Part-time PhD students do it better: three unspoken truths

Doctoral students who downplay their part-time status forget that they excel in key ways, says Rebecca Gelding

November 4, 2016
Woman representing a PhD student climbing in an indoor climbing centre
Source: iStock

Today, I’ve made a resolution. I will no longer use the word “only” when telling people about my PhD, as in “Oh, I’m only part time.”

It is a subtle word but it has a connotation that part time is somehow lesser or not as good as full-time (it’s not), that it’s not a big deal (it is), or that it doesn’t take a lot of effort (it does). I realise that I’ve been doing it unconsciously from the very beginning but I am going to start using a new vocabulary when describing my PhD.

You see, being part time isn’t easy but there are plenty of positives about it that simply don’t get discussed much. So, if you are a part-time student/academic, or considering going part time, this post is for you. It’s my defence to those who don’t understand why someone might choose to go part time. I hope that it starts some rethinking among other part-timers too, that we perhaps begin to reassess how we view our status: that part time is better than full-time in a lot of ways.

Time to be better networkers

Some things take the same amount of time regardless if you are a full- or part-time student (ethics approval, paper review and publication, grant reviews, etc). Think about it – a paper that takes six months from submission to publication in a full-time load becomes the equivalent of three months from a part-time perspective. You’ve just saved yourself three months!

Recently, I read that scientists are increasingly expected to add “sales executive” to their list of job descriptions (as if project manager, administration, writer, teacher, etc, were not enough). But developing your “brand”, or even simply getting to know who’s who in the zoo – both in your field and in your institution – takes time.

This is one of the biggest advantages I see for part-time PhD students that so many don’t seem to take advantage of. We are around for so many years, we have more opportunity to meet with people; at conferences, seminars and especially on social media.


Also by this author: why you should befriend admin staff


We can get to know the people in our respective fields of interest and become known as well – “Oh, you’re the one who studies x and y at the University of  Z – I’ve heard of you”.

Use the time that you have to stand out from the crowd and develop your network.

The advantage of perspective

Being a part-time PhD student means that for the rest of our week we are either in full-time employment, involved in caring for loved ones, or perhaps we have a medical reason why full-time study is not preferable. Whatever your reason for being part time, it means that your studies are just “part” of your life. On the tough days when you face disappointment, frustration and rejection in academia, you have the rest of your life outside it to help you put the negative emotions in perspective.

For me, that is my family and caring for young kids – finding a frustrating error one morning that puts me back hours in my analysis doesn’t seem to be so devastating when I [remember that I ] have the chance to share in my daughter’s newfound ability to read later that afternoon.

This also means that I’m more willing to take risks in applying for that grant or science communication event; signing up for that class; starting that blog; pitching that idea; daring to fail – because when I do fail I know that academia is just part of my life. It’s a wonderful part but I have a lot of other wonderful parts that I’m grateful for and that provides a sort of safety net to catch me if I crash and burn. (Hence, I’m more likely to try and fly).

Determination

That’s not to say that our full-time friends don’t require determination to complete their PhDs, however, I do think that there is a dogged determination required to stick at a topic over so many years. Especially when you get to the halfway point and the full-time peers who you began with are sadly in the home stretch and submitting soon – and your submission date still seems so far in the future.

But life doesn’t stop. Over a five- or six-year period, there are more chances that big life events – physical or mental illness, the death of a loved one, marriage, the birth of a child, perhaps even the breakdown of some relationships – will happen than over a three-year period. Especially given that the average age for starting a PhD is 33 (or it was when I started – [it was the] first time I thought to myself “Hooray for being average!”)

Being part time helps develop in us a determination to persevere and a resilience to overcome these and other obstacles. This is not celebrated enough in the discourse of part-time study!

I want to challenge us part-timers to change the way that we see our work. To start “selling” the brand of part time as one that allows for better networking, puts our work in perspective and allows us to be risk-takers, and develops determination. I’m no longer playing down my part-time status and I want to let others know that going part time actually has a lot of benefits that they may not realise.

How about you? Can you think of any other benefits that part-timers have? 

Rebecca Gelding is a part-time PhD student at Macquarie University investigating what is going on in the brain when we hear music in our minds. This article was originally published on her blog Music on the Mind.

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