You might have a clear idea of your taste for engaging with academia, be a dab hand at reading and writing a shed load of stuff, and have excellent organisation skills for a PhD (all covered in previous posts in this series) but, alas, time and money are finite, and location can play a key role in your productivity too. So, you’re going to have to make decisions about all three of these things:
Be critical about the type of extra-curricular work that you engage in
It can be tempting to jump at every opportunity to gain work experience during a PhD, especially if it’s paid and you’re skint. You need to be more critical than this. During my research, I worked as a student reviewer of academic standards, an academic research assistant, an intern and then researcher at a polling company, as well as a teaching assistant in my department and at summer schools. In total, excluding the teaching assisting work (which is de rigueur if you want a career in academia), I spent over a year of my four-and-a-half years doing non-research-related work. Was it worth it? In the case of the polling company and teaching experience, yes. Otherwise, probably not. The money was nice but it would have been much more useful to have some of those months to focus on research (psychologically, I think it’s also important to retain a focus on the important work). I thought the experience would look good on my curriculum vitae in future, but I’m not convinced it does. No one cares if you were a student reviewer of academic standards if your thesis is lacking, or late, and you have no publications or impact. In fact, the contexts in which that experience is necessary are so few and far between that I’m bewildered I thought it would be useful. As for being an academic research assistant, it doesn’t look bad to have done it, but it also wouldn’t have been a great loss not to. So, before you apply for or accept extra-curricular work, make sure you think about how useful it will be in the long-run and whether it would be more useful to have the time instead. If there’s doubt in your mind about how worthwhile it is then don’t do it. Unless you need the money, in which case your hands are tied.
If you do other work then put time aside to keep working on the PhD
When I started one of my stints at the polling company I worked for, a member of academic staff advised me to carry on doing research work in my spare time (this links to not treating it as a nine-to-five). My immediate reaction was ‘seriously, you want me to work on my PhD in my spare time?!’ I should have listened. I had a total of nine months at the polling company and even if I’d only worked two evenings a week (and a weekend here and there) on my research it would have been beneficial. Beyond just providing more time to get the work done, it would have kept my research alive in my mind, and reminded me that, despite the hiatus, it was still a priority. As it was, I did very little and bore the costs at the end of my PhD, not least in the sense that I failed to do much of what I’d intended.
Save a proportion of your income every month
Despite my elaborate and detailed financial recording (as I said, Soviet bureaucrat), I failed to do this most basic of helpful things during my PhD. My funding (granted through a collaborative deal between the ESRC and YouGov) paid my fees and awarded me a monthly stipend of just over £1,100 (tax free) for the first three years of my research. Had I saved just 5% of this, I could have had £2,000 in the bank when my funding ran out, which is to say a two month cushion in which I wouldn’t have to worry about income. If I’d stretched it to 10% then I could have had four months without worry. Or, an alternative approach would have been to live on my research funding and save any extra money I earned. Of course, there is another element to this, which is partially related to the below point: cost of living. I’d already worked for a few years so was used to having a (slightly) higher income and, crucially, wanted to live with my partner (now fiancée!) in London. This was the right decision (there are other things in life more important than research, despite the tenor of these posts) but it meant that I was essentially living beyond my means and rendered the extra work that I did necessary. Still, I could have saved more (i.e. any) money, and perhaps looked for a compromise on living arrangements; as it was, I ran out of money and ended up having to move nearer my institution to take on teaching work. So, you should accept that your funding is limited, adjust your living arrangements as necessary, and save as much money as you can for the (inevitable?) extra months you’ll need to work on your research at the end.
Live near your institution
This is partially about cost (i.e. if your university isn’t in London then try to avoid living there) but mostly about facilities, working environment, and social networks. For the last six months of my PhD I lived in the same town as my university, and it enabled me to work much more effectively. It meant that I had a desk in a shared office that I could use for work on campus, and therefore also had a clear physical divide between home and work. Thus, I could work late if necessary, safe in the knowledge that when went home the space would be entirely detached from my research. For me, this was hugely psychologically helpful because it enabled me to turn off entirely when I was away from my desk, even if only for the night. By contrast, when I lived in London my office was at home and I found it remarkably difficult to separate research from the rest of my life, which meant that I was never working effectively and yet, on some level, was always working. This partially prompted my decision to treat the work as a nine-to-five (see previous post) on the basis that if I couldn’t physically delineate my work and home life then I should do so with strict time limits instead. Alas, even despite this strict timekeeping, working from home enabled me to do lots of virtuous procrastination (e.g. washing up, hoovering, sorting out bills when they arrived in the post) that just wasn’t possible when I worked away from home in the final six months. Beyond having a separate physical space to work, living near campus also meant that I had access to a library whenever necessary (and one where I had full lending rights and computer access to boot), could get IT support quickly, and could arrange more ad hoc meetings with my supervisor (e.g. when problems with my analysis arose). Finally, it meant that I was embedded in an environment where I was surrounded by people who were going through the same experience as me. I could see them doing their work and progressing, which provided additional motivation on the basis that I could see it was possible, and because I wanted to emulate those who finished. I could also talk to people about the experience (whether moaning, joking, or expressing frustration) in the knowledge that they’d be able to empathise (as well as offer advice). Thus, for reasons relating to facilities, working environment, and social networks, I strongly advise finding a way to live near the institution that you’re studying at.
So, if you’ve figured out your goal, engaged with academia, read and written a tonne, organised the heck out of yourself, and sorted the contextual factors, then you might think you have it sussed. The kicker is that, in addition to balancing all those things, you also need to avoid over-complexity…