Figures from HEFCE show that around ¼ of students undertaking postgraduate research qualifications (PhDs and MPhils) are studying part-time, with the vast majority of these in the Arts and Humanities.

Despite being a sizeable minority

  • the nature of PT study means that students rarely get the opportunity to meet and compare experiences
  • the part-time label covers a huge range of situations under which research is conducted so a “one size fits all” approach to support is even more lacking than for FT students
  • they can be invisible to university support services as they struggle to attend training and networking events and omitted from key mailing lists
  • the “part-time” label is a misnomer as most students have significant responsibilities either to full-time jobs, a range of part-time jobs and/or caring responsibilities.

The combination of these factors mean that it is easy for part-time PhD researchers to feel isolated and difficult for them to find resources which are tailored to their challenges.

This guide is an attempt to point part-time researchers to a range of useful resources. Some will simply reassure them that they are not alone in feeling that their PhD is crippling at times. Others are resources which are aimed at all PhDs, but may not be on the radar of those who aren’t immersed in research culture. Hopefully some will have a tangible positive effect on their experience as part-time researchers.

This page came about after two workshops, one aimed at Arts and Humanities researchers (some of whom were part-time), the other at part-time researchers in Science and Engineering. It is based on the challenges that they shared and makes no claims to demonstrate any more than a basic appreciation of the needs of part-time researcher students. However, it’s hoped that with feedback, the resources here can be added to and developed.

There are six themes on this page, some of which are supported by checklists and guides.

Awareness of the PhD process and support available
Time Management
Focusing and prioritising your PhD
Being in a community
Managing others
Managing stress and finding balance

There are also links to a range of additional blog posts written by part-time researchers which may help reassure you that “it’s not just you”.

Awareness of the PhD process and support available

Most institutions will have a Code of Practice which describe the responsibilities of students, supervisors and the institution. If you haven’t been given a copy of yours it should be on your University’s website or available from the Graduate School or postgraduate office.

There is also likely to be a postgraduate researchers’ handbook which may cover some of the same information, but also point to opportunities, key contacts and resources to help you make the most of your status as a university student.

Examples from
University of Newcastle

Which includes this:

22. The University requires that there should be appropriate access to formal research training programmes and to individual advice and support for all students, including those who are part-time, have special needs, or who are remote from the institution.

University of Glasgow, College of Arts

There isn’t a single model for PhD supervision as the diversity of students, projects and research environments would make this restrictive. Instead, each student and supervisor works in a framework to decide how best to manage the project and the relationship. However, as a student this flexibility can be challenging and it might lead to a sense of being under- or over-supervised. A great resource for working with your supervisor to make their model transparent is available from Griffith University. Their expectations questionnaire sets out the areas of supervision which you need to discuss with your supervisor and will hopefully help you both develop a relationship which is supportive, but allows you to take ownership of your project.

Universities are large complex organisations which employ thousands of people undertaking a wide range of roles. Many of these relate to the research process and environment and will be able to offer advice and support. These include

  • researcher development (transferable skills training and development)
  • library (literature searching and management)
  • research support (funding)
  • graduate school (administration and regulations)
  • students’ union

If there has been an induction event at your institution that you didn’t or couldn’t attend, ask for a summary of the key information and a list of contacts.

Time Management

This is consistently the biggest challenge for part-time researchers. Although not written with them specifically in mind, there are two resources linked to time management on this site which we hope will help:

Lightening the Load – a guide to time management written using tips and advice shared by academics in our time management sessions.

Time Management Thoughts – a guide which summarises key time management advice, but acknowledges the need to address workload/overload and other people’s expectations and behaviours.

There is also a self awareness element in time management. There are many tools that can help you to understand your working preferences and find strategies to play to your strengths and minimise your weaknesses. Here are two we use with researchers:

Myers Briggs – the official questionnaire is administered for a fee by qualified practitioners, but there is a good alternative available online and free.
StrengthsFinder: available to buy online (includes an access code to complete the questionnaire) – summarised here 

Focusing and prioritising your PhD

With a limited time available for research and writing, you need to be highly productive as a part-time researcher. These are personal strategies that I find help me to stay productive when there are competing demands on my attention and time

  • have a very clear idea of what you’re doing next and why you’re doing it
  • create meaningful deadlines
  • work in the best place and at the best time

Having a detailed project plan will help achieve the first. In workshops I suggest people start with a mind map which gets everything out of their head and onto the page. Then choose a particular aspect of all the things you want to make progress on and do a second mind map. The next stage is to start to put a hierarchy of tasks in – the work breakdown structure approach  can help you take a key task and break it down into manageable chunks.

Meaningful deadlines mean different things to different people. I work best when I have made a commitment to someone else to deliver something. Ask your supervisor or a colleague to help you with this if this approach would work for you. Meetings might also provide deadlines in the long, fairly fluid PhD process. Conferences are good external, immovable deadlines – if you want to present you work at a key conference, work back from the abstract deadline with the support of your supervisor to create a workplan.

