Doctoral College

My part-time PhD experience

Written by Dr Han Newman

I’m sure we are all very aware of the potentially all-consuming nature of a PhD. Even when we’re not directly working on it, it tends to be on our minds. Perhaps we’re thinking through decisions that need to be made regarding methodology, ethics, or data analysis. Or perhaps we’re thinking about all the tasks that need to be completed and worrying about the workload ahead of us. Whatever it is, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that a PhD can be relentless in its knack of finding a way into your mind, even during time that you have dedicated to other things, or to taking time off. There is an intense ‘full-timeness’ to it and managing that is a challenge for all PhD students. But what specific challenges does that bring when you are doing your PhD part-time?

I began my PhD full-time, and stayed full-time for just over two years. I then switched to part-time registration to take on a two day per week research associate position in my department. This switch meant that I needed to adapt the way I handled the PhD process if I was to be able to successfully manage my new dual-role status. I could not let it consume me as I now had additional working commitments to fulfil, and it worked the other way too, I couldn’t let my new job role consume the time I needed to work towards completion of my PhD.

Both of my roles were in the same department. They were based out of the same building. I was in the same office, sat at the same desk, every day. This had its plus sides – everything I needed for both roles was in one place, I didn’t have the upheaval of switching and changing between desks/offices/buildings. It also meant I had flexibility over which two of my days were ‘job’ days and which three were PhD days, a flexibility that would have most likely been lacking if my other role had been with a different employer.

However, I soon learnt that this brought complications too. I started with the best intentions to keep very clear boundaries between the two roles and what time I spent on each. But it’s not always as simple as that – perhaps because of an upcoming deadline that means you need to spend more time on one of the roles than you had planned, or because you’re liaising with research participants and want to maintain communication throughout the week. Probably as to be expected, time management was by far the biggest challenge for me in being a part-time PhD student.

Two things that I found helpful in managing this challenge were:

1) Maintaining boundaries – There were inevitably times when it was necessary to break the boundaries I had put in place between the two roles. Overall though, having a clear distinction in my head of ‘job’ days versus PhD days was crucial to being able to manage both projects. Although it was often tempting to ‘just reply to that email’ or ‘just’ do other small tasks for my RA role that would take minor amounts of time from my PhD day, I soon realised that doing this meant that major PhD tasks, mainly writing, were often pushed towards the bottom of the pile. I underestimated how important it was to clear my head and time of all other concerns to fully immerse myself in a good, productive writing day.

2) Realising it’s okay to say ‘I haven’t had time’ – the nature of the PhD, particularly the write-up process, meant that there were not always the immediate time pressures like there were in my RA role. There were often longer-term, slow burning, continuous tasks to be working on, such as writing a chapter. Therefore, it was always tempting to put the more immediately time-pressured tasks of the RA role ahead of writing that chapter, even if I had already fulfilled my two working days that week. At times when I felt like I couldn’t get to everything I needed to do in those two days, I put pressure on myself to spend more time on it so that I didn’t have to say ‘I haven’t had time for this yet’ at my next check-in meeting. Coming to the point of realising that it is okay to say that was a game changer for me. I became much more comfortable in saying: ‘in my two days this week I’ve done this, this and this, but I haven’t been able to get to this yet’, and this meant I was less likely to eat into valuable PhD writing time.

Managing two roles that both required a lot of thinking time, as well as practical working time, was most definitely a tough challenge. But there was also something nice about being able to immerse myself in something different for a couple of days a week. It definitely helped with relieving some of the ‘full-timeness’ of a PhD and enabled me to better manage the feeling of being ‘all-consumed’ by it. Boundaries were key, but being in a dual-role ultimately meant that I could come back to the PhD writing process with a fresher, clearer head after spending two days on something else.

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