Part-time PhD students need more support

Vitae tells universities to help reduce the stress of juggling personal life, job and research. Zoë Corbyn reports

June 1, 2009

The plight of the part-time PhD student has been laid bare in a new report that calls on universities to strengthen their support for an often isolated and stressed-out group of researchers.

A report due to be unveiled later this week by Vitae – the national organisation for the development of doctoral researchers and research staff in universities – confirms anecdotal evidence that many part-time PhD students have a difficult and stressful time trying to juggle competing demands and fit in with departments and peers.

The study aimed to “dig deeper” into the experiences of part-time researchers, whose completion rates for PhDs rank far below those of their full-time counterparts.

The report states that although they tend to be highly motivated and have a great deal to offer their subjects, only 48 per cent of part-time doctoral students complete within ten years compared with 76 per cent of full-time students.

The paper offers 14 recommendations to help improve the lot of part-time PhD students. They include better communication between universities and students, recognition of the students’ unique problems, tailored training and development for such students and more awareness from prospective students about what they are taking on.

The report, which is accompanied by new training resources for institutions to support part-time researchers, is due to be launched officially on 5 June at a seminar to be held by the UK Council for Graduate Education on meeting the needs of part-time research students.

Janet Metcalfe, chair and head of Vitae, said part-time researchers could find it difficult to balance their personal and family life, their job and their doctorate. Even though they could be a “challenging cohort” for universities, she said institutions needed to think more about the support they could provide.

One specific recommendation was to provide opportunities for prospective part-time researchers to meet existing part-time researchers. Another was to explore how new technologies could allow more effective communication and interaction for remote working.

The study was based on an analysis of data from the 2008 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey and on 87 postgraduate researchers’ responses to a questionnaire.

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