Last week @lanceb147 contacted me on Twitter looking for advice on doing a PhD part time. There’s not much published advice considering there’s a surprising number of students doing their PhD part time. At RMIT where I used to work 50% of research students were enrolled part time and this institutional profile is not unusual in Australia. Some are self funded students from the beginning; others have been forced to take up part time study after their scholarship rans out.

clocksMany academics have the impression that part time students are troublesome and take ages to finish, but a study by Pearson et al (see reference below) showed that students who study part time for their whole degree finish sooner and have better results than full time students.

Clearly they are doing something right!

I did my research masters over three years part time and worked for 2 days a week for all but 6 months of my PhD. So I know a lot about managing study part time – for me. If there’s anything I have learned about PhD study in all my years of whisperering it’s that everyone is different. So I asked on Twitter if part time students would share their time management secrets with me – and what a rich treasure trove of information they gave me!

After reading through upwards of 80 messages, I came to the conclusion that  part time students could teach full time students a thing or two about how to manage a long term research project. I have enough from my Twitter conversations for about ten posts, but I will confine myself here to five and save the rest for later.

Brief your stakeholders

Unlike full time students, many part time students have to fight to be recognised as students at all. Many people on Twitter emphasized the importance of briefing your line manager on the purpose of the PhD and the nature of your study commitments early on. Part timers should tell their employer that a part time PhD requires around 20 hours, but that the actual amount of time you have to spend each week will vary according to what you are working on.  Consider telling your co-workers about your PhD too. Some part timers I spoke to talked about bad feelings developing in teams when you refuse to work extra hours to help out on deadlines.

What can full timers learn from this? Tell your friends and family what you are working on and why. This way your PhD is positioned as Important Work, not an indulgence or excuse for not attending social engagements. I recommend entering the 3 minute thesis competition. It’s an excellent way to work on explaining the importance of your work to anyone, expert or not.


By appealing to the WIFM (What’s in it for me?) you get buy in from your stakeholders. Try to think of the possible benefits to your employer, such as enriched skills, knowledge and even the connections you make with others. Explain to your partner that your PhD will increase your career prospects or give you more job security. If everyone around you understands why doing a PhD is important to you – and to them – there is less opportunity for conflict to arise.

Spread yourself around

Experienced part timers recommended always having several things to work on at once – reading, doing analysis, writing, organising. Try to move the work forward on many fronts simultaneously, rather than finish one thing and start another. Keep a ‘menu’ of ongoing work from which you can choose a task which fits the time and energy you have available.

Some tasks, like reading, are easily portable and fit well into odd chunks of time like commuting; some are not and require quiet spaces or special equipment. Understand the difference between low focus and high focus activities and make sure you have some of each on your ‘to do’ list. You may not be in the right frame of mind to do data analysis or write after a hard day of work, so have a TBR (to be read) pile handy or tidy up your reference data base. Give yourself permission to take time off though, or you will burn out.

Full time students would do well to adopt this strategy of a time budget, but the other way around. You should aim to spend no more than 40 hours a week on a fulltime PhD (it’s just like a job my friends). I suggest budgeting time for all the non academic things you want to do: exercise, relaxing and spending time with friends then building your work schedule. So long as you are making your 40 hours it doesn’t matter what time of the day you do things. You can sleep late and have a long coffee date in the morning, then work in the early hours – if that’s what you prefer. Try to take two whole days off a week though – even if they don’t fall on the actual weekend.

Build in buffer time

Many part timers I spoke to on Twitter cautioned against setting one whole day a week aside for study. In fact some questioned whether keeping regular schedules were even possible. Even those that did keep regular schedules agreed that it can be hard to switch gears mentally between work and study. Some people used activities like cooking, reading to children or going to the gym ot create a buffer between work and study. This helped them clear their mind of work related concerns so they could concentrate better on their study.

Full timers can learn from this strategy of building in buffer time. One technique I learned was to decide the day before what the first task will be tomorrow – make it something difficult. This is an ‘eat the vegetables first’ strategy that turns sleeping into proper buffer time.

Throw money at the problems

While there are disadvantages to being a part time student, at least you have a regular wage. Most full time student stipends are below the poverty line. Part timers can take advantage of extra income to throw money at problems: house cleaning services, food delivery, child care and so on. Don’t skimp on equiment: buy a tablet, Kindle, laptop and smart phone. Invest in software while you are eligable for a student rate and perhaps a lovely pen to write with.

Can you buy in help with your research? That’s a grey area, but you can certainly pay copy editors, graphic designers and other professionals to help you produce your final documentation. I always pay for audio transcripts to be performed rather than doing it myself, although many qualitative researchers find this practice questionable.

Sorry full timers! Unless you are independantly wealthy you probably can’t throw money at problems. You should, however, keep an eagle eye out for all the special extras the university provides and apply for every scholarship going.

I’d be interested in hearing from full time and part time students about these ideas – do you have a time saving technique to share?

I’d like to thank the following Twitterers for helping me with this post (these are active links to Twitter home pages):

@lanceb147 for the idea.

@andanin, @PlashingVole, @Jengiejon, @kmicrox, @MatthewHanchard, @LorenAbell7, @AmieOShea, @dilaycock@MeganJMcPherson@SarahLaneCawte@dannyjhills@bjmci@shaedoubleu@bewildergirl, @AranelParmadil, @bewarethegeek@witty_knitter, @Comprof1@lindathestar@dan_burn@happytegs@LUDissertation@ai1sa@strictlykaren@AnnalisaManca@LuxePHD@Portiau@NSRiazat@erin_turbitt@AussieCazz@ralphmercer@AmuSky@mcgrath_chris@andienevitt@JeffreyKeefer@LBA_OX12@SimoneCoogan@HMollusc1@shiralee_poed@amandasherratt, @musicforbabes, @NigelStobbs, @carleneboucher, @emmackat, @ellyfromoz, @Anne_Matthew, @BronwynHinz, @katgallow, @Idealaw, @Psycho_Claire, @minilu, @TaraNipe, @mTullia, @sccontrol (Who wrote a post about part time study here) @lauracowen, @webmentorman

Related Posts:

Time: can you ever really manage it?

The foibles of flexibility


Pearson, M, Cumming, J, Evans, T, Macauley, P and Ryland, K (2008) “Exploring the Extent and Nature of the Diversity of the Doctoral Population in Australia: A Profile of the Respondents to a 2005 National Survey” in M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds). (17-18 April, 2008). Quality in postgraduate research: Research education in the new global environment – Conference Proceedings. Canberra: CEDAM, ANU.

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