Being There: Full-time PhD Study at the Open University

When I applied for a full-time PhD place at the Open University, I had no idea you had to go anywhere particular to do it. I was completing my MA at Manchester University at the time and I had never seen Milton Keynes, let alone the Open University campus. During my undergraduate study with the OU, I had thought of them as distant, perhaps imaginary, places and there had certainly never been any reason or occasion to try to visit them. So it was quite a shock to find out during my (telephone) interview for a Phd studentship that full-time students were expected to live within 40 mins and 40 miles of the Walton Hall campus and to see their supervisors face to face on a regular basis.

The flat in Fenny: my living room is the one with the door open
The flat in Fenny: my living room is the one with the door open

When I was offered and accepted my place, I still didn’t go to see Walton Hall because I was knee deep in an MA dissertation and grateful that my son, Matthew and my sister, Pat, were willing to go and find me a place to live while I carried on writing. The first time I saw the flat in Fenny Stratford (a couple of miles from campus), was the day I moved in. Thankfully it turned out to be a great place to live though I was also a bit shocked that I needed to buy a car to get about in MK – I don’t know who designed the public transport system, but they certainly didn’t have the Fenny to Open University journey in mind and two miles each way was a bit much for my little legs.

Walking onto the campus for the first time – it’s just over that bridge

But eventually, I saw the campus and fell in love with it, and I met my supervisors and I suppose it would be a bit odd to say I fell in love with them, but I certainly felt I had been extremely lucky to end up with such kind and generous  and intelligent people as I staggered my way round my PhD topic trying to connect with some concrete ideas for exploration. The Open University is an amazing organisation, totally accepting of whatever you are as long as you direct your efforts into your subject with enthusiasm. I think all PhD candidates probably suffer from some degree of ‘impostor syndrome’ where they think that any minute now someone is going to spot that they are really just some random person who wandered into the programme by mistake, but I always felt that, even if my supervisors had spotted it, they would have been far too kind to point it out and would have found some way of making a success of things. Perhaps that is what is happening after all 🙂 Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself.

The on-campus chapel where two OU choirs hold their practices

The first year is not so frightening. There are skills workshops at least once every couple of weeks and they are mostly quite easy to understand. Some of us have already gathered some of the skills in previous lives and that take the pressure off nicely. There are some topics that are more difficult though – I struggle with ontology and epistemology and frameworks but, at they end of the day, they are just words and I will have to get over it! There are other students, actually a surprisingly large and eclectic mix of students, at first all of us trying to look as if we know what we are doing, and then swinging to the other extreme and admitting that we really don’t. Then starts the long habit of supporting each other and trying to understand and help with each other’s problems. We don’t see each other enough though really and our topics are mostly very different. I still haven’t met anyone researching pedagogy and technology for Latin (that’s where my PhD topic has settled now). We do have desks together, at least in my department (the Centre for Education and Education Technology – CREET). My seat is invariably empty though – I never did like working at a desk or in an open plan office. I generally stay at home and wrestle the procrastination monkey alone. I join a couple of on-campus choirs though and that makes me feel more part of the place. At the end of the year, we have to submit a probation report and do a mini-viva defending our plans for the rest of the PhD. This is very worrying. If there is going to be a moment when the impostor thing gets spotted, this is it! Somehow, I end up with extremely kind and generous and intelligent assessors – I am beginning to spot a theme now – and they give lots of encouragement and helpful advice. I can stay for another two years!

Coming in to land in Lexington on my way for a week of speaking Latin

In the second year, the workshops dry up, but we still have supervisions – mine are once a month, but some are more often. This is data collection year and I find myself gadding off to America to speak Latin, all courtesy of my research grant. I think I have gone to Heaven. There are trips to conferences around Europe and the UK as well as Work in Progress (WiP) seminars on campus. I can see everyone’s ideas beginning to take shape and my own seem to be settling down a bit too. There is some hope that I might get away with this after all  …

But no, the third year is really scary. I am going to have to write stuff! Actually a real lot of stuff! I hate writing! Why did I not think of that before? I start and it isn’t so bad. My supervisors stay true to form and tell me it is all ok while managing to tell me about the bits which are not ok as well. I write and correct and write. The amount I haven’t written doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller though. I am still at that stage where the mountain to climb seems insurmountably large, but I keep plodding along, sometimes forward and sometimes back, hoping that by some miracle I will sneak up on the summit and the PhD will make it through the impostor filter too. Doing a PhD is really hard – harder than any academic thing I have done before – and I suppose that is as it should be. But, whatever happens, I have learned an enormous amount in some really excellent and inspiring company. I would certainly recommend the Open University to any of you intrepid enough to take on the PhD journey.



2 thoughts on “Being There: Full-time PhD Study at the Open University

  1. I love your blog, Mair. This is a very good story which you are mentioning about doing a PhD. I understand very well that PhDs can be difficult and time consuming. Writing is not easy at all. The problem with writing is that one cannot write down things too quickly. One has to think before one writes, so that it makes it comprehensible for the proofreaders and the listeners. If I am lucky and I finish my Master’s degree, I am definitely not going to do a PhD. It consists of nothing, but a thesis and it goes on for too many years. After my Master’s degree, I will just take some short courses at the OU and I will not count them as qualifications. I am thinking about doing the ‘Frozen Planet’, because it talks about the Arctic and Antarctica, after I complete my Master’s. Good luck in your PhD!

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