A Day in the Life of a PhD Student: Katie Baker

My PhD came about almost by accident.  I did a maths degree and trained as a secondary maths teacher back in 2001.  When I had children I set up my own business doing maths tutoring and consultancy work whilst working part time in the Sigma maths support centre at Coventry University.  When my eldest started school other parents started asking for my support to guide them when helping their children with maths and I began to run classes to help them. I wasn’t looking to take this any further when  I started looking for some courses for my husband who wanted a career change.  He didn’t end up getting one but I did!  I thought a PhD looked really interesting so I started looking into it for myself.

I wanted to research the work I was doing with parents and whether the interventions I was running, which are based on the construct Mathematical Resilience (MR), could actually have an impact on academic outcomes.  MR was an idea originally suggested by Sue Johnston-Wilder and Clare Lee.  They said that to succeed in maths individuals need to have MR, i.e. they need to value maths, believe that it is possible to improve in maths, know how to struggle in maths and have resources to help them when they get stuck.  However there is limited research about whether this is true in primary children.  After checking with my own department at Coventry, who had no research of this kind, I initially got in touch with the University of Warwick where I did my undergrad and PGCE but they told me they didn’t have any PhD opportunities.  Instead they suggested I got in touch with Julia Carroll who had moved from Warwick to Coventry to work in the then Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement.  I went along to have a chat with her, filled out an application and before I really knew it had got a place on a part time PhD course with Julia as my Director of Studies (my main supervisor).

Despite the fact that I had essentially designed my own project, it was a really steep learning curve as I had not done a Masters and my background was in maths and education not Psychology – in fact to start with I had to think really hard about how to spell it!  My initial aim was to research the interventions I had developed but I soon realised that to do this I needed to develop a scale to measure MR in young children as there wasn’t one!  So my PhD has become about the development and testing of a scale and the monitoring of MR in young children as well as the assessment of the interventions.  I am aiming to find out if teaching MR can make a difference to outcomes in maths and whether this is a way that parents can help their children even if they are not good at maths themselves.

My personal circumstances and my job have changed a bit since I started.  Initially I continued to work in Sigma and tutor alongside my PhD but last year after learning about my PhD my sons’ school asked me to teach maths to their Year 5s so I am now a part time primary maths teacher, part time PhD student and full time Mum.    My day generally starts at 6am when I get up to have a bit of me time.  I might check emails, do a bit of reading or writing, just relax with no one else around or if I am really behind plan the day’s lesson!  Before long the family are up and I am getting breakfast and lunches ready before we all head to school.  I currently teach from 9am to 10am and then do marking before heading into my PhD day.  Sometimes this means driving off to another school to collect data, sometimes it means heading home to do some writing, admin or reading and sometimes I go into university for meetings with my supervisors and the literacy group.  It is never the same and I love that variety.  At 3pm I finish, go and pick up the boys and do all the usual clubs, tea etc.  I might finish some work off or do some planning for the next school day while they play.  If I am running interventions my day continues once I have done bedtime when I head off to a community venue to run a session.

To me the flexibility of my PhD at Coventry is what is so wonderful.  It has always been my aim to pick my children up from school and be there in the holidays while they are young and I have been able to do that while doing something that I find intellectually challenging and fascinating.  Sometimes it means working at silly hours (I tend to work from 6am to 10am during the holidays and spend the rest of the day with the boys) and there are some days I can’t do it and have to go to meetings outside the school day or miss things but in the main I can be there for everything I want to and get my work done.  I am very strict on working the right number of hours in a week but I fit them in where it works for me.

One of the biggest challenges of this way of doing a PhD is the organisational skills.  I thought I was pretty organised already – you have to be with two children, a job and your own business, but the PhD takes things to a new level.  Sometimes it is hard trying to juggle everything, to switch from mum to teacher to researcher and remember where you are meant to be and what you and the rest of the family are meant to be doing but it is definitely worth it.  Three years in I have developed and trialled my scale, run pilots of my interventions and collected data on the outcomes, run a monitoring study of Year 1 children, made a live webinar and taken part in two Coventry Young Researchers events.  I have also spoken at and attended conferences, met lots of people and heard about lots of interesting research.  I didn’t know how to do any of this when I started three years ago.  Looking back it is amazing how far I have come.

It is not always easy, I have found that imposter syndrome is a very real thing, and along the way I have suffered with mental health issues due to my home circumstances – as well as my children I support my husband who has ASD. Things constantly work out in different ways than you are expecting and I have lost count of the number of times my plan has had to change.  I sometimes feel that I am not good enough to be doing this especially with everything going on at home.  My supervisory team are really supportive however and they, together with my family and the passion I have for making a difference in maths education keep me motivated.  After the responses from parents that I have received I really believe MR interventions have potential to change the way parents work with their children  on maths for the better and I hope I can win funding for a large scale trial once my PhD is done.  That is what keeps me going through the tough times, as well as the fact that I can’t wait until the day that I tell the boys they are going to have to call me The Doctor!