Maintaining Part-Time Connections

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

This post was by Rachel V Staddon (@StaddonRachel). Rachel is a tutor at the University of Sheffield, and is currently awaiting her viva for her thesis on mature students and their attitudes and experiences of learning technologies and technology-enhanced learning.

It can be difficult to maintain connections when you’re a part-time PhD student. You’re part of the department, but sometimes it feels less so than full-timers, particularly if you’re often busy elsewhere with your job or other responsibilities. Sometimes your supervisor won’t respond, and you have to play the fun game of Ghosting or Out of the Country?

As a part-time student, it’s easy to be forgotten about. Maybe not by your supervisor so much, but perhaps by your department and your institution. I sure was. There may be a number of reasons for this, from starting at a weird time of year (I started in March, and this caused a great deal of confusion), to just not being around to say hello to people in the corridor and remind them of your existence. Since I didn’t start at the ‘normal’ September time, I didn’t have an induction, I wasn’t given any of the paperwork or added to any mailing lists. It was only as I approached the end of my PhD that my department realised I had never been enrolled on the Blackboard course, and so I couldn’t physically submit my thesis until that had happened.

The problem I encountered throughout my PhD was that I didn’t know what I didn’t have, so it wasn’t just a case of going, “I need this” to the relevant people. It became something of a fact-finding mission. If you’re ever in this situation, or any situation where you’re not sure what to do, remember that your supervisor is your very best resource. I started by asking my supervisor explicitly to find out what I needed to do. This raised problems in itself – my supervisor often went overseas for weeks at a time, and had very intermittent internet access. I therefore had to plan my time and questions carefully around my access to my supervisor as well as my work. This is tricky as a part-time student, but the thing I found most useful was keeping up regular communication with my supervisor throughout my PhD. Even if our supervision meetings themselves were irregular, I sent him an email every month or two with a brief sentence on my progress (or lack thereof) and a question. Sometimes the question was about my work, an article I’d read, a specific book I couldn’t find, or about the logistics of the course. It didn’t matter – it maintained a connection, and prompted him to remind me when he would be out of the country so I didn’t schedule anything that involved him at that time. Keeping your supervisor informed about your status is really important, especially as there are two people in a supervision relationship, and they are both allowed time off! I also recommend keeping them informed about difficult points in your life, such as bereavements, house moves, and mental health changes, all of which affected me multiple times, sometimes simultaneously. As long as your supervisor knows about these things, they can signpost you to support resources, and generally cut you a break.

It is also important to maintain connections outside of your specific PhD and your supervisory team. Don’t forget about your life – friends, family, pets, they all provide support. There’s also the rest of your department and your institution. Maybe join a society in the Students’ Union, or have a Skype coffee with a fellow student if you’re long-distance. I also found that asking my department how to be more involved helped as well. From this, I was able to do some teaching on the Education MA, which was fantastic for my confidence; it also broadened my subject knowledge, and enabled me to get to know some students who weren’t my PhD participants. Other things I found useful were getting involved in others’ studies as a participant (great for doing before you start your own instrument design), chatting with student reps, and attending departmental meetings and seminars.

Overall, you may sometimes feel like you’ve been forgotten about as a part-time PhD student, but there’s lots of ways to maintain connections. Your supervisor is your top resource, but there’s plenty of support out there, so don’t be afraid to ask for it.

What does the part-time doctoral journey look like? Building a community of stories.

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This first post is from Dr. Jon Rainford (@jonrainford) . Jon is the creator of this blog and completed his part-time doctorate in 2019 at Staffordshire University. His thesis examined widening participation policy and practices in higher education.

This blog is set to launch early in the new year and will feature a wide range of posts by those who are undertaking part-time doctorates, those who have successfully completed them and those who supervise doctoral students. The aim being to develop a rich resource that captures the diverse and wide range of doctoral experiences. Ideally this will include the voices of those who are less represented in traditional literatures on doctoral study, include the scope of doctorates from the PhD, professional doctorates and those undertaking theses by publication. It is also envisaged that the blog will be global in nature and we would welcome submissions from a variety of countries.

I have recently reflected elsewhere on my tips to doing a part time-doctorate and my tips for what can help if you are supervising a part-time doctorate. I think there are some real distinct benefits of doing a doctorate part-time, especially when the focus of the study relates to policy or practice. The extended thinking time to work through the arguments in your thesis that the part-time mode allows for is one of the greatest benefits in my mind and something which can really benefit the doctoral researcher.

Additionally, I followed this up with my tips for thriving during the part-time doctorate at the inaugural seminar of the professional doctorate society (@ProfDocSoc on twitter). There is hopefully a recording that I will add soon but the seven key areas I discussed were:

  • Embracing your identity
  • Building your tribe
  • Managing your project as opposed to it managing you
  • It being your own race….
  • And the race being a marathon not a sprint
  • You can’t drink from an empty glass
  • Always leave threads to pick up…

However, the part-time experience is one where there is a significant gap in the literature. Whilst there are many excellent blogs and books covering the process of studying for a doctorate, many of these focus on the full-time experience. This is something I am working on helping address in the near future and if anyone would like to share there experiences of undertaking a part-time doctorate on this blog, please do get in touch.