Studying for a part-time PhD: the challenges and the benefits

A part-time PhD? Yes, it can be done and it can be incredibly rewarding writes, Arthur Krebbers

May 7 2018
Part-time PhD

I’ve experienced many unexpected hurdles while doing my PhD part-time and I’m sure that you will too. It is often difficult to keep your spirits high while doing a part-time PhD but the reward is substantial. 

It is also helpful to hear about other people's challenges before you embark on your own journey. 

One of my biggest challenges was finding a PhD supervisor. I had contacted a professor at a well-established London business school. She seemed supportive and agreed to meet. The conversation flowed well – until I mentioned the “P-word”. “Seriously, part-time?” she said, surprised. “Look, what you are looking to do is simply impossible. I tried to oversee a part-time PhD degree, with a brilliant student. It all began very well, but after a few months they just couldn’t keep up. Too much pressure from their work.” I’d hit my first dead end.

Fortunately, after persistent searching I found an ideal match. All in all, this took about two months. I cast my net wide, reviewing the full faculty of all the top 20 European finance schools. My goal being to find those that were 1) interested in my field of study (the European debt markets) and 2) open to part-time PhD degrees. Arriving at a shortlist of supervisors, I emailed and spoke to potential supervisors until I had made a final decision. Supervisor, check!


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My next hurdle was in my place of work. I had heard of managers who wouldn’t consider a degree valuable if it wasn’t chartered. And other old-school types who, on hearing about an employee’s desire to “learn more”, simply dish out extra work assignments for them. They seem to live by the attitude that they don’t need any doctors in their workplace. 

I had to therefore sow the seeds carefully. My sales pitch was full of corporate-speak, linking my degree to my division’s strategic objectives and the competitive international landscape. Did you know, for instance, that two-thirds of German CEOs have a PhD? Last time I checked, their economy is doing pretty well. 

With employer support in the bag, I was ready to start juggling a research degree with a professional career. I became a compulsive planner; the PhD felt like a constant guilty conscience and I always felt like I could be studying more. The bulk of my research was done on Saturdays, which I occasionally topped up during the evenings, Sundays or dedicated holidays.

My work chipped in too, granting me two weeks of research leave a year – as part of a tailor-made support agreement that I had negotiated with my managers. They became very supportive of my endeavour, with the understandable condition that my job remained my priority. Banker first, researcher second.

Despite my limited free time, I realised that moderation was important and tried to pace myself. Long bouts of study would leave me insufficiently energised for the work week or put excessive pressure on my social life.

I wasn't in a rush. Being a part-timer, I did not have the same money stresses as my full-time peers. Living expenses were paid for through the day job and tuition fees were covered by my employer. I intended to enjoy both the process and the outcome. “What is a few months delay in a lifetime anyway?”

With corporate support and sponsorship in the bag, I was ready to be initiated into the academic community. This did not happen overnight. I only had one foot in the faculty, while using the other to run the rat race. The secluded professorial life seemed idyllic, spending days researching and working. However, when I heard esteemed lecturers conferring about the “quickest ways to get to British Airways Platinum status” or the “most lucrative visiting scholar jobs” I grew disheartened.

Realising that academics were also human was an important step for me. My interaction had to go beyond just talking about my thesis. A pint and a chat about the Premier League did wonders for my research collaboration. This interpersonal approach helped to solidify my academic relationships, both with my supervisors and other researchers.

And of course you won’t just be speaking to academics day in and day out. You’ll still have to make time for socialising with your family and friends, and often they may not quite understand how a part-time PhD works. 

For example, asking “what will the research be about?” can be like asking a new parent “what will your child be like when he is five years old?” The doctoral process is highly iterative – it involves constant rewriting and refocusing.

Or wanting to know “when will you be done?”. This is not too different from asking an entrepreneur “when will you raise £1 million?” It depends on many factors. Not least the opinion of the supervisor, being your gatekeeper to that gold-plated doctoral certificate.

And, crucially, it also depends on your ability to be able to overcome all these hurdles and dedicate yourself to your research. 

Read more: The romance versus the reality of a PhD

 

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