Are we all part time now?


Being a part-time doctoral researcher is hard. Part-timers are generally already in work, professionals, “mature”, doing the doctorate to upgrade quals and/or further an interest. There’s a lot of part-time in my field of education, and in other areas like law, nursing, social work, business. Part-timers often self-fund.

Getting the doctorate done part-time generally takes twice as long as your average full-time doctorate. So choosing to do a doctorate around other demands means being in for the long haul, and it’s no mean feat to maintain the necessary commitment and interest for a very sustained period.

All doctorates are hard. So why is part-time any different? Well, for starters, your average part-timer has to squeeze the reading, writing, data generation, analysis and writing in and around the day job and home life. Part-timers therefore have to get organised and stay organised. And the part-timer’s family has to be very forgiving during the six to eight years when their loved one locks themselves away to try to get the required work done. Weekends go by, holidays are missed. Everyone has to be patient through the part-time PhD as endurance sport.

But one thing that has struck me very forcibly this month is how the current work-at-home situation evens out this situation, just a little. Everyone who is not required at work is now at home. Staff and full-time doctoral researchers. And of course part-timers are also not at work but at home. They may now be able to organise their time a little differently. Some part-timers may even be able to carve out more week-day time for their doctoral work, time that they didn’t have before. ( Some of course may have even less time.)

By contrast, the full-time doctoral researcher may now well find themselves with less time than they are used to. Other people at home want and need to spend time with them. And as one person said to me the other day, there is just so much more domestic work to get done when everyone stays at home all day. And that means less time to spend on research. So the full -time doctoral researcher may find themselves having to carve out time for their study in ways they didn’t need to before.

The full-timer also needs to manage the way they are in their house. Some people may have had to move out of their temporary home near their university while others can stay where they usually live. Whatever the situation, once at home many full-timers will find that they can’t leave the books and laptop all over the house in the same way they could with a desk at university or in their little flat. And even if they are still in their doctorate-geared accommodation, the fact that they have to stay in, all the time, may mean that they now want to make work and living space more distinct.

And the full-timer can no longer just wander to the library when they feel like it. They can’t take out a physical book or sort an inter-library loan, they have to rely on the ebooks and journal subscriptions that are available. The full-timer now can’t just spontaneously decide to go off for a coffee with peers, they have to make a time and connect on screen. They don’t accidentally bump into their supervisor or go and knock on a door on the off chance, they now have to make a time. And again, it’s a screen.

On campus workshops, seminars and masterclasses have now stopped and instead there are some online courses and some new (hastily put together) online opportunities. These might include Shut Up and Write and virtual coffee mornings. But no matter how much the full-timer appreciates the effort that has gone into these, they aren’t really a replacement for face to face. But they are certainly better than nothing.

Maybe the full timers are now just more part-time than they are used to…

I’m sure the part-timers reading the list of changes that full-timers are experiencing will have other things to add. But I am equally sure that there may be the odd quiet smile. There’s a fine irony here. All of these things – squeezing work into time and space at home, restricted library access, limited opportunities to socialise except by appointment, supervision only at appointed times and online, a limited range of workshops, classes and seminars – are the norm for part-timers.

Of course, all universities have been working on extended support to part-time graduate researchers. And some universities and some disciplines do do much better than others. And  institutions – and various groups and individuals – have stepped up their social media during the pandemic to fill in some gaps for everyone.

But really. Really. If there’s one thing I hope we might seriously think about post-isolation it is how to maintain and extend what we are doing with open access and online provision. We have to consider how what we learn now might help us offer both full- and part-time doctoral researchers a more equitable experience. Surely once we have experimented with the opportunities afforded through distance and open learning, and the ways it might be more inclusive, then we won’t go back. There really isn’t any excuse for going back to full-time rich provision/part-time scanty.

Part-time doctorates are just as important as full-time. The people who do them sacrifice a lot. They deserve our best efforts. I’m not entirely sure – yet – what it is that we can do better and differently. But I am sure that we just have to put more effort, time and money into closing the gap between full and part-time support.

I certainly hope to find out more during this period about better and different support for part -time doctoral researchers. And I really hope my institution, and yours, do too.


PS It wasn’t the point of this post to talk about part-timers who are key workers. But of course, some are. They are too busy doing what is vital to society to focus on study right now. And we all depend on them to do their essential work. But work is not usually a good enough reason to give people leave from their research. But if I could, I would give all of you part-time doctoral key workers leave, no questions asked.