Impact Blog

Working the part-time PhD

March 2022
Rees Quilford, RMIT University
PhD Candidate, School of Media and Communication

 

Over the past six years, I have combined part-time PhD study with professional employment in marketing and communications. This hybrid arrangement has comprised many different forms. It has included periods of full-time ongoing or contract work alongside part-time study as well as periods of full-time study.

Weighing up the benefits and challenges of combining PhD study with paid employment is front of mind for many students. Many variations exist – part-time PhD and part-time employment, full time PhD with part-time work, part time PhD and full-time work. Or for those highly ambitions few, full-time PhD and a full-time job.

The part-time PhD is an increasingly popular option for students here in Australia. For me, it offered the opportunity to undertake a sustained research project while allowing sufficient time for other commitments that are highly important to me – family, recreation and employment.

Undoubtedly one of the principal appeals of maintaining steady employment throughout my study journey was the desire (and need) to maintain a stable income. Other factors also contributed to my decision.

Many choose to compliment PhD study with employment within the University sector. This often involves sessional teaching, work as a Research Assistant or employment in professional services (where I have plied my trade). This path provides opportunities to build academic credentials, expand networks while gaining the requisite experience one needs to be competitive when applying for those much sough-after academic roles post completion.

Others opt for work in industry roles that complement their PhD project. The professional context they operate within offers avenues to test and iterate their research. Personally, I have found the insights gained in various professional communications roles have provided highly useful adjuncts to my research project.

Continued employment also offers a way to maintain industry connections and professional relevance. As a result, I have managed to keep viable non-academic career options open for when my research project concludes.

Counter balancing all of this are the challenges of successfully navigating a PhD journey while working. It can be testing at times. The increased duration of the program is one of most obvious challenges, as part-time study sees the length of a PhD double from three or four years to six or eight years. Candidates balancing work and research are routinely faced with competing pressures. This has definitely been the case for me personally; time always seems to be in short supply.

I have also found that workplace routines stimulate entirely different habits and concentration patterns. Many of these habits do not align with the mindset required to undertake critical reading or sustained research. The stress of balancing these can take their toll. A quick glance at PhD forums and social media platform reveals much discussion of the perils of balancing work and study.

Making the decision to combine graduate research with significant paid work commitments requires careful consideration. There are many things to bear in mind, for both students and supervisors. Based on my experience some key points to consider are as follows.

Workload considerations

The ability to manage your workload is a primary consideration. Even the most organised people often aren’t prepared for the workload entailed in completing a PhD. I know I wasn’t. Part-time graduate research study requires a commitment of approximately 15-20 hours per week. This is in addition to family commitments, caring responsibilities, recreation, and other obligations. Add paid employment into that mix doesn’t leave you with much down time.

Program and funding considerations

Part-time PhD study usually offers a more manageable workload for those wishing to undertake or continue outside employment but the ability to access scholarship, funding and financial aid opportunities can be limited.

The funding policies, candidature management and on-campus requirements vary significantly depending on the institution, program, and discipline. However, here in Australia part time PhD students are often not eligible (except where extenuating circumstances exist) for many scholarship and financial aid program. For many, it is import to carefully consider the financial pros and cons of part-time study.

Supervisor and institution expectations

While, once again, the detail varies depending on the program, the majority of Australian Universities have robust policy and support frameworks to guide part-time PhD study. Most institutions also offer well-resourced career services and detailed guidance on combining employment and study.

I have had multiple supervisors over the course of my study and all have been highly supportive of (and many actively encouraged) combining work with PhD study. However, strong and transparent communication is always key to maintaining good working relationships. Part-time students, particularly those with substantial work commitments, often have significant external time pressures. We usually have less contact time and are faced with a much longer program duration. I’ve found being realistic and up front about this means that mutually beneficial supervision arrangements can be negotiated.

Employment considerations

How an employer understands and supports the requirements of PhD study is another important consideration. The level of support you receive from our employers will likely depend on how closely aligned your employment is to your field of study. For example, employers participating in industry-based PhDs are likely to have a more thorough understanding of the requirements of PhD study.

The same often goes for those working in the higher education sector. However, this experience can be quite different in sectors that don’t traditionally have much exposure to the demands of graduate research. For example, may of my peers working in hospitality and retail often have extended negotiations around getting time off work for study.

Once again, communication and transparency with your employer is a critical element. I’ve found that it’s often worthwhile to take the time to outline the detail and requirements of my research project. I try to communicate how it is of benefit to my professional development, but I also have gone to great lengths to outline any potential benefits that might exist for the business. Many professional and government organisations also have quite generous study support programs. Do your research and take advantage of them if you can.

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