Part-time PhD - how to combine study with a career

Former international rugby player Colin Gregor is one of a growing number of students to balance a PhD with a career

February 9, 2016
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Balancing act: while there are fewer undergraduates studying part time, there is growth in part-time doctoral students

Keeping your PhD studies on track over the course of three or four years is a notoriously tricky task, with many students finding it hard to stay the course.

So how do those who combine their doctoral studies with a full-time job, as well as social and family commitments, fare? Is it feasible to do a PhD part time, typically over five to seven years, without letting your studies drift?

While completion rates are generally lower for part-time PhD students than full-time ones, the part-time PhD route is now taken by a growing number of students, latest figures suggest.

While part-time student numbers have slumped at undergraduate level in recent years, the number who completed a part-time doctorate in 2014-15 increased by 9 per cent to 3,825.

That represents about one in six of all PhD candidates – 22,300 in total – to complete their studies in the last academic year, according to data compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for Times Higher Education.

Doing a PhD part time at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, was an attractive proposition to Colin Gregor as it allowed him to study while continuing his career as a professional rugby union player.

As captain of Scotland’s Sevens teams for several years, the scrum-half often found that he had spare time when touring the world to play in international competitions.

“You have a fair amount of downtime as a rugby player and I wanted to make the most of it to position myself for a career after rugby,” said Mr Gregor, who started his PhD shortly before skippering Scotland in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

After discussions with his supervisor at Heriot-Watt’s School of Management and Languages, he began studying how conflict can affect team performance and cohesion.

However, it was not always easy to find time for study when travelling, training and preparing to take on 16-stone rugby players keen to flatten you, Mr Gregor admitted.

“I would always aim to do a couple of hours a day and my supervisor would set me little goals to work towards if I was away for two to three weeks,” he said.

“Some training days could be very intensive and occasionally I would not do any study, but others in the run-up to the tournament were less hard, so I could grab a couple of afternoons to get some work done,” he added.

Mr Gregor, who also played for Glasgow Warriors, was forced to retire from rugby last summer at the age of 34 due to injury, moving into a career involving media work, consultancy and coaching.

“I would ideally have played for one or two more years, but I’m exploring different avenues and having to gain some income too,” he said.

“Continuing the PhD is now even more about managing time and you need to be pretty ruthless about compartmentalising so that you can keep all the plates spinning.”

Setting small achievable targets and communicating with your supervisor is vitally important, said Mr Gregor, who has written about his experience on Heriot-Watt’s blog on PhD life, titled It’s Not You, It’s Your Data.

“You do not want to be at the coalface all the time, but you need to use your time efficiently and be aware of every hour in the day,” he said.

“Keeping the channels of communication with your supervisor is pretty important as they are normally pretty busy so you can’t just say let’s meet today or this week.”

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