Dealing with ‘atypical’ students

This is a guest post by Dr Nicole Brown, Lecturer in Education at UCL Institute of Education (@ncjbrown). She gained her doctorate from the University of Kent as a mature, part-time student balancing the demands of doctoral studies with the challenges of a working life and family commitments. Nicole is a UKCGE Recognised Research Supervisor.

A photograph of Nicole working on her PhD on a pebbly beach.
Nicole making use of every free minute, weaving doctoral study around her work committments and family commitments.

Wherever we look, each faculty, school or department has its own ‘typical’ doctoral student. In some higher education institutions, the typical doctoral student is the PhD student who enters the full-time doctoral journey directly from undergraduate and postgraduate studies. That student may be in their early twenties, with some family commitments and responsibilities to scholarship funders. In other institutions, the typical student is one who works their journey through a professional doctorate, such as an EdD, DBA or PsyD.

But what about the students that do not fit the description of the institutional definition of the typical doctoral student? And what can we do about these atypical students? In this blog post I aim to address these questions drawing on my experiences as an atypical doctoral student.

I decided to embark on a doctoral journey because I had reached a glass ceiling in my academic career. I had been lecturer for a while, had been module and programme leader and had become Academic Head of Learning and Teaching in my department. But I knew that if I ever wanted to progress further in the future and to be taken seriously as an academic, I would need a PhD. I knew that there would be a massive time commitment required in terms of getting through the readings and carrying out the research. I knew that I would need to work at weekends and in the evenings, because I would still have to do my work at work as well as fulfil my family commitments, especially school-runs and childcare for my son. 

The reality of my doctoral life was characterised by many late nights and/or early mornings of work, many missed opportunities where I could not join family outings and making use of every free minute. When I did the school run and I was 10 minutes early, I would use these 10 minutes to do something: reading and highlighting or making notes, anything. Basically, literally every ‘free’ minute became a minute for and of the PhD. I was lucky in that I had a good relationship with my supervisors Prof Iain Wilkinson and Dr Jennifer Leigh. They both allowed me to work at my pace, but also ensured that I would not push myself too far. 

So, what is it that we can do to best support the atypical student?

A sense of belonging

From literature we know that the doctoral journey is a process of initiation, and as such is a difficult experience. But in the case of the ‘atypical’ student that initiation is even more important. If ‘typical’ students struggle to feel that they belong, we can only imagine what this does to the ‘atypical’ student. I was an established lecturer amongst a group of students who were new to teaching. I was juggling my son’s childcare and all the responsibilities of a housewife with what my workday entailed. I was struggling to find time to do my studies, and yet my ‘peers’ complained about not having enough time. They were concerned about moving in with their partners, organising their wedding, or about managing a classroom of twenty students. I was leading teaching and learning initiatives in a department of approximately 120 staff and leading my module for some 100 students. They were in their mid-twenties; I was in my early forties. I was clearly not one of them. I could have been their mum. At times, I felt like their mum. I did not belong. In short, for the ‘atypical’ student the sense of belonging is even more warped than for the typical ones.

(Re)considering norms and needs

Building on the idea of developing a sense of belonging, it is key for the supervisors and the graduate schools to consider what the norm is in their institution and how others could possibly feel out of place. Ideally, we would then try to shift the focus and turn the ‘atypical’ into a ‘new normal’. In my case, my allegiance was perhaps not so much with my ‘peers’, as it was with special interest groups within my school. I somehow navigated the space between being an experienced academic and being a student, which allowed me to enter meaningful relationships and collaborations. It was the little things that made this possible: the supervisors introducing me as a lecturer at my institute, rather than as a doctoral student at theirs. I had been an established academic and so my needs were very different to the needs of their typical doctoral students. Supervisory meetings therefore were taking different courses and had a different agenda. And it is this (re)evaluation of what is normal and what is needed that provided the basis for my successful journey.

Of course, literature asks us to be reflective supervisors and to establish a meaningful relationship with our supervisees, and that is certainly true. What I recommend, however, is to consider the institutional setting we are working in, to recognise our implicit expectations and assumptions around the doctoral journey at our institution, and to compensate for the resulting shortcomings to meet the needs of those students who are ‘atypical’.

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