[004] How to think creatively and achieve study success as a busy, part-time student

Jo achieving PhD in Innovation and Intrapreneurship

“Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears, and never regrets.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

Exposing our minds to new ideas, imagination and knowledge is a great way to stimulate more diverse thinking and fresh approaches. Learning, of course, comes in infinite forms, not just through formal study, but for this blog I wanted to focus on structured learning. I am working with some wonderful clients who are studying professional, post grad courses part-time in addition to having a busy, challenging day job, and it can be tough sometimes.

Structured study has its limitations and is not necessary or relevant for everyone, but many who do choose to do an academic or professional programme benefit immensely from the creative thinking stretch that new theories, materials and case examples can bring.

It’s not an uncommon thing for people to be doing in all sorts of careers, yet there seems to be a lack of practical advice and encouragement out there for them. Some learning organisations, such as the Open University do an outstanding job of providing as much support as they can to all part-time students.

I completed my own MBA with distinction studying part-time over several years at the Open University, at the same time as working full time as a director in a large transport business. I then went straight on to 6 years of part time PhD research at the University of York over a period of Board-level employment followed by the successful set up and growth of the business I currently run. I was so proud to complete my doctorate in 2016. Achieving my PhD at the University of York was the hardest thing I ever done  – and the support from my supervisor, Professor Tony Ward, and the team at the University, was truly second-to-none, so I really do feel for anyone who isn’t fortunate enough to have a fabulously supportive study environment.

Outside the University of York
Photo: University of York. © Jo North, 2017

As a business professional in my very late forties ( I will be 49 in September this year) I found the advice for part-time post grad students really didn’t resonate with me. I had developed skills such as ‘how to get on with your supervisor’ and ‘avoid distraction and procrastination’ as part of my professional career. The challenges that I faced were really very different from relationship building and self-organisation.

Like many mature people I imagine who study part-time, whether they have a job or other commitments and interests, my specific challenges were:

  1. How to sustain momentum, motivation and interest in the same subject and keep up with developments over a 6 year period. ( I do think Tony,  my supervisor, deserves a medal for putting up with me for that long too. (Thank you, Tony!).
  2. How to fathom out the very different academic requirements when it comes to writing and submission style, especially when I was so used to the business style of clarity, pragmatism and user-friendliness.
  3. How to eke out even more brainpower at evenings, weekends and vacations, when my brain already felt like it had eked out every last drop of insight while I was at work doing my day job.

Sustaining momentum

Here are my creative ‘how to’ strategies for sustaining momentum.

I focused on the direction of progress, rather than the size of the steps. Regularly doing something, however small, helped me to feel that I was travelling the right way, which was much more motivating than having to ring fence significant periods of time to tackle big themes in one go.

I found lots of small, bite-size things that I could do, and has them ready to work on in a pipeline of activities. Examples of small things include reading and reviewing a short, academic article. Having a folder of these ready meant that I could just grab one and start, which was especially valuable when I had some unexpected free time, or the urge to do some study.

I also kept a list of maintenance jobs, such as referencing, that I could do when I really was past anything that required any brain power.

Finding a community of people who were excited about my study area as me was also a huge help. We supported each other, and helped motivate each other when the going got tough. We also exchanged positive energy, reading, study tips and ideas.

Studying little and often absolutely worked for me. It felt flexible, achievable, and digesting complex material in smaller chunks really helped me to incubate my thoughts and identify interconnecting themes between research areas.

Fathoming out academic writing

When it came to academic writing, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to coach some wonderful academic teams with their written business communications. I saw first-hand how the conventions that business reports use can be just as confusing at times as the academic ones were at first for me, a business practitioner.

I came to lose all my frustration with academic writing conventions and style and began to appreciate that like all good communication, the key to success is to write for your reader(s), and that the conventions that exist usually help the reader to navigate and absorb the work.

Adhering to the standards of academic writing also has a strong sense of professional etiquette and respect for colleagues, whether you have met them or not. I like this, but had not really grasped it until I coached academic researchers with their business writing skills and saw things from their perspective.

Eking out more brainpower

This was definitely that hardest bit. I love my day job, which involves creating commercial growth strategies, facilitating creative problem-solving events with leadership and management teams and designing and delivering executive development. My typical day does leave me mentally pooped, though. (I like to be mentally pooped because it means I have stretched, although it’s probably quite masochistic!). Here are my top tips for eking out more.

Do less to achieve more. We aren’t machines and can’t keep high quality thinking up indefinitely. Our minds need to rest and refresh.

Where you can and want to, connect your study in some way with your day job. The two can cross-fertilise each other. Ideas about your study will come to you at work and vice versa because your mind will be incubating your thoughts and making connections between the two.

Caption: Study artwork for my reading of Emotional Agility, book by Susan David PhD. © Jo North, 2017.
Photo: Study artwork for my reading of Emotional Agility, book by Susan David PhD. © Jo North

Make study active. I used a literature review ‘template’ and made notes as I went on absolutely everything I read. I also mind-mapped by hand as I read if I wanted to be more analogue, and had already had a day in front of a computer. For me, switching away from electronics and using pen and paper felt more fun, interactive and relaxing. And I used my mind maps  to prepare for my final viva exam. Even today, when I read a non-fiction book, I sometimes create art from my reading to help me process the insights as I go.

The artwork that accompanies this blog below is an item that I created when I read Emotional Agility a few months ago (I highly recommend this book, by the way).

I hope these tips help. I’d love to hear your strategies, too. Do get in touch by leaving a comment below, or direct at jo@bigbangpartnership.co.uk.

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