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Posted on 16 Jul '20

Part-Time vs Full-Time - Pros, Cons and Perspective

There are many reasons to study a PhD part-time. And pretty much all of them applied at some point during my own doctorate.

At first my motivations were financial. I’d applied for funding and, after a tense few weeks, was delighted to learn that my proposal was good, my methodology was sound and my project was academically valuable. . . but I hadn’t been successful in winning a studentship on this occasion, no hard feelings, sorry.

At the time this felt a bit like acing a driving test only to be told you’d driven it in the wrong car. In the years since I’ve realised that there was a more valuable lesson to be learned here about the difference between proposing a worthwhile PhD and proposing a PhD worth funding, but that’s a topic for another time.

And so I began a part-time PhD, with the intention of switching up to full-time registration as soon as my financial situation improved and my circumstances changed. Both of those things happened, but not quite in the way I had planned.

I ended up with a full-time job, which improved my finances quite dramatically but left little time for the PhD. I also ended up with a small, noisy companion who, as relatives were delighted to inform me, “had my eyes”. The problem was that I needed those eyes for research; instead they were being used for peekaboo marathons and tense staring competitions during which I attempted to telepathically intuit my new friend’s toilet requirements. In the end, I stayed part-time, right up until I completed.

But this isn’t actually a blog about my own experience of part-time study, balancing a doctorate with a job or becoming a PhDad. Those may be topics for another time. Right now I want to say a little bit more about the general pros and cons of part-time study, using my own experience to highlight some less obvious examples.

The pros

Let’s start with the positives. These are some of the obvious – and less obvious – advantages of studying a PhD part-time.

It's more financially manageable

Saying ‘it’s cheaper’ would be a bit snappier but not technically true. Though the yearly fees for a part-time PhD are around half those for a full-time doctorate, you’ll study for around twice the length, with additional years of tuition fee payments – and living costs.

So, the total amount you pay will actually be higher, it’s just that paying it will be easier. Holding down a part-time job during a part-time PhD is generally fine (I’ve variously been a copy editor, a data entry clerk, an editorial assistant, an adjunct lecturer and an assistant chef). You’ll also have more time to grab some of the funding that sometimes becomes available during a PhD.

It’s less disruptive

The other ‘big’ reason to go part time is that it’s a lot easier to keep up with existing personal or professional commitments.

This wasn’t really an issue for me at the beginning of my PhD as I went ‘straight in’ after my Masters. It did become a big benefit later though, when my work and family circumstances changed. Balancing a part-time PhD with a full-time job and a new baby was challenging. Balancing a full-time PhD would, I am fairly sure, have been utterly impossible.

Just bear in mind that ‘less disruptive’ is still ‘disruptive’. Your current commitments probably aren’t designed to ring-fence a few chunks of research time each week. They’ll need to be.

It’s flexible

Part-time doesn’t always have to mean part time – and it’s partly up to you what part time means, anyway. If you need to temporarily step up your workload to meet a deadline you may be able to (subject to those other commitments). Equally, if you need to slow things down for a bit, you probably have a bit more space to do that, compared to a full-time student.

It can even be possible to switch to full-time registration later if you manage to secure funding or your circumstances change. This was my plan, after all – though things didn’t change in quite the right way!

It can be more agile

As a PhD student you should be working at the boundary of knowledge in your field. That boundary is always shifting as researchers – like you! – move it around. Sometimes this means that a big new breakthrough leads to new research opportunities. Sometimes it just means that the perfect conference theme, publication prospect or collaborative project crops up during your PhD.

You’ll (probably) be exposed to more of these opportunities during the course of a longer PhD and you’ll (potentially) have the space to be more responsive to them. This can be a double-edged sword. At best, it feels like the ‘dream’ of scholarship, with time for contemplation, consideration and collaboration – I’ve been there. At worst, it can feel a bit lost as your scholarly field seems to change faster than you can make progress across it – I’ve been there too.

It can give you time to reflect

There’s something to be said for the opportunities you don’t expect during a part-time PhD.

Had I finished my doctorate in three years I would have had little sense of the professional world beyond academia and might well have felt I had little option but to roll up my sleeves and compete for a university job I’d already decided I didn’t want, simply because I didn’t know what else I could do. Taking longer meant that a different career found me during my PhD.

The cons

If a part-time PhD was automatically a better option than a full-time equivalent the decision to study one would be fairly simple (and this blog wouldn’t exist). That’s obviously not the case – and here are some of the reasons why.

It may not actually be possible

If you already know that part-time study is an option for you then you can skip this one. If not, it’s worth pausing a moment. Not all PhD subjects and topics suit part-time study This was a fairly common route for a Humanities student like me, but some other fields may not be as familiar with part-time self-funders – or be set up to accommodate them.

International students should also be aware that some countries only offer student visas for full-time degrees. The UK isn’t one of them, but it’s worth checking the details if you’re looking at a PhD elsewhere.

It takes longer

This one doesn’t need much explanation. Sure, a part-time PhD can open itself up to some interesting opportunities during your research, but it’s going to take you a lot longer to get your degree and take your next steps with it – whatever they may be. There's a potential opportunity cost associated with that if it means you'll begin your career proper later in life.

Taking longer can also lead to drift during your PhD. It’s easy to feel a bit disconnected from a project that moves slowly and has to compete for your attention alongside other priorities. I became very unstuck at one point during my project and came fairly close to packing the whole thing in. I didn't, but it was a tough period.

Life happens

A part-time PhD may be less disruptive to your existing commitments and routine (as above) but a longer degree is more likely to be disrupted. Events will get in the way of your research. In my case these ranged from the relatively small (changing jobs, house-training a pair of Siamese kittens, learning to drive) to the somewhat bigger (getting married, moving across the country, having a child).

I managed all of these in the end and there’s nothing to say you won’t too, but there were definitely times when I envied fellow students on what looked like the straight and narrow path. Speaking of which. . .

FOMO is real

As a part-time PhD student in a busy department you’ll get used to seeing full-time students speeding ahead (or, at least, appearing to do so). The people you begin alongside could well be preparing for their vivas when you’re still finalising your first couple of chapters.

At best, this can be frustrating. At worst, it can exacerbate issues like imposter syndrome. There isn’t really an obvious solution beyond remembering that PhD study isn’t a race and knowing where to find a bit of support if you need it (which is absolutely normal).

A perspective

I enjoyed my PhD and I enjoyed many of the opportunities that came from studying part-time. But any decision you need to make will probably arise out of your own circumstances. And my advice can't really change those.

I won't say that I think you should study part-time (or that you shouldn't). But I hope this post has made part-time study seem less like an inferior, speed-limited alternative to the full-time highway and more like an alternative route to the same destination, with its own landmarks and occasionally productive detours.

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Last Updated: 16 July 2020