PhD Researcher

Exploring independent, hyperlocal news

I Wish I Was a Little Bit Timelord: First Impressions on a PhD

In which I share my thoughts on the first 6 weeks of PhD-ing in my hometown, at the wonderful University of Portsmouth (and no, you impudent elf, they are not paying me to say that *) and reflect on a busy workload and a period of adjustment.

Back in October 2018, I began my 3 year stint as a PhD researcher at the University of Portsmouth’s Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries. I’m lucky enough to have won a bursary to explore what is currently still for me a research area, rather than a research question: To what extent – and how – can independent, hyperlocal news address the global ‘crisis’ facing mainstream journalism? 

After 2 and a half days of whistle-stop induction, this year’s cohort of Phd-ers were set loose, free-roaming, to make our unique addition to the dazzling world of knowledge. It felt exciting, daunting and terrifying.

Part of the terror is from the, ahem, 15 or so years I’ve been out of academia, the last three and a half of which I’ve spent co-founding and running a hyperlocal news website for Portsmouth, called Star & Crescent (S&C). So when the opportunity came up to research hyperlocal news, it was an absolute no-brainer.  As most of the people I’ve ever met (usually 1-2 person teams) who run websites like S&C know, the whole time you’re running them, you don’t really get much of a chance to learn about the wider sector – what your sibling indie hyperlocals across the country are doing. Burnout and bankruptcy are the two Bs that haunt the sector the most, I suspect.

So I saw an opportunity to do several things at once: develop my own skills as a researcher, contribute to a growing body of research on hyperlocals, and make S&C even bigger, better and bolder by learning from the best practices of our sector.

And, on a more personal note, take one step nearer to a childhood ambition of becoming a timelord, obvs. Ironically, if I was  a timelord, the time management here would become much easier as I could potentially take 10 years to write my thesis and still submit it 3 years from now. At least, I think I could. For a Doctor Who fan, I have a piss-poor understanding of time.

But I digress. Of course, I knew from the beginning it would be a tough transition. I was a freelancer writer and researcher for the best part of a decade before starting my PhD, and in the years of doing S&C, I’d more than doubled my workload – half of it now on a voluntary basis – and halved my pay. In hindsight, I see most people aim to progress their careers by swapping those two variables around…

How in the name of all things Gallifreyan was I going to add a PhD to the mix?

I’m a big believer in learning as I go or, as the Dixie Chicks might say, Taking the Long Way Round. So, I embraced the fears and jumped.

And now here I am! Just under two months in to my PhD experience. And it’s amazing.

There is SO MUCH knowledge out there on local news, and so many fascinating ways of looking at hyperlocal news that I’ve never considered. In a few weeks, I’ve learned so much about the sector and the history of local news and newspapers. Every day my research diary fills up with another idea for how I can answer that big overarching question above. One day I might even decide on one.

At the same time, the world of knowledge has moved from the browsing of journals and library shelves in the real world, to pressing buttons, downloading apps that manage your reading and references, and more search engines and search tools than you could shake the complete set of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica at. That’s an adjustment for a middle-ager like me, and to be honest, you’re still more likely to find me making handwritten notes and poring over an actual book (remember them?) or paper than whizzing through the cloud. But I’m learning.

The shift to digital is one thing, but the managing of finances is another.

Although the £14,500 (more or less) bursary from the University is a massive help, as a 42 year old, it doesn’t cover my bills. So I took in a lodger, cut back on chocolate (it’s one of my biggest spending areas – don’t judge me), looked over my freelance portfolio and decided to keep 3 clients on: 2 medium/long term projects – editing a novel and assisting with a creative memoir – and 1 ongoing client – copywriting and desk-research. I explained to my clients that their work would be done on evenings and weekends, and made sure their expectations were in line with my capacity. I’m lucky to have long-term clients that give me this luxury, as it makes my life – and bank balance – so much easier to manage.

And so we get, finally, to the workload. If freelance clients are now in the evenings and weekends, I slowly realised over month 1, where was all the work I do for S&C going to go?

Well, answering that question has been a key part of month 2, and again good fortune is playing a key part. We’ve built strong relationships with our volunteers, writers and readers, which has allowed me to invite them to be part of the solution. At the moment, alongside the freelance work, in my evenings and weekends, I’ve been recruiting and training volunteers in a range of new roles that allow me to step back from the operations of S&C – and to be honest, that was probably long overdue.

That said, my supervisor warned me in our first meeting: ‘Don’t hang everything on S&C, it may not survive your PhD.’

Over my dead body, it won’t, was my first thought. But it only took me a couple of weeks of trying to do EVERYTHING to realise she was right. Nothing is set in stone. But if I can find a way for S&C to work alongside my PhD, you can bet your sweet life it will survive – and thrive – in the next 3 years, with or without me at the helm.

The net result of all of this has been to realise there’s now not much time leftover for anything but sleep. But that’s no surprise to my fellow PhD-ers, or the many academics around me.

Another CCI PhD-er I know is self-funded, runs a freelance business AND has children she’s raising on her own. Yep, you read that right. I think of her every time I’m tempted to complain about my lack of free time. At a meeting of the faculty PhD-ers yesterday, the older members of the group – in PhD years, I think I may be one of the oldest in human years – told us the most important thing we could learn right now is the funding landscape and how to best support ourselves, for example, covering costs to conferences and so on.

And it seems to be the same for the academics around me too. PhD-ers can use a hot desk alongside the academic teaching staff, and I’ve noticed the long hours and frantic days most of them have, as they fit in teaching, the bureaucracy of teaching, tutorials, marking, planning, meetings (SO MANY MEETINGS) and their own research.

‘How do you do it?’ I asked one of the academics in the office.

‘You give up your evenings and weekends,’ she smiled.

I smiled back, weirdly reassured. At least it’s not just me.

If you’ve done or doing a PhD, I’d love your thoughts on this post, particularly if you have a magical solution, or even just some tips on how you did it. Is doing a PhD the only thing that can happen in your life while doing a PhD, or is there a way to balance health, work and general well-being?

Shout me over on Twitter at @Cheversar if you have the answer, or to share your experience. 

* Full disclosure: the Uni is actually paying me (for my PhD, not this post) – I’m a bursary PhD-er.