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.
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.