Starting a part-time doctorate? Three top tips


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.