It’s a marathon, not a sprint: a part-time PhD is the ultimate endurance race


Turns out I like studying, I’ve been studying part-time my whole adult life, whilst working full-time and balancing everything else.

Acquiring new knowledge, developing ideas and new understanding about the world around us is exciting, empowering and useful. Right now, I’m writing up my PhD thesis that I embarked upon part-time whilst working as a full-time Lecturer. "It's a marathon, not a sprint" was the sage advice many academic colleagues gave me when I started. “Treat it like a job, don’t let yourself get burnt out”. But hang on I thought, I’ve already got a job?!? It was certainly a challenge to balance the demands of these two time-hungry roles. Something I couldn't have done without the unflinching support of my friends, family, and colleagues. But then there was the unthinking colleague who muttered under his breath about how “he’d have LOVED to do his doctorate part-time” as if this was somehow the soft option, the easy way to do it. He clearly just doesn’t know.

Because the truth is ...... Part-time study is hard, your time and your mental energy are divided. Competing priorities make undertaking any study whilst also managing a demanding home life or challenging job almost impossible. The hardest thing about part-time study is the time it takes. It sounds obvious, but if you’re only studying part of the time, it takes a hell of a lot longer to finish. You spend so much longer working at ‘optimum stretch’, with no wiggle room and no margin for error. It’s no wonder so many of us get ill or burn out. But you’re also much more likely to experience big life events. During the 6 years I have been undertaking my part-time PhD I’ve moved to a new house, got married, had 2 children, and supported family members through difficult illnesses. Is that terribly bad luck? no. It’s life, and with each new life event, another short gap in your studies opens up, and the final submission moves further and yet further away.

Yet, thousands of people do it, every year. Year in and year out, achieving the seemingly impossible they study part-time. Part-time night courses at their local FE college, part-time degrees, postgraduate qualifications, MBA's, distance learning through the Open University and yes, even part-time PhD’s. Yes, given the right resources and opportunities I sure would have loved a pop at a full-time PhD (typically 3-4 years study in the UK). But like many, I haven't had those chances, but I have chosen and continue to choose to study part-time. It might be harder fought, but I've had the opportunity to really think about my research. To reflect and learn from the things revealed within my data. To watch my area of interest, grow and develop, that extra time has also given me a chance to grow alongside my understanding. The depth of learning achieved part-time is often worth the wait. So, next time someone tells you they're studying part-time, remember they are not taking the soft option. They are the elite athlete, juggling it all and running not just a marathon but a long-distance endurance race.

2 thoughts on “It’s a marathon, not a sprint: a part-time PhD is the ultimate endurance race”

  1. Yes certainly a highly tuned athletic juggler comes to mind. Full time lecturing job, three children, husband, family and last of all of course myself. Certainly not the soft option or the easy way through. I fill every bus ride reading an article, every waiting in the car to pick up the kids a chance to reflect but on the positive side, and yes there is one, my family give me the breathing space to let my head make sense of my research. They are my incubation process and through the joyous moments I have with them I am not only recharging my batteries but solving my research problems. It’s an incredibly rich, thick and challenging time which I wade through. Good luck to all part-timers. We can do it!

  2. Thanks for this great post. As a fellow part-time student, l see myself in all that you say except for two key areas that are often over-looked.

    The first is that l, like many others in employment, have multiple work roles, mainly zero hour contracts. As a result, one is typically juggling these as well as the anxiety about whether there will be more work in future, immediate and longer terms. Zero hour contract work also tends to be labour intensive with relative low rates of pay. As a result, the PhD process becomes even more expensive as not only do fees have to be paid but so does everything else. As a part-time student there is no help with fees, transport or anything much else. This impacts the degree to which you can fully engage with the research community. It is tough especially if like me you choose to explore something outside the UK. Thanks goodness for the small allowance we get at my research centre and the opportunity to apply for funds through the Doctoral College Global Engagement Fund.

    The other aspect is age! Not to be ageist or anything but l am XX!! That means that l get tired more quickly than l used to. There are many days when having juggled multiple work roles, family, household matters etc l am completely exhausted and l’d be hard pushed to even remember my own name. That is my almost daily reality.

    A long distance endurance race for sure with many more obstacles and challenges to overcome than one might expect. But l remain hopeful and am plodding along. I will get to the end as l explore my passion which is how leaders in public service are developed.

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