If you’re considering whether to do a postgraduate degree or PhD there’s probably a lot of questions going through your mind: how am I going to pay for it? Should I quit my job? Will I cope with the workload? But most importantly, what is it really like? Karen Patel, a full time PhD student with the School of Media, shares her experiences of juggling life, a part time job and her studies.

I’m pretty much a part of the furniture here at BCU. I started my degree in Media and Communication here in 2006 (when the School of Media was based at Perry Barr) then went straight on to do the MA in Media and Creative Enterprise in 2009-10. I then went off into the ‘real world’ to work in marketing and social media for various companies; graduating in the middle of the recession was really difficult and marketing jobs were the only ones going. Though I had the skillset on paper I didn’t have the personality and I really struggled. When I was told about a social media job in the Research Office at BCU in 2013 I jumped at the chance and was so happy to come back.

Deciding to do a PhD

I had always wanted to work in higher education and during my time in the marketing ‘wilderness’ I kept an eye out for PhD studentships. I have always loved theory and felt I was much better at it than anything practical, but despite that I was glad I had those few years of work experience because not only did it build up my practical skills, I learned how to deal with many different types of people (which is a skill you really need, trust me) and how to work in a team, which I think is incredibly important. I also think my work experience benefitted my application for the PhD studentship I did get – the AHRC Midlands 3 Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

So now I’m back with the School of Media doing my PhD full time whilst still working for the Research Office part time. For my PhD I’m looking at the role of social media in the everyday lives of people working in the creative industries, focusing particularly on issues of labour, blurring between personal and professional life and the performance of expertise on social media. This topic came from a combination of my experience working in social media, and also a module on Creative Industries and Cultural Policy I did in the MA.

The difference between a Masters and a PhD

Though they are both postgraduate qualifications, the MA and PhD are worlds apart, so much so that I don’t think they can be compared. The MA is taught, with coursework and exams where applicable, you have set tutorials and it lasts one year full time. You’re guided through the process. The PhD is completely self-directed; so you need a great deal of self-motivation and discipline, and you really need to be passionate about what you’re doing otherwise you won’t finish it. You have a director of studies (or supervisor) for guidance and support, but you are ultimately your own director of studies, and your supervisor is looking to learn as much from you as you are from them. It is three years (at least) of concentrating on one thing, and it’s a long and arduous journey that changes you as a person.

Balancing work and study

So far, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the PhD. I love having time to really think about things. It’s rewarding to think that I’m researching something that no one else is, and that I’m making a unique contribution to knowledge. Balancing this with my part time job was difficult at first; I had to adjust my working hours so it wouldn’t take so much out of my week. I think if you do decide to work part time whilst studying, make sure the job isn’t a hindrance.

If you do decide to do a PhD, enjoy it! You’ll only ever do it once, and it’s a wonderful opportunity.

More about Karen’s research on her blog.

Want to find out more about postgraduate study? Come along to our postgraduate open day to put all your questions to our expert lecturers and meet students like Karen. It’s on Wednesday 20 April 2016, 2-7pm. Find out more and register.

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