This year I am celebrating ten years as a teacher. To be honest, I never thought I would make it this far and I have lost count of the amount of times I have considered packing it all in. I recall the exasperated looks on the faces of family and friends when I informed them that I was going to do a PGCE, “Really!” they exclaimed, “Are you sure?”
I was met with somewhat the same response when, this time last year, I decided to embark on a part-time, self-funded PhD. Some, I believe, thought me insane or at the very least suffering from some sort of psychotic break – but this was something I felt compelled to do and I’m glad that I took the deep and dangerous plunge.
So, here I am, almost at the end of my first year of what could turn out to be a six year obsession. Juggling teaching with research is a tricky task and I often feel that I would be better off doing one or the other rather than both simultaneously. Nevertheless, exposure to the research side of education is beginning to inform my teaching more and more and I am more than ever aware of the role such research could play in teaching generally. I also know a little bit more about the lives of my students because of my chosen area of research. Through tentative exploratory investigations I have gleaned information about how they see themselves as learners, how they feel about their own resilience and what they believe about intelligence (and the possible relationships between these factors). What I have certainly realised is that I want to understand more about their daily struggles; about why some of my sixth formers engage deeply with their studies while others don’t appear to be bothered about anything related to school. I’m also starting to understand a little bit more about the interaction between school and student, the complex connections between school culture and student attitudes.
I’ve also started to look at research methods in a new light and am currently investigating some exiting methods for studying students’ daily lives such experience sampling and regular ‘snippets’ of study-related conversation. I intend to blog about some of these soon.
On a more practical level, every day is hard. As a part-time student I have to organise my time carefully. I have supervision meetings, research group seminars and other events to carefully slot into my limited time. I have managed to attend only two events this year – the Institute for Effective Education conference at the University of York (for which I was granted time off from school) and the NTEN ResearchED event which was held on a Saturday. Both were excellent events – far better than any CPD course I’ve ever attended (and whole lot cheaper – an added bonus seeing as I have to foot the bill myself). I will, however, miss the British Psychological Society conference this year as well as the ResearchED conference in September but this all part of the process whereby I need to select what is necessary and what is feasible. More stressing, perhaps, is the ever-present possibility that I will run out of money before the completion of my research. There are few funding opportunities available for part-time postgraduate students and those that are available remain highly competitive – this is partly why the drop-out rate for part-timers is so high. There is also a kind of self-imposed pressure to publish during the course of the PhD and many would argue that publication is more important than the final thesis. I’m desperate to publish but there is a need to prioritise and my teaching always takes precedence.
Would I advise other teachers to embark on a PhD? It’s a difficult question one that depends upon individual circumstances. A good supervisor is perhaps the key and I’m lucky in that respect but there are more pressing concerns related to time and finances. At some point I will need to approach other schools in order to obtain a more representative sample and this will eat further into my limited time. Family life is also an important factor to bear in mind and dividing time between study, work and family can become quite a juggling act. If you think you can do it then it can be very rewarding but remember that you don’t need to do a PhD to do research.
Teachers are ideally placed to engage in all kinds of research and there are plenty of ways to learn the basics of research design and implementation. The rewards are unlikely to be financial – a PhD just makes you an over-qualified teacher so it’s worth thinking about why you want to do it in the first place. You might be looking for a career change but for most, I suspect, it’s more to do with personal development. The financial commitment is perhaps the biggest concern (most PhD’s will set you back around £2000 a year and this could be for up to six years) and there is still that nagging feeling that self-funded PhD’s are somehow less worthy.
A PhD is challenging at the best of times but for teachers (and anyone who has to balance work with study) I suspect it’s more so. The benefits can only outweigh the costs however, both in terms of personal fulfillment and the opportunity to add to the research literature.