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Postgraduate Profile

Wanda Snitch

The perils of the part-time PhD

Part-time PhD candidature is becoming more common across many disciplines, despite the stereotype that candidates are generally young, full-time, scholarship-holders. On the surface, a part-time doctorate would appear to be the same experience spread over more years, but the following observations made by me and colleagues from other universities suggest that it has unique features not often recognised

Less part-time, more ‘episodic’. Having successfully completed other postgraduate work part-time bears no relationship to completing a part-time PhD. Throughout my candidature, I found I had to abandon the hard intellectual work for weeks or months at a time when intense work or family commitments came along, as it was too hard to get back to that ‘deep productive place’ for short periods. Equally, my friends and family realised that I may need to abandon them for long periods and disappear into a ‘tunnel’ when I was ready to make big chunks of progress (hello Literature Review!) This is very different from the regular few hours a day or few days a week that I may have fondly imagined when I started. Clearly everyone has to find their own rhythm: I did learn to monitor myself every few months against main goals with a view to having something substantial to write in my Annual Report!

Other people’s assumptions get in the way.  Friends and family may be mystified about your desire to do a PhD ‘in your spare time’ and equate it with a hobby. Also, not all university colleagues will understand your choice and may presume you are less than serious. This is not helped if your department makes no provision for you to work among them. Assumptions may persist that while full-time candidates need space, technology and academic involvement, part-timers can manage without these or pick them up elsewhere. Making yourself visible can make a difference, and while it’s not easy if you have other commitments, attending meetings or HDR functions seems to break down some assumptions and establish you as a serious candidate.      

Part-time seems to stretch out forever…and the world moves on. There are some unexpected disadvantages to the longer time frame - a lack of sense of urgency may be one. Also, the field in which you are studying will move on, sometimes whistling right past you. Be prepared to have to dance around this in your literature review and discussion. Very time-sensitive topics are probably not for the part-timer!

On a more practical level, HDR rules, candidates and procedures change. No sooner have you got used to the myriad forms that take up much of your valuable time than you realise two different new versions have passed you by. Entry rules and provisions change too, so newbies may have access to opportunities and support that you would have dreamed of. They also have a habit of starting and finishing while you are still plugging away – be prepared to attend many ‘submission’ celebrations for people whose Proposals you supported.

Finally, time also impacts on you and your loved ones. Several family members and friends have died while I have been working on this project. Babies have been born, and friends disappeared overseas. These events can cause moments of questioning whether this is the best use of your time on this earth. In addition, you will get older yourself, some years more suddenly and obviously than others! All the more reason to get cracking and get this part-time PhD completed!

There are advantages to doing a part-time PhD, though completion rates suggest these may be outweighed by challenges. The fact that you can work and stay current in your field can keep you grounded as well as financially viable. You can step back from some of the pressures experienced by full-timers, and perhaps become a little wiser about some of the advice you are given. The passage of time can let new ideas and methodologies ‘sink in’. Nevertheless, my colleagues and I eagerly await the genuine consideration of part-time candidature issues in forthcoming commencement programs, in policies, and at HDR conferences. And those of us who are also *casual academics look forward to progress there as well!

*Casual academics see

Wanda is a part-time PhD candidate ‘in her spare time’. Find her on Twitter @wandasni and look out for her upcoming blog on the joys of the PhD trifecta of being part-time, mature-age and female!

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