Part-time Studying as a Disabled Student

Katherine Langford is a part-time PhD student at the Open University.  She is in her 4th year of researching how students develop an understanding of tricky Physics concepts.

I came down with ME when I was 13 and I have effectively been studying part-time ever since. For a while, I was barely well enough to get out of bed, so studying even four GCSEs with a home tutor was a real struggle. I was never going to be able to go away to university, but I was determined to get a degree and ended up studying Psychology part-time from home with the Open University. That came in handy when our house flooded. We were woken in the middle of the night by a fireman who told us we had an hour to pack up our things. Fortunately, I remembered to pack my OU textbooks, so I could keep studying for the 8 months that we were waiting for the flood damage to be repaired.

Finding your rhythm

I really enjoyed my degree and wanted to continue with a PhD. Studying part-time suits my ME very well as I can study at my own pace. I tend to do a little at a time and need rest breaks in between as otherwise, my brain refuses to work properly. If I need to take time off because I’m not feeling well, then it doesn’t matter as I can catch up later. As long as I do the work, it doesn’t matter when I do it. I can find technical research papers a bit challenging at times if they are particularly heavy going, so tend to read a little and often. Part-time studying gives me the flexibility to do what works for me. I wouldn’t be able to do my PhD otherwise. 

The benefits and challenges of part-time life

I find one of the other advantages of being part-time is that it doesn’t matter as much when it takes a while for people to reply to emails, forms to be approved or if it takes longer than expected to find research participants. It helps to remove some of the pressure. I’ve learnt that no matter how generous you are when planning how long things will take, research will always take longer than you expect, even when you’ve added in extra time for unforeseen problems. However, when you’re part-time, people tend to assume that you’re doing something else like working or raising a family, so it can get a little awkward when they ask what else I’m doing besides studying for a PhD (being a disabled student – recovering from studying a PhD mostly!).

One of the most difficult things I find is that, because I mostly study from home, it is sometimes difficult to switch off. There is always a temptation to get a bit more done by doing some work at the weekend or studying late into the evening if I haven’t got everything done that I wanted. Of course, that’s a great way to end up getting burnt out, so I’ve learnt it’s important to have some downtime and make sure I have some time off in the evenings and weekends either to relax or spend time with family and friends.

The pandemic has changed things

The pandemic has actually done a lot to even the playing field. Suddenly, nearly all training is available online or at a distance. Everyone has been in the same boat, so I’ve been busy trying to get as much training done as possible. Before the pandemic, I went into the Open University campus a few times a year. However, it has always been a challenge to fit in as much as possible when I’m there or I’ve had to make choices about which events it’s best to attend in person. Some things just aren’t the same when you attend online and other people are there in person. As a distance student, it means you’ve got to be more proactive about making contacts and joining in with events.

Studying for a PhD is very different from anything I’ve done before. My degree was much more structured. There was a set syllabus and a timeframe to cover it in. For a PhD, you study much more independently. I have guidance from my supervisors and training sessions, but it’s largely up to me what I need to do when and what I want to study. I’m a perfectionist, so it can be a little overwhelming to have so much to do. I survive by making to do lists and prioritising the top few most important things. If a job is particularly big then I’ll break it down into smaller, more manageable jobs. On days when my ME is particularly bad, then I may only be able to tick off one or two things. It’s all progress. Some days I make more progress than others, but I’ve learnt that big things can be achieved just by taking things one step at a time.

My top three tips for success

  1. Use being part-time to your advantage and find a routine that works for you.
  2. Remember that having some downtime is important too. A lot of part-time students have to fit in studying around other commitments, so may not have a lot of free time. Time off is important to recharge, so set some time aside as part of your routine.
  3. Don’t feel you need to do everything at once. Prioritise the most important things and set your own deadlines to help stay motivated and on track.

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