Studying for a doctorate at distance - Jane's story

Jane Mackay chose Bath for her PhD but lives in Salisbury. Read her experiences and get some great tips on how to manage a doctorate at distance.

Jane Mackay
Jane Mackay

After finishing my MA in 2015, I knew I wanted to do a PhD. I wanted to keep expanding my knowledge and learning, to make a difference in the world and to do something for me.

Being married to someone in the Army had seen me put my career on the back burner, moving house 11 times in 15 years. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or when, but I knew I wanted to do a PhD and that it would be something to do with social mobility and education progression. It was at a careers conference that I heard about the new Widening Participation PhDs. As soon as I saw the details I thought ‘Wow, yes, this is for me,’ and so it wasn’t a hard decision to accept the offer when it came.

I knew Bath would be a great base; I strongly respect the University and the way it works and in particular its outreach work. I already knew the Director of Admissions, through my work as a Careers Counsellor, I knew the City and it was commutable from home. The PhD stream I was accepted onto was also fully funded which was fantastic given that I knew I wanted to study full time. I started in June 2017 and I will finish in three years. I’m looking at the impact of Degree Apprenticeships on Widening Participation.

There is a huge difference between doing a Masters and a PhD and I had no appreciation about how much of a theoretical approach I would have to take in the early days. You have to be patient - I wasn’t able to just dive straight in and get on with stuff on the ground. It’s hard, but I’ve taken lots of advice and have been looking the research in multiple ways including political and economic theory which I didn’t expect to delve into. However, it’s giving me context and getting me back into the academic way of thinking. After all, if I’m going to achieve my aim of getting a PhD and having an effect on Government Policy, it has to have a strong theoretical background.

Having done a Psychology BSc via Open University, and an MA part-time and at distance too, I knew doing a PhD could be tough to manage in practical terms. My daughter and her boyfriend are both doing PhDs so I was also aware of potential problems such as isolation and imposter theory and I made sure I put plans in place to head the challenges off from day 1.

One of the most important things I do is to spend three days a week here on campus. Because I’m not doing lab experiments I could potentially do all of my research from home but I choose to come up here as I thrive on being able to talk about ideas and share best practice with people. Just being here at my desk and in the campus environment with people around me makes me feel connected and supported.

I also put regular structures in place at home by having set times that I am focusing on specific things. It’s really important to think about where you are going to study too – I have a different space at home for writing or reading, and it keeps it separate from the rest of my life. A PhD can be all pervading if you’re not careful and it could be so easy to let it slip into your life 24 hours a day! Creating physical barriers, like being able to shut a door on the books is so important for me, and so much healthier psychologically too. My family and friends are well trained as well - I have strict rules about no interruptions and they know that I treat home like any other workplace; I’m not available for them to pop round just because it’s home.

The other thing is having really good support networks. They’re vital. I couldn’t do my PhD without the support of my family and friends and when I started here I looked for ways to expand my support beyond my PhD cohort. I volunteered to be involved in a trial course in the mental health team which has led to lasting friendships and I’ve got a strong support group in the Doctoral College Welcome Team too, where I work as an Ambassador supporting new researchers. I’ve also built really strong virtual relationships which is really important when you balance working from home!

I’m looking forward to the next few years. My old headmistress thought I wouldn’t amount to much. Having proved myself professionally in multiple sectors, it’s now time to do so academically. My determination to keep learning and developing is a testament to how wrong she was and will drive my research to ensure that every person keen to learn has equal opportunity to do so.

‘My family and friends are well trained as well - I have strict rules about no interruptions and they know that I treat home like any other workplace; I’m not available for them to pop round just because it’s home.’
Jane Mackay, PhD Researcher in Policy, Management and Education

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