Studying Study and Researching Research

A Hole

A recent existential crisis (which I am, of course, deliberately overstating for effect) prompted me to wonder “What is missing from my life?” After much agonised introspection, it turns out that the answer for me is “study”. I have an academic mindset and when I am not engaged in studying and researching I grow bored and restless. It also seems that, for me to really engage, there needs to be something at stake. It is not enough for me to just be studying for interest – I need some pressure and deadlines!

In my younger days I studied Mathematics, got a first in my BSc and went on to study for a PhD. For reasons I wont go in to here, I didn’t get my doctorate. Although I don’t regret the decisions I made at the time (I got a good job and have gone on to have a satisfying career without it) it does niggle. I have a personal goal to put it right.

I have recently finished a BA in Humanites with Philosophy with the Open University. This started out as an attempt to broaden my thinking and move away from Mathematics and Engineering. It worked. Although Pure Mathematics will always be my first love, these days I consider myself more a Philosopher than a Mathematician.

Stop Finding Reasons Why Not

After I finished my OU degree, I was sure that I could never do any more study. I had found making the time was getting increasingly difficult and stressful – with a growing family and a stressful job. Moreover, OU courses are now *way* more expensive than they were when I started. I don’t know that I would ever have started if they cost what they do now.

I was set in this thought: there is no way I can find the time or the money to do any more study, so don’t even think about it. But I had to think about. It sounds absurd, but studying feels like my calling. So instead of finding reasons why not, I started looking for ways to break down the barriers.

Financially – there are options. I am (I think) eligible for postgraduate loans that can cover the course fees. Even if not, I am sufficiently financially stable that other loans can be considered. For now, I have decided to worry about this aspect later since solutions exist.

The harder problem is time. I sat down and tried to work out how to carve out the 16-18 hours that the OU suggest is required. Anyone who knows me wont be surprised to know I made a spreadsheet to help…  I quickly realised this was not going to be possible without making some changes to my working pattern. I nervously broached the idea of working Compressed Hours at work – freeing up a day a week by working longer hours on other days. To my amazement, they not only agreed but couldn’t be more supportive.  I only have an informal arrangement at the moment, and am trialling this pattern for a period to make sure it works for both of us.

Giant Leaps or Small Steps

So now I know it’s possible. The next question is what to study – both subject and level. Given my goal of achieving a PhD, should I keep my eyes on the prize and try to jump straight into postgraduate research?

I have struggled to make this decision, swinging wildly between ambition and caution. In the end, I have decided to study for a Master’s degree first. While this puts off the end goal by a couple of years (and adds many thousands of pounds to the total cost!)  it nevertheless addresses the immediate hole in my life and that is what started this whole darn thing off in the first place. It does move me towards my goal – just in smaller steps.

The other consideration is that to put a credible research proposal together for a PhD, I need to have a credible research question in mind. I do not. Although I could probably work something up over the next few months, realistically I am not close enough to the cutting edge of research in any area to do this – nor do I have any contacts, or access to libraries. As long as I keep the prize in mind, I can address all of this while studying my Masters.

The broad topic is obvious to me – I will continue my Philosophy studies. Relearning all my mathematics from 20 years ago would be a struggle (an interesting one of course). However, there are other topics that I find fascinating and would love to incorporate – not least Artificial Intelligence. If I *do* end up studying something around AI, work have hinted there may even be some sponsorship available.

As to mode of study, Distance Learning is the obvious fit for me. I am used to, and enjoy, studying this way having been a student with the Open University for many years. The downside is that, for Masters level study at least, this severely limits my options.

It is possible that I may be able to study Part Time at a local university. There are not many realistic candidates: University of Bristol, University of Bath, University of the West of England, Bath Spa. Of these, only Bristol has a philosophy department in the right sort of area. I plan to contact them for more details,  but I think I would prefer to maintain the flexibility that distance learning brings. Work may well give me the opportunity to build up some relationships with researchers at Bristol, and I have a sneaky eye on studying for my PhD there.


I will study for a Philosophy Masters by distance learning, with an eye to moving on to a PhD afterwards – perhaps ideally at the University of Bristol.

I plan to document my learning and journey on this blog – so stay tuned.

Note - I consider my study as a mental peregrination. If you only want to read my physical peregrinations, ignore posts with the category of Study. Thanks!

Station to Station: Buckenham to Cantley

I took the opportunity of a family holiday visiting friends in Norwich to get in a stroll along the River Yare between two stations on the Wherry Line – Buckenham and Cantley.

Buckenham is one of the country’s least used stations – the tenth least used in 2016/17 – with only 122 Entries and Exits. This is partly at least due to its remoteness. There is literally nothing else around. But this is also its appeal. Being right by RSPB Strumpshaw Fen must surely make it a useful stop for birdwatchers? Not being one myself, perhaps there are other better places nearby.

The low usage numbers are not helped by the paucity of services of course – 1 each way on a Saturday, 5 each way on a Sunday and none at all in the week. It is also a request stop. Given all this, I was slightly surprised to find 2 other people got off at the same time as me. One of whom had a swish camera and took pictures of the station sign. There is at least one person as pointlessly obsessed with doing this as me!

I didn’t have long to hang around at Buckenham since I needed to be sure of catching the train at Cantley. The route is pretty straightforward following an obvious path along the banks of the Yare. It is also stunningly beautiful on a sunny Sunday morning.

I was intrigued by The Beauchamp Arms on the other side of the river. These days there is no easy way to get across, although it seems there used to be a ferry. Now that could make this into an even more appealing walk!

Other than the stunning scenery, the profusion of Azure Damselflies and the pleasantness of the weather there isn’t much more to say about the walk through the Cantley Marshes. It is easygoing  although the heat of this particularly morning sapped my energy faster than I was anticipating.

The sugar factory is an impressive human intervention on the landscape. I always enjoy the counterpoint. For a sense of scale, the Reedcutter pub can be seen just beneath the tanks.

Cantley station is another wonderful small station, although significantly better used than Buckenham, with a correspondingly higher level of service. It also has a traditional manually controlled gate level crossing. The signalman physically leaves the signal box and closes the gates across the road. This is wonderful and feels like a direct connection to a bygone age. I don’t know how much longer this will be here – I presume there must be plans to upgrade the signalling along this line  and the level crossing would probably be a casualty of that – so catch it while you can!

The journey back to Norwich was less pleasant than the journey out – a single carriage train which was full to bursting. Passengers were even turned away at Brundall station. Still, this did not detract from a wonderful morning walk through the Norfolk countryside.