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Posts Tagged ‘university study’

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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I read a blog post today about self-funded PhDs, which was really interesting. It was written by someone who is working part-time to support their PhD, which I think, if I’ve read it correctly, is studied full-time. That takes a lot of guts. Much more common, certainly in the humanities, is self-funding for part-time PhD students.

I was a PhD student twice. Initially I was a full-time science PhD student when I fell ill in 1994, with what would turn out later – once eventually diagnosed – to be a very aggressive progressive neurological disease. I had to drop out, and although I considered self-funding it was not financially an option. There were other reasons that would have stopped me completing that PhD anyway.

Seven years later I started a self-funded humanities PhD, having picked up, in the meantime, a bachelors and masters degrees in history, both studied part-time. I expected to self-fund throughout. My husband was working, so I did not need to support myself financially. And I was studying the second PhD part-time, which made a big difference to the fees due, and the workload.

Much to my surprise I won funding from the second year onwards from AHRC who were willing – unlike my previous funding council EPSRC – to support part-time study. This was a particular surprise because I’d had to declare my past research council funding, but that was not counted against me. And, most significantly of all, when I applied, only 1 in 5 applicants to AHRC for PhD funding were successful. I was very very lucky.

There’s a perception among some in the sciences that self-funded PhD students are failures. It’s certainly true that – at least for full-timers – PhD funding is much easier to get in the sciences. There’s much more science money out there, people with lower quality earlier degrees can get funding for their PhDs. In humanities there is virtually no funding available for PhD students. Even what there is is only available for the very very best, and out of those only the very luckiest. This has led to a different economic situation among humanities PhD students, where it’s particularly common for people to self-fund part-time study alongside a full-time job. Or, more typically, a slightly less than full-time job, so they have the time available to put in the study required. Indeed in some humanities departments there are more part-time self-funded students like this than full-time funded ones.

What I’m less sure about is what the prospects for employment in academia are for people who self-funded throughout their PhDs. I could easily see some academics not being so impressed that the student, unsurprisingly, could not get some of the very limited funding. On the other side though I suspect that many academics would consider the bigger picture, and would assess for example the student’s publication record and teaching experience. For the latter part-timers can be at a disadvantage, with some departments more likely to offer teaching opportunities to full-time funded students, not least because they can be more visible on-campus. But if a part-time student is determined, and makes the right enquiries, they can get the good opportunities too.

Of course even funding can vary in how full it is. When I won my funding from AHRC part-time award holders just had their fees paid, and no allowance for living expenses. We also didn’t receive the same support for attending conferences and other things as full-timers. Over the following years the situation improved. I know, for example, that my original PhD supervisor, who later moved from Dundee to Oxford, was pushing for part-time PhD-ers to get the same support as full-timers from AHRC. And we eventually got it, including a living expenses allowance, which is only fair, given how often even part-time students have to reduce their working hours, and thus earning potential, to fit in a PhD.

What I’m sure about is that if I hadn’t won funding I would have carried on with my humanities PhD, part-time, self-funding, and I’m confident that I would have finished, and would have been doing exactly what I’m doing now, as an independent academic researcher, publishing my research in academic journals and doing new fun research. And I have the utmost respect for others doing their PhDs by self-funding, whether they are full-time students, or part-time ones. It can be difficult, but also rewarding.

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