I had to leave that, after falling ill with what would turn out to be an aggressive progressive neurological disease. Years later, after retraining as a historian (picking up both bachelors and masters degrees), I had a second go, part-time this time. I’ve just been reflecting on lessons I learned from the first time, in a post on a postgraduate forum where I’m a member. And I thought it might be worth reposting them here.

The second time around I didn’t do the standard spend a whole year (or equivalent if studying part-time) doing your literature survey, which I think is a complete waste of time, though I appreciate it can be a way of easing new students into the process gradually. When I fell ill during my first PhD, during that first full-time year, having followed the traditional timetable meant that I made very little progress before it was too late. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Second time around I did my literature survey and chapter in 3 months, even though part-time, and then got on with the research phase of my PhD.

A big advantage of being a PhD student the second time was that I knew the PhD degree processes much better. Even though I’d had to leave my science PhD before I got too far into things myself I still knew the general processes involved, I’d watched fellow students in my department go through them and had learned from their experiences. This meant that in go #2 I was a much more efficient PhD student than the first time, and very much took control of my PhD. That proved to be particularly important when my original history PhD supervisor moved 500 miles away to Oxford, and initially supervised me long-distance, but then I switched to a new supervisor, and had to negotiate how best to deal with him.

On the downside, writing did not go smoothly time #2. In my case I’d switched to a radically different subject area, albeit picking up those other two degrees first. But I struggled to find my writing voice in my history PhD, and at one point had to restart the writing completely. With hindsight it’s just as well I saved time earlier in the process, because I needed it later! But I did complete within the six years allowed me as a part-time student, even though for much of that time I was managing on no more than 5 hours total a week as my illness worsened. I didn’t need to ask for extensions, and passed my viva easily.

I don’t think I would have completed the second PhD so smoothly if it hadn’t been for the hard lessons I learned the first time.

To read more about my experiences as a disabled PhD student see here.

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