Working times and places will depend on you – be honest about how much your environment helps or hinders you progress and think creatively about where might be better. If the problem is the people around you, take a look at the resources in the managing people section. Be aware of when you work at your best, but also try to maintain a healthy balance. It may be that in order to achieve a pressing deadline you need to work very early or very late in the day, but don’t push this for too long – it will quickly become counter productive.

Being in a community

The importance of a community is often clear to us during workshops where we see researchers sharing experiences, offering advice and generally reassuring each other. As a part-time or remote student it is more challenging to be part of the student community in your institution, but there are ways to connect.

First, try to attend a few events in the university each year, particularly those which will help you discuss your research more widely. These might include training events (you could try to schedule meetings with your supervisor to coincide with these) or any research conferences or poster events. Contact your research development office to find out if these events are available.

Many universities will run blogs for and written by their researchers. Some examples include:

https://newcastleresearchers.wordpress.com/

Tips for Part-Time PhDs

http://thedigitaldoctorate.com/ (University of West of England)

It’s not you, it’s your data (Heriot-Watt University, including these posts with a part-time researcher flavour)

Finally, don’t underestimate the value of an online community. There are a number of sites which are aimed at researchers including Academia.edu (popular with Arts and Humanities) and ResearchGate (popular with science and engineering) can both be roughly described at “Facebook for academics” and their features enable you to post and read publications, follow the activity of other researchers and engage in online forums.
Although not aimed solely at academics, Twitter is very popular with academics. Here are a few “footholds” to help to get started:

Hashtags (basically labels which enable you to look at a wide range of tweets without having to follow people)

https://twitter.com/SUWTUK – the UK community supporting “Shut Up and Write” – a regular virtual writing retreat. Learn more about Shut Up and Write on the Thesis Whisperer blog.

https://twitter.com/Acwri – academic writing resources and comment

https://twitter.com/hashtag/phdchat – contributions from many tweeters on the PhD experience

https://twitter.com/hashtag/ecrchat – a companion feed aimed at early career research staff

https://twitter.com/ThomsonPat – professor of education with an interest in academic writing. Her blog has MANY resources on writing for PhD students.

https://twitter.com/thesiswhisperer Inger Mewburn, editor of the thesis whisperer blog and leading researcher developer (Australia)

Managing others

A common challenge discussed amongst part-time researchers is the difficulties that they experience because other people don’t respect their need to focus on their research (particularly researchers who are working full-time alongside their doctorate) and the added challenge of building an effective relationship with supervisors who aren’t familiar with the part-time doctorate model.

The solutions to these problems are often very specific to the situation and individuals involved. However a great resource which can be applied to many scenarios is We Have to Talk – a checklist for difficult conversations.

Again, it can be helpful to understand your own working preferences and where these might be a source of conflict between you and your supervisor or colleagues – the links on self awareness in the time management section may help you look at the tensions more objectively.

It might be helpful to make sure that you have this conversation when you are feeling at your most resilient and confident. There’s advice on achieving better balance and managing stress in the next section.

Managing stress and finding balance

We’ve written a blog post on resilience in academia.

You may also find useful strategies here:

http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/researcherlife/entry/work-life_balance_career/

https://www.vitae.ac.uk/vitae-publications/guides-briefings-and-information/vitae-researcher-booklets (once registered you can access all of the Vitae booklets, including The Balanced Researcher)

Nadine Muller’s blog includes a lot of advice and guest posts, including one on focus and motivation.

http://phdlife.warwick.ac.uk/2014/03/05/part-time-phd-study-balance/
Resources written by and for part-time researchers

Vitae is the UK organisation for researcher development and has a range of resources on its website, including a set of video interviews with part-time researchers who share their advice, challenges and successes.

Tips for PT PhDs, Manchester STEPS
This blog is written by and for researchers and includes many really relevant topics for PT researchers, including this post with advice on time, planning and balance.

ECRChat healthy ways to stay productive and balanced

Each week a virtual community meets on twitter to discuss an issue facing early career researchers. This is a summary of the advice and persectives shared on the topic of motivation and productivity. There is some “white noise” but some useful suggestions and you can check out other discussions using the Storify search function:

Other ECRChats digested

Summary of discussion on working through a PT PhD

Although you’ll need to scroll down through a few rather unhelpful comments, there are some great pieces of advice in this stream:
http://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/8747/is-it-possible-to-work-full-time-and-complete-a-phd

The PhD diaries on the UCL site are really fantastic personal narratives about the PhD experience. Lots of advice and reassurance here, but they are rather lengthy and detailed (so don’t be distracted by reading them when you should be working on your own research!)

Finally, an honest reflection on the challenges of PT study combined with more than one PT job.

Please let me know what you hoped to find here and anything that you’d like to suggest for other PT researchers.