Forty-three-year-old Neil Freshwater is part-time PhD candidate in Communication Studies, investigating lobbying and public affairs practice in Scotland and the regulation of lobbyists.
Juggling a full-time job in communications while studying for a PhD can be an incredibly tricky balance to strike. However, Neil has chosen to study his PhD part-time over the course of six years, rather than the typical three. With constant support from his supervisors, he has been able to stay in full-time work while continuing to study. He has even been able to get his research published in a book after presenting it at a conference.
Neil tells us more about his experience of balancing a working life alongside studies, how he has found approaching academia from a practice background and what he hopes to do after graduating:
What were you doing before coming to QMU?
I am a part-time PhD student, so before coming to QMU, I was working and I continue to do so full-time. A PhD typically takes three years, and six years part-time. I'm in my sixth and final year, so expecting to submit my thesis in September 2023.
Why did you choose to study at QMU?
The main reason I chose QMU was to work alongside Dr Magda Pieczka, who is now my lead supervisor. I have a BA in Communication, and LLB Law and a PGDip in Legal Practice, but I was largely new to research and research methods.
Since my interest stemmed from my own professional practice and legal interests, I had initially thought of doing a Professional Doctorate, but on discussing my proposed topic with my future supervisor, decided a PhD was the best way forward.
QMU is one of the few universities in the UK with a public affairs specialty, so it was a great choice. The other benefit was that the application process for a PhD at QMU allowed for the initial research proposal to be developed after you start the programme - there's no need to have developed an entire research proposal before you have started the PhD.
I think this is very important, especially for people who want to make the leap from practice to academia. If you have been outside of academia, it is quite hard to put together full proposals without access to a university library and recent academic literature.
What have been the course highlights?
The exploratory nature of doing a PhD has been fantastic. You have the option to explore lots of topics related to your research, particularly in communication which is an interdisciplinary field. You have to retain the focus of your research aims and questions, but reading around the topic has been a highlight.
Another highlight was having a book chapter published based on a paper taken from my PhD research which I presented at a conference European Public Relations & Education Association (EUPRERA) congress. Prior to that was the opportunity to co-write another academic paper with a colleague from Jyväskylä University in Finland who I had met at an earlier EUPREA conference.
How did you find studying your PhD part-time and did you receive support from the academic staff?
Like any part-time study, you need to fit it in with other commitments. I had done part-time study before, which helped. It’s also a long haul, as part-time PhDs typically take six years to complete, so the key is to do a little, often. My supervisors are also very supportive of my situation.
What were some challenges of your course?
Getting to grips with all the research terminology (epistemologies, methodologies, etc) can be quite daunting if you are new to it as I was, so that was quite challenging.
"I think my advice would be to not overthink it or worry about it too much at the start. Focus on your research aims, keep an open mind and then build your methodology around that."
Coming from a practice background, I knew what I wanted to explore, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it academically. However, you have the time to develop those skills. Communication studies is a multi-disciplinary field, so there are many research approaches that can be used.
Has your experience studying a PhD made you want to stay in academia?
Yes, it would certainly be very appealing to keep doing it in some form. That was always my hope. However, I plan to continue in practice for the foreseeable future. Maybe I will be able to continue doing research alongside my job, once I graduate.
What do you hope to do after graduation?
I changed jobs a year or two into my PhD and for the past four years I have been working as a public affairs manager for a company. I don’t have any immediate plans to change direction, but I would be keen to keep a foot in the academic door, if possible, after I have finished my PhD.