My top tips as a part-time PhD student…

…by Sarah / from the United Kingdom / PhD Neuroscience / 1st Year

I was recently on a training course as the only part-time student, and was asked ‘You can do that? But how?’? As someone who chose to do their Masters degree part time, I knew I wanted to do a part time PhD. Having worked straight after my undergraduate I was used to having a salary, but also to the structure that a 9-5 job provides. I’ve found I’m more focused when I have less time to do a job in- I’m a fantastic procrastinator otherwise!

I’m a year into my PhD with up to 6 years to complete, and whilst it’s taken a few months to properly settle into a pattern I’m pleased with the work/study balance I’ve developed. I’m sure this will change over the course of the PhD and I’ll be interested to compare my top tips in my final year to these.

1. Be selfish on your study days

Everyone will have a different pattern to their PhD, regardless of whether you and full and part time. When you have found the regular time in your week that you will be able to dedicate to your PhD, be that Monday to Friday 9-5 or the weekend, selfishly guard that for yourself. When I first started studying I felt guilty if I wasn’t available on emails at all times. What I’ve learnt is that I can give my best to my job when I’m not stressed about my PhD, and I’m not stressed about my PhD if I’ve been able to fully commit to it on my study days. And the world doesn’t end if that email isn’t answered immediately!

2. Work out when and where you are most effective

I’ve done some excellent time management courses through the Institute for Academic Development here in Edinburgh and really understand now why I like to be in my PhD office around 7.30 but can’t bear to look at a paper after 4pm- my peak time hits first thing in the morning, and its down-hill from there on! On my PhD days I’m free to plan my time as I like (by and large) so I’ve started to block time in the morning for reading, something I find nearly impossible to do effectively in the afternoon. I’ve only been doing this for a few weeks but I’ve already found I have a much better grasp on the literature because I’ve been able to fully take in the papers I’ve been reading, rather than skimming them with coffee number 5 in hand at the end of the day.

3. Take as many training opportunities as you can

It can sometimes be difficult to justify using one of your allocated days to go on a training course, but I would really recommend identifying and attending as many training opportunities as you can. I’ve got a list of the courses I want to attend, and when it makes most sense in the PhD journey to go to them. This way I can normally find a way to fit in the training days on my assigned PhD days or can switch a work day if needed. One of the greatest things about these days is meeting other people- something that I think you can easily miss out on as a part time PhD student who doesn’t join with a cohort of other students.

4. Appreciate the break your work and life give you

I’ve read lots of blogs about the overwhelming nature of a PhD. And I’m sure I won’t be immune from this and will experience it at some point. Currently I find having to split my time between the PhD and work days actually helps me to manage this well. There is a limited amount of time I can spend on my PhD because of working alongside it, and that for me is really beneficial. I also make sure I make time every week to go to the gym and use my bus commutes to catch up on a good book.

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