5 Tips on Part-Time Postgraduate Study
Updated: Sep 27, 2019
Here are some of my own reflections and tips on completing part-time postgraduate study.
My journey into postgraduate study took the long route. I did my masters full time and also had a full time job where my work filled up my afternoons, evenings and weekends. I'm still not quite sure how I did that. Later, my PhD commenced in the same manner but then shifted to part-time to fit better around my changing work commitments. One thing that I have noticed is that I do enjoy talking to academics about their journey into academia. From the conversations I have had with colleagues, friends and experienced academics it seems that no two journeys are ever the same. Moreover, I think your path to completing postgraduate study subsequently shapes your identity as an academic, particularly, if you have have made the move from industry. So here are my initial observations for making your part-time postgraduate journey as enjoyable as possible.
More time doesn't mean better quality
It took me a while to make peace with the fact that I simply did not have the same amount of time as others to complete my studies (perhaps a little bit of perfectionism creeping in there - I have another post on that). However, I had to appreciate the fact that there were many other friends and colleagues with far more complex responsibilities to my own (keeping a little bit of perspective there). It isn't so much the time you have, it is more about making the most of it. You get tasks done in the time that you have available whether that is 20 minutes or 2 hours. There is nothing quite like a deadline to spur you into action, right? As I settled into this idea I began to realise that I was becoming more efficient, those meetings I didn't go to didn't seem to matter too much as I became more selective. I wouldn't spend as much time doing trivial tasks which didn't deliver real value. So rather than seeing limited time as a negative embrace the time you have to study - you will train yourself to think faster, make decisions quicker , you will be able to work anywhere (trains, planes and bus stops - a personal favourite). Ultimately this translates into being an effective academic well after you have achieved your degree as you continue to apply those principles to your day to day time management.
Will my work go out of date because my research journey is longer?
This is one real challenge of part-time study, your topic is going to advance as you progress through your studies and you need to take account of this. I experienced this as the topic that I was researching at the time was so new there wasn't even a clear definition of it. So be prepared to go back and review your literature at regular intervals on your journey. You may find the the outcomes of your study change also as more knowledge becomes acquired on a given area. Bearing this in mind you also need to realise that there needs to be a point where you submit your work, so when is the right time to stop and to know you have done enough? That is quite a challenging thing as your thesis or dissertation is never complete, there will always be something to add. Ultimately you will never know until you submit, have a viva or receive your grade but you need to draw a line at some point so that you can complete. Don't worry though, all of those additional thoughts will make for good future research papers.
Balancing part-time study with life and relationships
I have another post coming out on this soon. Your postgraduate study can be quite all consuming. This is your opportunity to become an expert in a subject that you are passionate about. With that in mind it can be tough for loved ones and friends who are on the journey with you, who are watching from the sidelines and taking care of life's necessities to support you. Particularly when you are experiencing the highs and lows of the journey. It's important not to neglect relationships (priorities here!) so be open with your friends and loved ones about your experience and let them know in advance of times where you anticipate you will be busy. Similarly, make time to step away from your study. Even an hour or two can be really appreciated by loved ones, and you will come back refreshed and ready to tackle tasks. Any sort of part-time study will put pressure on your relationships but what I did find out is that good relationships become better relationships as a result.
Some people just won't get it
There are sometimes when someone will ask you about your studies and say - "why would you do that - I mean put yourself through it?" This was a difficult question to answer in an articulate manner. I knew it was what I wanted to do but more in a gut-feel sort of sense rather than - if I do 'a' I will get 'b'. Yet, you will have to accept that some people will not understand your choice or perhaps not value it. That's ok. You just have to go with your gut on this one - if it feels right do it. In my own experience I was offered the opportunity to do my phd in the same week I had been offered a promotion by my employer (it was a very strange week) and I was in the process of moving home to take up said job. Everything ground to a halt as I made the choice to do the PhD. It was a snap decision and it was a decision that baffled some considering the other option was to take a promotion but I just knew I had to explore the opportunity that had been presented to me. My decision was also much helped by the fact that it would mean I would be working with smart, kind and engaging colleagues in an institution where I felt very much at home (I know this isn't the same for everyone). Thank you University of Manchester Fashion Business!
The second thing is that some people will just lose their patience with the PhD - not in a bad way but just by saying - Have you not finished that yet? When will you get it finished? Why haven't you finished? It could be challenging when you were at a difficult phase of your research or when things weren't going the right way. There were many times where I thought - maybe I have got it wrong here and these questions would feed the doubt. But you have to see past it and be focused on your own journey and doing what feels right for you. I didn't do it for money or a promotion - there are far easier ways to do that.
Day-to-day life: consistency is key
Your postgraduate thesis, dissertation or whatever you are doing is a culmination of lots of little things built up over time. I always think of olympic athletes in this sense. You watch them on race day as they take the gold medal. Yet, by the time race day comes that gold medal-winning athlete has done all of the preparation. What the crowd didn't see was the first training session which took place four years ago when it was a cold, wet, 6am morning and the many 6ams after that. So the same rules apply to postgraduate study... you should be taking little steps and often. That means making a little bit of progress each day. Some days will be easier than others where you will simply write a section of work in one quick sitting and other times you will be too tired to type a single word. In that case focus on a task that requires a little less brain power - tweaking tables, preparing data, reading an article, making your thesis pages aesthetically pleasing (another particular favourite of mine). Those little tasks mount up - completing each of these is one less thing to do with the thesis later down the line. As long as you are doing something every day (no matter how small) you won't lose momentum.
There is more to come on this but if you are just starting out in your part-time study then remember these experiences are common - it's just part of the deal.