Starting a part-time doctorate? Three top tips

This is a guest post by Dr @jonrainford. Jon works on the margins between academic and professional services. He is currently a freelance researcher and part-time lecturer, working with academics to develop their use of digital pedagogy

Doing a doctorate later in life is more likely to be a part-time affair. In the UK, the majority of the part-time postgraduate research students are over the age of 30. Despite 27,000 people undertaking this mode of study in the UK alone, it is less commonly addressed in guides to success in doctoral research. In this post I will share three things that ultimately had the greatest impact upon my timely completion.

I completed my part-time PhD, which examined widening participation policy and practices in England, in 2019. Over those five years I moved jobs twice (once as a result of redundancy) and a few months following completion lost my dad at the end of a three-year battle with Lung Cancer. Balancing employment and life challenges over a period that exceeds most full-time students creates the conditions for more of these life events to happen.  Therefore, despite every experience being different, it is likely that for most part-time PhD students, the doctoral journey will be paved with varied life challenges both personal and professional;  my own journey is not an exceptional one. 

Manage your project rather than it managing you

What sustained me though this period and kept me on a relatively steady course to completion was treating the process like a project to manage and doing exactly that. Whilst your journey may be different and some of my strategies might not work for you, planning and creating a structure to work to are likely to be invaluable. Even if you have a supervisor that understands the similarities and differences in challenges for part-time doctoral researchers, ultimately it is your project and taking control of it yourself is key. Your situation is unique to you and whist this will create specific challenges, what matters is working out what works for you and when. Understanding what you can do and when is important. You are likely to have discreet pockets of time to devote to your research and is important to understand how to maximise these. 

For me, early morning writing before work really allowed me to get into a flow. What I never cracked was editing before work, so I never planned to do this. Some days though, the writing did not flow. Rather than wasting this time, I always had a number of other tasks to flip to, such as a paper to read or some admin to catch up on. Thinking about the project in this way with a number of options helps you make progress even when you cannot write, or the pocket of time is too short for a specific task. You might also find that moving physical space can helped shift you into the right frame of mind. Coffee shops, trains, libraries and the garden all provided important spaces for focusing. It’s amazing how having a printed journal article or a chapter to edit and a finite train journey can really help focus you.

Build your own tribe

One of the challenges for me was feeling isolated. It was if no one around me understood the frustrations that come with the doctoral process. Some of you may be lucky enough to have a cohort of peers on the same journey as you. For those undertaking part-time PhDs in departments where there is little in the way of structured institutional support you might need to build your own networks. 

For me, twitter was invaluable in building and sustaining a network of peers. I also felt that adding face to face events to build these networks and sustain some of the connections really helped when the journey was more challenging. To do this, I targeted one or two key conferences per year. Whilst this can be a huge commitment for those without institutional funding, finding others with similar research interests or that have gone through the process ahead can make the difference in getting by or thriving. There are often discounted places or bursaries for students that can make conferences more manageable. Building networks also means that when you cannot make other events, there is a chance someone you know might be going, allowing you to get insights from them. 

Embrace your identity

The second key to success for me was understanding the real value of the part time doctorate. About a year into my project I realised the value the part-time structure offers to think through your ideas. Up to this point I often downplayed that I was “only” a part-time doctoral researcher and struggled to see how this was valuable in and of itself. Having to juggle a number of competing demands can hone project planning skills, time-management and the ability to prioritise tasks in a way that can pay dividends in your long-term success. Working in a related areas as a practitioner also enabled me to develop better understandings of my research, how to impact policy, practice and how to communicate with a wider audience than full-time study might have allowed me to do. Whilst your own situation might not present as close a link between your employment and research, the fact that you are juggling a major project under tight time-constraints in and of itself is something you should be ready to shout about on any job application – those skills are like gold dust in many organisations. 

There are many more tips and tricks you will develop on your journey that work for you. Sharing these within and beyond your networks on places such as twitter or a blog can help others benefit from your experiences.

Jon is keen to hear from other part-timers about their experiences and strategies so do contact him on twitter or via the comments section on this post.

Photo by alexey turenkov on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, later on PhD, part time PhD, PhD and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Starting a part-time doctorate? Three top tips

  1. Renjini Mary Joseph says:

    I couldn’t agree more on your point about diminishing your own profile because you are a part-time doctoral researcher. You learn so much during the journey and utilising every opportunity to apply it is key to developing oneself as a professional.


  2. Tolera Simie says:

    As I am a part-timer going into my second year while teaching full-time, I feel that your posts speak directly to me.
    Thank you.


  3. Allison Dunne says:

    I’m a part time PhD student. I agree with your strategy of having a few tasks that you can choose from at any one time. Some days I’m too tired after work to do data analysis, but I can do some reading or work on a report. Twitter is great for networking – I’ll see you there!


  4. Pingback: Personal, social and disciplinary connectors: the part-time, long-haul supervisor – A community blog, on research leadership and supervisory practice

  5. Kim Lombard says:

    As a part time researcher and full time practitioner, this post really resonates with me. Although at times it’s can be a challenge to fully switch off (particularly now working and studying from home due to COVID), I am grateful that my research project is closely related to my practice. Some strategies which work from me including finding 30 minutes each day to focus on PhD work (ranging anywhere from writing to reading to proofing to data analysis!) and setting goals in 12 week blocks. Best of luck to all other part time (and full time!) PhDers out there 🙂


  6. Anna says:

    Thank you so much for this! As a part-time Doctoral student (while also teaching), I have really struggled to find literature/support that is relevant to part-time students. Thank you for helping me to see some of the positives of my situation.


  7. Christa says:

    You could be describing my situation. Working full-time, writing a PhD part-time. I changed jobs twice and raised a teenager with mental health issues. I have just been told that my current position will be made redundant and my father is in palliative care at the other end of the world during COVID imposed travel restrictions.
    Like you, I approached my thesis as a project that needed managing. Despite the inevitable setbacks, this has helped me get back on track when I fell behind. What works for me? Above all, doing all the thinking and writing that needs extended concentration on weekends. Then I can portion out snack writing in the morning and administrative tasks and reading in the evening during the working week.


  8. Belinda from RMIT says:

    Hi there, I graduated with my PhD in Feb, having worked on it part time for many, many years while I worked my full time academic job and I threw a baby/mat leave in there too! I really enjoyed reading your approach, Jon. My approach was similar on a practical level, but different in mindset. I actually decided to think of my phd early on as a ‘devotional practice’ that I just did every day. I think it would be great to develop more guidance for the pt HDR-er!! cheers, Belinda.


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