Personal, social and disciplinary connectors: the part-time, long-haul supervisor

Dr Jon Rainford works on the margins between academic and professional services. He currently works as a freelance researcher, part-time lecturer and works with academics to develop their use of digital pedagogy. He tweets @jonrainford

I was recently asked to write a blog with my ideas for success in part-time doctoral research over on the Patter blog led by Prof. Pat Thomson. Having completed a part-time PhD examining widening participation policy and practices in 2019, I now feel I have enough distance to share some of these insights. Knowing my own experiences can only be partial, I wanted to get a sense from others on Twitter through a Virtual Not Viral Tweetchat (#26 here), as to the challenges they faced or the concerns they might have about their own doctoral journeys.

From my discussions I have pulled together some of the themes, and my own experiences, to set out what this could mean for the supervisors of part-time doctorates.  One of the key elements to my own PhD success was the supervision relationship, so I thought it was a good chance to share what made this positive for me in the hope that it can support the supervisors of part-time candidates.

The part-time doctorate often happens later in life, with the majority of part time postgraduate research students being over 30. This can bring in complexities of caring, work and professional life, and given it may take up to seven years to complete, there is more potential for outside challenges to impact upon the process. Despite this, advice for part-time candidates is more scarce in the literature despite nearly 4000 of the 25,000 doctorates being awarded in 2018-19 to part-time students. This may also mean that those supervising part-time candidates have no direct experience of the complexity it can add to the process, and find good resources on the matter hard to find.

This complexity can also bring benefits positive and often these candidates bring with them a wealth of skills especially in managing competing demands. Nonetheless, it is likely their priorities and ambitions may be distinct from full-time doctoral researchers and understanding this is important for a positive supervisory relationship.  I focus in this piece on my top three key ideas for supervisors to consider. As always, the caveat is that no group of students is homogenous and that understanding what works for your individual students is important. 

Empathy

My supervisory relationship was in many ways the perfect match. Having also completed her doctorate part-time as a mature student, I felt my supervisor understood many of the unique challenges that juggling major life events, work commitments and the doctorate itself presented. This does not mean that you need to have been a part-time doctoral researcher to be able to supervise one, but an understanding that the process may be more complex than the average full-time student is vital. Firstly, the time period is likely to be double of that of the full-time student. This means there is the potential for more life events to happen, and so more obstacles to overcome. Acknowledging this early in the process and offering reassurance is key. Knowing that my supervisor understood the complexity made me more open to discussion early on when life events did happen and made me focus on what could be achieved as opposed to worrying about the deadline I might miss or getting a week out on my initial research plan which really did not matter in the grand scheme of things.

Make them feel part of a community

Isolation and lack of a support network is often a common concern of part-time students. In some ways cohort focused study such as in EdDs or part-time PhDs with a taught component can help with this. Even for programmes without this, providing opportunities to help nurture these relationships will be useful. This can be done physically and virtually to enable candidates to share their experiences. This is important, especially when they may not have shared offices like full-time researchers. Also try to ensure where there are departmental gatherings and seminars, these are planned at times that are most accessible and with plenty of advance notice. It is easy for part-time researchers to feel out of sight, and out of mind so even if they may not be able to attend, knowing they are welcome is important to feeling part of the department. 

It is also important to offer guidance and support to your doctoral researchers on finding their disciplinary networks. Being part-time may constrain the number of events they can attend but connections through social media can provide a valuable lifeline. Twitter was invaluable for me in this process, especially when I had to miss out on key conferences due to work. Knowing others who were attending often enabled me to gain useful insights I would have missed otherwise. This is a particular issue in universities where part-time study is the exception. If you have a number of researchers in your department or research centre, consider encouraging the use of social media groups, recorded materials, or a Twitter hashtag to help them stay connected with others and to share relevant information between them. In fact, it was through the hashtag initiated to connect part-time EdD researchers by Dr Katy Vigurs at Stafford (now at Birmingham City University) (@drkatyvigurs) that I ended up on the programme I did. Something she has reflected upon more deeply in her article on the use of twitter to tackle the peripherality of part-time experiences.

Know the big picture and help them to build towards it

For many part-time doctoral researchers, understandably the focus is on completion of the thesis. As most supervisors know, this is only a part of the journey and certainly for those candidates aiming towards academia, publications and conferences are likely to be important elements of the doctorate. This does not mean you need to create extra work, but help them to build these into their project plans and show how they can be stepping-stones towards the thesis. Many part-time researchers will be wary of taking on additional commitments whilst they are juggling jobs, their thesis and life. As a supervisor you can help reduce anxiety in this area by showing how publication opportunities can actually be a seamless part of the process. Supporting these opportunities also provides for some short-term tangible achievements which are important when the end of goal the thesis is often in the distant future. For example, blogging can be a great way to help them develop writing skills and to share their ongoing work with an academic audience. There can be both challenges and opportunities created my making these reflections public but seeing tangible outputs when the thesis is a distant goal can really help motivation. Collective blogs across the student body can also be a useful way to do this in a more controlled and collective manner and may be worth considering.

I hope these are useful points for consideration. Your comments are welcome, help us continue this discussion of the part time experience.

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