Ask the panel

January 20, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

In the academic year 2003-04, as an MPhil student, I studied full-time for a PhD at a university. From May 2004, I was employed by the university as a research assistant on a ten-month contract. In July 2004, my husband had an accident that left him disabled. I gained permission to break my studies from July 2004 until February 2005, when I began to study part-time until October this year. With my husband still not recovered, I decided to suspend study again this semester. I have now completed one year of full-time study and one semester of part-time study. If I decide not to continue with my PhD, can I submit work for an MPhil qualification? If so, how do I go about this? If not, what options do I have other than to go back and finish the PhD?

This question is a bit of an unusual one for our panel because it involves both employment and PhD regulations. So we have invited the National Postgraduate Committee as a guest panellist.

* The NPC 's spokesman says: "It depends on which university you attend, but registering for an MPhil for the first year of study is quite a common procedure - it was originally intended to filter out weaker candidates in the ancient universities.

"However, it is uncertain whether you would be able to complete an MPhil with only a year's full-time PhD work. Normally, you would be required to have completed 18 months to two years' research and submit a thesis of between 35,000 to 40,000 words.

"Moreover, because of the non-standardised system of postgraduate qualifications, you will find that some students from Scottish universities hold MPhils despite having completed the work sufficient for only an MA in England.

"So the MPhil might not be a qualification that will allow you to gain as much as you might expect."

He advises you to think long and hard about whether you want to truncate your PhD at this point. "Universities accommodate carers poorly, and the level of support varies widely depending on where you study, which creates great hardship. However, your department and university have a legal obligation to make allowances for you."

He adds that the internet can help you keep in touch with work - through the Athens system of electronic journals, for example - and with colleagues so you can continue to study part-time. Moreover, there are wide differences in what constitutes a PhD, and you should be able to redesign your research and methodology to suit your circumstances.

"Finally, in career terms, PhDs do bring a significant wage premium. At some point in the future, your husband might be well enough for you to return to your PhD full-time. If that is the case, and you have turned your research into an MPhil, you will not be able to use any of your past work and will have to return to step one."

* Our Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says:

"Ucea is not in a position to provide accurate advice for this specific case. However, the time limit for an MPhil is usually two years' full-time study, but you may have completed sufficient work ahead of that - seek advice from your tutor.

"Much seems to depend on the quality of the research already undertaken.

The tutor could advise you only on whether he or she thinks you might obtain the qualification early, but obviously there are no guarantees."

* Research Councils UK 's panellist comments: "The main source of advice will be your supervisor. He or she should be able to confirm your options at the moment.

"Most universities also have a postgraduate tutor who can provide an overview, and the students' union can be very helpful."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

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