Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally — and in normal times they come to Maastricht in person for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time we catch up virtually with Gillian McFarland, who will shortly defend her thesis on ‘Doing policy in further education: An exploration of the enactment of the GCSE resit policy in further education colleges in England’. We also hear from her supervisors, Prof. Mark Bevir in San Francisco, USA and Prof. Louis Volante in Toronto, Canada.
Gillian, on 16 November 2020, you’ll defend your PhD virtually during our GPAC2 workshop. What pushed you to take up the challenge in the first place?
Gillian: I first heard of the GPAC2 programme when I was working for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). I was attracted to it because it allowed me to further my academic knowledge, but to do this in a way that complemented my professional career. Studying whilst working full-time was certainly a challenge, requiring me to develop excellent time management skills, but pursuing a public policy PhD and a career in this field simultaneously allowed the one to reinforce the other. I found that I was able to bring insights from my professional public policy experience to my academic work and vice versa.
Combining a PhD with a full-time job is never easy, but Gillian was lucky to have Profs. Mark Bevir and Louis Volante as her supervisors, given their long experience. Mark, how is it to supervise a mid-career professional compared to a full-time student?
Mark: There are some obvious logistical challenges such as arranging time and meetings. However, I think the most important difference is an intellectual or cultural one. Mid-career professionals are often used to working in policy environments and writing policy reports. Many of them continue to spend most of their time on these activities, doing their PhD part-time. Their environment is very different from that of a student working full-time in a university and spending all their time working on and with academics.
It can be a challenge to get mid-career professionals fully to grasp the difference in aims, standards, and tone between policy reports and high-level scholarly activity. Scholarly work is really focused on abstract theoretical arguments directed against an existing literature. It can be enjoyable watching students make that transition, and in my opinion, it’s definitely worthwhile encouraging policy workers to take on that kind of scholarly rigour.
Ironically, however, what generally gives me the most enjoyment is the passion and engagement that mid-career professionals typically bring to the concrete policy issues and problems that motivate their research. I guess it’s an ideal balance: I hope to get them to adopt a more dispassionate and theoretical stance and I enjoy what I get from their more engaged and practical stance.
The research output required to obtain a part-time PhD is similar both in quality and quantity to a full-time PhD. How do ‘part-timers’ combine that work with their full-time jobs?
Gillian: There were a number of things that helped me combine my full-time work with my study commitments. First, the overall structure and approach of the GPAC2 programme was vital. COVID-19 aside, students are required to come to Maastricht at least twice a year to join skills workshops where we present our work and receive feedback. Having this structure helped to motivate me and give me a goal to work towards. Also, being in a cohort with people who were taking a similar approach also helped, as you could share experiences and learn from older students too.
Second, my employer and line managers at work were supportive of my PhD commitment. This meant that I was able to attend Maastricht workshops regularly and take additional time to focus on my research when I needed to do this.
Third, I was able to combine my research interest with a topic that I was familiar with in the working context (Further Education policy and testing policy). This meant that I already had a base of knowledge from which to draw when it came to designing my research and method. It was also important for me to invest my time studying something that had real-life relevance and impact, and choosing a topic that linked to education policy in England allowed me to do that.
Louis: Having to navigate online meetings spanning three times zones (London, Toronto and San Francisco) required a great deal of flexibility to ensure continual feedback. Most of our meetings were conducted via Skype and involved all three of us. However, there were also times when Gillian needed to connect with a particular supervisor to get more specific feedback. I primarily advised on the methodology and educational policy aspects of the study while Mark provided more guidance related to governance and theoretical framework issues. Overall, most of the online meetings were reserved for discussing feedback related to particular drafts of the work.
Gillian, your research is a qualitative study based on data you collected during the PhD period. Can you briefly describe your research and the learning experiences gained from collecting and analysing the data?
Gillian: My research looked at how educational institutions interpret written policy texts, the factors that influence this process, why it occurs and the effects that emerge. In particular, it looked at how an English education policy was interpreted in certain ways and the factors that shaped college leaders’ and teachers’ decisions. I learnt a lot while collecting and analysing the data.
From the academic perspective, I learnt how to use and apply broader theories to analyse and interpret specific and new data, and how to communicate this in a way that made sense to a reader or listener. From the practical perspective, I improved my planning and organisation skills by managing the collection and analysis of data from a range of sources, including a variety of written texts, surveys, interviews with many different stakeholders, focus group discussions and field visits. Finally, from the professional and public policy perspective, because of the focus of my research I become much more aware of the challenges facing local stakeholders when they interpret government policy. This has helped me be more reflective in my own practice as a public policy professional.
Louis: The thesis was primarily qualitative in nature but it did employ quantitative methods – in the form of a survey – to help guide the development of the study. Using a mixed methods study, particularly for a topic that intersects with the candidate’s work experience, required some safeguards to avoid bias in the interpretation of the findings. As a result, Gillian did the necessary work to understand validity issues, while the analytic approach she utilised led to sound findings. The latter is a challenge many GPAC2 student inevitably face as fellows tend to gravitate towards topics and studies that are closely related to their work backgrounds. Overall, the empirical contribution of the work is one of the strongest features of this study.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H. Pijpers