Dearest Graduable Readers,
This is what you have been waiting so patiently for. The profile of Linda Baines, a PhD student in the School of Management at University of Southampton studying the interactions of knowledge exchange, innovation, and social responsibility. You can find out more (after you’ve read the interview) on Twitter, Linkedin, Academia.edu, or DelBea. Linda also hosts #phdchat on Twitter periodically which, if you don’t know already, is one of the most useful hashtags in the academic world. Below is our interview about her research, how she came to PhD studies after working in the public sector for a number of years, and the similarities between the UK and North American university systems. Thanks for reading. Enjoy.
Thanks for agreeing to be profiled, Linda. It’s great to talk to you. Let’s start with a little bit about your research.
I’m looking at the ethics of exploiting the knowledge and ideas that come out of the research that universities and public research labs undertake, and the values and ethics that underpin this. For instance, when biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies work with universities there can be conflicts between the companies wanting the research to be kept secret and the universities wanting to publish their results. So, what are the ethical limits within which universities and academics are bound or socially responsible for exploiting their research and knowledge? It’s closely linked to what universities are about, their roles and perceptions of this.
Also, what happens if a tobacco or some other company wants to fund research at a university but their involvement is a conflict or makes the researchers uncomfortable? Could they then refuse and what are the boundaries within which they must operate? I’m focusing, in short, on the ethics of showing the benefits of research or proving academic worth.
So what if that large tobacco company, for example, or some other contentious source wants to donate money to build a new wing of a university for research?
To give you one example from the UK, a few years ago Muammar Gadaffi’s son donated a large sum of money to the London School of Economics and he was also awarded a PhD, to which there was a large outcry. On the one hand, universities are under pressure to try and find additional sources of income because the government has cut funding, for instance. On the other hand, the university is accepting money from a regime that the government is against, so this apparent trade off can happen.
What’s the climate like for doing a PhD in the UK? In North America there’s a sort of all-or-nothing culture in graduate school and PhD programmes especially. It doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t people doing a PhD and working part- or full-time out of financial necessity. How are the funding programmes different in the UK and how has corporatization affected academia there?
Two things: first, the trend toward academic corporatization is prevalent in the UK as well. We’re a few steps behind North America, though. Second, there is a perception that the proportion of administrators has grown, the metrics and the measuring that academics have to do in the form-filling and paperwork has grown along with it, and many have said that this takes away from their research and teaching that they really want to do. So, it’s not just a North American phenomenon. You can even look to Australian universities, for example. I think it’s a global trend right now.
When you register for a PhD in the UK you can register for full-time, which is about 3 years, or part-time, which is about 6 – 7. It’s not unusual for people in the UK to be doing a PhD on a part-time basis. You’ve indicated that it is a little unusual in North America to be doing so. In fact, I was told that approximately one-third of the students in my programme were doing it part-time. I was surprised by this number as well. Normally those doing their PhD part-time are working part- or full-time and even those doing full-time PhDs are sometimes working. The main sources of funding are public institutions that give grant funding or studentships for doctoral research to universities for Science, the Humanities, and so on. The competition for this funding is getting more difficult as cutbacks take effect, though. You have to be outstanding to get one.
That’s similar to Canada and they’re also being cutback. We’ve had a fairly fiscally (and socially) conservative government for the last decade or so and grad students are finding themselves having to seek other forms of funding either through university endowments or other types of private scholarships and awards.
Yes, we have charities like the Wellcome Trust or sometimes big companies will endow a chair at a university. There are similar patterns, I think.
When you say you’re ‘self-funded,’ do you get any funding at all from the government?
So all your expenses are out-of-pocket for your PhD?
Yes – well – let me work backwards and tell you how I got here. I used to work full-time in the public sector. I was in commercial management and there came a point where I wanted to put a theoretical framework around what I was doing. I found a course at Manchester Business School and did a Master’s there over three years. I was fortunate to be accepted into the PhD programme at the university that my dissertation supervisor moved to. The university I’m at now, University of Southampton, is much closer to home than Manchester as well.
Do universities give your life skills acquired outside of the university any kind of weight in the application or degree progression?
No, they don’t, but when you’re discussing with your supervisor what your needs are, you look down the list of prerequisites and course requirements, and figure out which you need and which you don’t based on the skills and experience you bring with you. The only real course I did was the compulsory research methods course and that was very useful.
You’ve started your PhD later than the majority of students, so what’s your take on taking breaks before or between degrees and have you encountered any resistance from academia in doing so?
Not resistance, but speaking anecdotally, some universities is not properly set up for part-time students. It’s difficult to become part of the academic community as a part-time student so I’ve had to find different ways to deal with that, such as finding communities on Twitter and PhD buddies outside. I think also that my supervisor and I are more equally matched in terms of confidence and complementary experience than if I were a student, say, in my twenties. And I think that’s healthy for me.
Yes, I think that’s important. It seems to me that confidence and, ultimately, independence from your supervisor is a powerful thing. What do you think of attaining independence as the ultimate ‘goal’ of a PhD?
I think it is. I share my plans and strategies with him, of course, and I also seek advice and guidance from him but not permission. And I will listen to and follow his advice. One piece of invaluable advice given to me by him on my dissertation has been: what three new things is your PhD going to say about your topic?
That’s actually a great way to get yourself thinking about your project in another light.
Yes, I think it is.
Backing up just a bit, let’s talk about why you’re doing a PhD now.
I suppose it was always something, in the back of my mind, that I always wanted to do and I think that if I don’t do it now I never will. Having done a master’s you get a little ‘taste’ of academia. When I had done my master’s, it had been quite a while since I’d done any university so I found myself getting used to new kinds of academic techniques and procedures, particularly the conventions of academic writing. But, yes, I think getting the ‘taste’ for it again was important. It’s great being able to do original research into something that you’re interested in, not knowing what you’re going to find or where it’s going to take you. It’s a bit like trying to start writing a novel from scratch, but you have certain parameters and a framework to guide you.
How would you frame doing a doctorate to someone else with a background and experience similar to yours?
I think you’ve really got to want to do it and you’ve got to choose a topic that excites you that you can stick with for several years. You’ve got to be able to keep plodding away at it consistently; it never really leaves you. And you may not do work on it every day, but little things like cleaning up a file or something that adds to the productivity. Even just thinking about your project is important. It’s also very important to allow yourself a break. It takes a while to get back into studying, however. It’s a bit like when you stop exercising for a while. It takes a while to get back into it.
I think it’s also important to have support. I’ve got lots of family support and the fact that I’ve got my daughter rooting for me as well as my other half. If not for that, I don’t know that I’d be able to do this. Their support goes a long way in terms of my motivation.
Thanks, Linda, for taking the time to talk with me today. It’s been a pleasure talking with you today. Cheers.
So, that’s the end. Don’t forget to read the other current academic profile on Graduable.com on Dr. Eva Lantsoght. If me peppering you relentlessly with questions sounds like something you’d like to do for an hour or so, contact me and we can set something up. I want to hear about your research and share it on my blog. I really, really do.