An Audacious Pursuit: Pat Culhane talks balancing postgrad studies and a full-time job

Editor's Choice, Lifestyle | Thu 26 Apr | Author – Business & Finance
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With a demanding job, taking on postgraduate studies is not for the fainthearted. Pat Culhane shares his experiences of balancing postgraduate studies and a full-time job in our Q1 Review 2018 magazine.

Pat Culhane GAA

Pat Culhane

My name is Pat Culhane. I’ve just entered the winter of my thirties and live in Dublin with my wife. I work as a National Development Officer with the GAA, based in Croke Park. I manage a range of projects aimed at ensuring that every child (aged 5-13 years) in Ireland has a positive introduction to Gaelic games. I completed a Master’s degree in 2012 and I am over two years into the Doctorate of Management (DMan) programme at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU). As with the Master’s, I’m studying this on a part/spare-time basis.

My reasons for pursuing postgraduate education are many and varied. Some of the extrinsic motivators include career progression, underpinned by the development of my research skills, analytical skills and my critical thinking. However, the reasons run much deeper than this, particularly on top of a demanding full-time job and family commitments. I’ll address these later on.

What follows is some key advice, based on my experiences, for those who may be considering pursuing postgraduate education in the business/management field, particularly at doctoral level.

Consider the type of Doctoral degree

Until a colleague mentioned a Professional Doctorate (ProfD) a few years ago, I didn’t know they existed. I thought that the only type of doctoral degree was a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). Both have equal status – Level 10 on the National Framework of Qualifications. There are a few keenly-disputed differences between the two. ProfD research tends to place more emphasis on contributing to professional practice. PhD research tends to focus more on contributing to new or existing theory. These are generalisations, however.

Completing a doctoral degree is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have, however, getting there can be an isolating pursuit

Most doctoral degrees take around three years to complete on a full-time basis, and four-to-six years part time. There are different types on PhDs: Structured PhD, PhD by Publication, etc. There are also different types of ProfDs: DMan, Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA), etc. Some programmes run entirely online, however, they are in the minority and are usually expensive. For those interested in finding out more about business/management professional doctorates, A Guide to Professional Doctorates in Business and Management by Anderson, Gold and Thorpe (Sage, 2015) is worth a read.

Choose a programme that fits your life

If you can afford to do a full-time doctoral degree, more power to you. Those that continue to work simultaneously will do it on a part-time basis. Many DBA and DMan programmes are designed to facilitate this. My DMan programme, for example, involved five one-week teaching blocks every four-to-six months on campus for the first two years. This made up Phase 1, the taught element of the programme, which focused on professional development, research methods and thesis preparation. It involved a number of written assignments, ranging from 1,000 to 8,000 words each. This structure would be typical of many Irish- and UK-based ProfDs.

Phase 1 allowed sufficient time to sharpen your skills in order to conduct doctoral-level research and to build up the concept for your thesis. Often, this is not the case with PhDs, where you are expected to have a clear concept of your research question from the off.

Another advantage of many ProfDs is that you can exit with a master’s degree after Phase 1. Phase 2 involves two-to-three years of conducting research and writing the thesis, which ranges from 40,000 to 80,000 words. A PhD thesis is usually 100,000 words. After submitting your thesis, you do a final examination called your viva voce, which is an oral defence of your thesis.

Shop around as tuition fees vary

Thankfully, I can afford the tuition fees at GCU at, a reasonable, €4,000 per annum. Many programmes in Ireland and the UK will charge between €5,000 and €7,000 per annum, which can rise slightly each year. Some of the more ‘prestigious’ programmes can charge multiples of this. One programme I looked at in the UK was almost €50,000 over four years; that was the end of that conversation!

Establish the quality of the programme

I spent two years trying to find the right programme through online searches, email correspondence and the occasional phone call. The international dimension excited me. I’d say I have researched every business and management professional doctorate programme in the world run through English. It is important to check the accreditation of the programme and that it aligns to Level 10 on the National Framework of Qualifications, or its international equivalent. Many well-established universities and colleges may take slight offence if you asked them for their accreditation credentials. However, there are some private companies who offer doctoral degrees with questionable accreditation. Warning signs include things like the ability to complete the doctorate in two years and a thesis requirement of around 10,000 words.

Suss out the culture of the programme

A major factor that influenced my decision to apply to GCU was the vibe I got from the staff over email and telephone. I had prompt and thorough responses to my enquiries. I can’t say the same about similar attempts to correspond with other institutions. GCU’s commitment to its mission as the “University for the Common Good” is something that attracted me. I have to say that, so far, it has lived up to my expectations. While the School for Business and Society strives for excellence, the culture is not stuffy and elitist. The staff are highly professional and the atmosphere on campus is friendly and relaxed. It’s an inspirational learning environment.

Another dimension to the programme at GCU is the social support from the class. There is a mix of students from different strands, including health, engineering and education. I first thought that amalgamating these strands was a money-saving mechanism. Maybe it is. In any case, I wouldn’t change it. The range of nationalities, cultures and professional expertise is a catalyst for stimulating critical discussion. We have a WhatsApp group and it’s good for sharing information, ideas and concerns. It comes to life around the time an assignment is due. At doctoral level, you have little choice but to immerse yourself in your research. Despite wanting to talk about it, it can be difficult to find somebody who is willing to listen. Understandably, most of your family and friends have no interest in the difference between positivist and interpretivist paradigms, for example. The class meet for dinner when we’re on campus in Glasgow. I have made some great friends there. Many doctoral students don’t have this peer group support.

Although it will be your name on the parchment on completion, you will not reach that point on your own. Completing a doctoral degree is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have, however, getting there can be an isolating pursuit, especially when you’re doing it on top of a full-time job. Support from those closest to you is vital. Before and during this journey, it is imperative that you talk through what is takes to be a doctoral student with them. Their understanding in this regard is necessary. Ultimately, you’ll have less time to spend with them; although, it does make me appreciate how precious my time is with loved ones even more! It is also important to have the support of your employer. My job will always take precedence over my studies.

It is a profound commitment, which has strong potential to be life changing. It forces you to be honest with yourself

Think deeply about why

The most crucial question when considering embarking upon a doctoral degree is ‘Why?’. When I thought about it, the first thing I realised was that I could. I have the health, the will and the energy. I’m lucky to have grown up in a country that has facilitated my education and now provides me with access to the appropriate infrastructure. This may sound obvious, but accessing such supports is far more challenging for some of my classmates from socio-economically-disadvantaged countries. Another reason is that I have been a management practitioner for over 12 years; a doctoral degree should help to progress my career.

The most significant motivation for me in pursuing this degree is that it feels right, at my most deep, intrinsic level. This feeling is very difficult to describe. I continually desire to be a better person and to live a fulfilling life. I thrive on facilitating the development of others and believe that you can’t do this unless you consistently develop yourself. The DMan complements my ongoing learning through my job. A small part of me will enjoy having the letters after my name and knowing that this degree should, in some way, bolster my professional credibility. However, if your reasons for doing a doctoral degree are mostly based on superficial and extrinsic motivations, I would say that it may not be for you. It is a profound commitment, which has strong potential to be life changing. It forces you to be honest with yourself and, as a doctoral student, you must have the courage to live this honesty to both endure and enjoy the journey.

Pat Culhane is a National Development Officer with the GAA and can be contacted through his website/blog, patculhane.ie, where you’ll find more articles, podcasts and videos on postgraduate student experiences.

Twitter: @Pat_Culhane #ProfDockers

This article was featured in our Q1 Review 2018 magazine. Subscribe to Business & Finance to get full access to our archive.