Find out about Bridget's research on innovation in universities, and how she combines a part-time PhD with a family and a full-time job.
Research topic: Intrapreneurial innovation in university teaching and learning
Supervisors: Professors Susan Geertshuis and Kenneth Husted
Faculty: Business and Economics (Graduate School of Management)
Funding: Part self-funded, part-funded by employer
Tell us about your journey to PhD study
Before I started my PhD in March 2016, I had been working on educational initiatives in higher education in policy, project and research support roles for over a decade. I’d hit a ceiling with what I was doing: I wanted to keep moving forward but was unclear about what was next. I was excited when a Business School colleague with whom I’d been working suggested that I do a PhD under her supervision. Those kind of opportunities don’t come by often, so I grabbed the bull by the horns and applied to the PhD programme as a part-time student. I knew it would be tough on top of my day job and family life, but it was something I felt I had to do.
Tell us about your doctoral research – in layman’s terms!
I study educational innovation in universities with strong research identities. I seek to understand the social and political processes by which education innovation can emerge from within the complex setting of a research university by closely examining the innovative endeavours of enterprising teachers. To do this, I look closely at innovation from the perspective of university teachers and draw on the idea of the ‘intrapreneur’, a change agent operating within an existing organizational setting who takes hands-on responsibility for driving innovation.
What does research look like for you?
In the first year or two, it was all about surviving research methodology courses, and developing and defining my topic and research design. This was an intense phase of reading and writing, rewriting, and pulling my hair out. Currently, I’m in an empirical field work phase, which is about identifying and recruiting research participants for my study and gathering qualitative data through semi-structured interviews and observation. I’ve just returned from a fieldwork trip at the University of Melbourne where I spent a couple of weeks interviewing educational innovators from across different disciplines. I’m now drowning in data and preparing to go deep into data analysis, which will again be its own distinct phase.
How do you fit in research with all your other commitments?
I’m a part-time student with a family and a day job so every minute of the day is precious. I aim to do at least 2-3 hours a day across 6 days of the week to keep my research moving forwards. Mornings are the best time of day for me. I go through periods where I get up at 4am in the morning and do two hours before my day starts. The idea of this fills some people with horror, but the mornings in my household are very quiet. There’s no distraction and my mind feels at its sharpest. I’ll often take my laptop out and about, and work on my PhD while waiting for my daughter to do her weekly gymnastics and swimming. It’s all about stealing time and keeping up a momentum with my reading and writing.
What are the ups and downs of life as a part-time doctoral candidate?
A major ‘up’ for me is that I’ve never felt isolated. My job gives my day a structure and provides me with a social context. It makes me feel connected, busy and productive. When things go well at work, things seem to go well for my PhD. It’s funny but one fuels the other. I’ve also really benefited from being part of a cohort of like-minded students who inspire and motivate me, though it’s hard trying to move through the PhD programme with my full-time peers. We often catch up for coffee (and wine!), share resources and encourage each other through difficult times. Sometimes it’s tough keeping up with these guys and to realise that you may be finishing a year or two later than them, but that’s the reality for a part-timer.
The disadvantage of being part-time is that you’re in the minority in your cohort and, for me, fulfilling coursework requirements was a big pressure. These are 6-week intensive courses with no part-time option, and getting time for intensive study blocks when you’re working is really tricky. Luckily I have the generous support of my boss, who has given me study leave and helped me with other forms of financial support available through the University of Auckland’s professional development policies.
Will the PhD change your career path?
My end goal is not to have an academic job. I’m doing a PhD to sharpen my research, writing and critical thinking skills. I have used these skills daily throughout my career, and being able to perform them at a higher level will increase my performance in my current role as well as in future roles.
What has been the biggest challenge so far in your PhD journey?
My toughest moment has been fronting up for my provisional year review defense. This was a critical moment. I had to submit my full proposal and chapter to a review committee and ‘go public’ with my research for the first time. This meant delivering a 30-minute seminar presentation in the Business School on my research proposal, and fielding questions from the academic staff and students who attended. I was so nervous and stressed, and I think it might have taken me 3 months to recover! Having said that, getting through such a difficult hurdle has set me up for the next phase of my research and is good practice for the final thesis examination.
Have you got any advice for people starting or about to start a PhD?
Have a lot of grit and stamina! This is a marathon and you will need to be able to take and respond to a lot of critical feedback. This means being able to pick yourself up and dust yourself off many times over. You will have many days feeling lost and not clever enough to be doing this, but these are very normal feelings. Surround yourself with like-minded friends and actively support and inspire one another. I think keeping physically fit is also an essential survival strategy: build exercise into your daily routine to help you stay focussed and motivated.