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June 14, 2024, by UoN School of English

Taking on The Big PhD: Full-Time or Part-Time?

So, you’ve decided to take on a PhD… Your Nan’s told everyone at bingo how “our Nelly’s going to be a doctor!”, your Uncle Steve can’t see the point unless ‘Doctor’ means you can sort out his ingrowing toenail situation, and your Mum’s ecstatic. At least her ‘clever genes’ have passed on to one of her kids…

You’re just glad to have found a purpose for the next three-and-a-half years. But there’s still one big question: should you go for full-time study or part?

I began my PhD as a part-time student in January 2022. I was juggling a number of other responsibilities at the time and this suited me best. But come September 2023, I decided to take the plunge and go all out, dropping the ‘part-time PhD student’ description, and taking on the life of a ‘Doctoral Researcher’, full-time. I’m loving it. But I loved it before, too! So which mode of study would I recommend?

Armed with experiences from each, I’ve have had a think about the realities of both – to help you weigh up the little details that aren’t necessarily mentioned in the course descriptors and decide which would suit you best.

More supervisions. As a part-time scholar, you typically have access to at least 6 supervisions per year. With full-time, you have 10. You would usually complete your PhD in 3-4 years as a full-time student and 5-8, part-time. So, spread out over the time it takes you to do your PhD, you could actually end up with more hours with your supervisors, if you go for part-time. Not only does this mean you get more bang for your buck, but it also means you have a bit more control over the speed at which you progress. Just because you have just over half the number of supervisions part-time, per year, it doesn’t mean you must submit half the work! If you crack on and remain enthusiastic, your supervisors are likely to be as keen as you are; they are quite happy to read extra work, if you’ve written it. But you can also be steadier too, if you need to. As long as you submit your thesis on time (not too early nor too late!) and you meet all your deadlines for supervisions, it’s pretty much up to you how speedily you go.

More flexibility. That being said, we all need to support ourselves, financially. If you haven’t got funding for your PhD study, then you may need to take on some extra, paid work, too. Though of course necessary, this does take time away from the PhD you’re so itching to complete. Government loans are available but they’re usually only just enough to pay the university fees. Part-time research allows more time to put some pennies back in the bank.

If this is the case, you might like to take on work linked to your field – a museum archivist, for example, or teaching. Your skills as a qualified researcher may well be quite sought after! But you might also like to keep things varied with something completely different. Depending how intensely you like to get into things, doing a job that’s completely unrelated to your research might also prevent you from getting trapped in the ‘research bubble’ that so many academics fret about!

On the flip side, funded PhD research (such as through AHRC) means that you receive a monthly, tax-free stipend and your fees paid. If you are funded, then full-time research may instead be the more flexible option in a different way – you can freely pursue any and every whim your research might lead you to, knowing that the money you need will still be in the bank at the end of every month.

More reviews. As a full-time student, unfunded, you have one review per year, usually in Autumn. Part-time, it’s once every two. It’s quite a lot of work putting the material together for these reviews and then preparing for the mini-viva-style meeting, so do factor in time for how long these might take you, when you’ll have to do them, and whether this can easily be scheduled in around your other commitments, for both modes of study.

There are a number of different factors to think about before you choose which path to go down, but for me, these have been the most significant. And both worked for my different needs at the time. The main takeaway is to think about practicalities: time and money, yes, but also, how your brain works… Are you an intensive thinker? Do you like doing one thing at a time, and doing it intensely? Or do you work better with lots of different things to think about? Whichever you choose, you can always switch over if needs be, like I did. And there’s always support and advice from all over the university. Full-time or part-time, do whichever works for you.

Just remember: whichever you choose, the qualification is the same… and your Nan can still brag about her ‘Doctor Grandchild’ to her friends!

— Felicity Bromley-Hall, PhD in Drama – Applied Theatre and Performance

Image credits: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Posted in Student Words