Part-time research students: recognising differing priorities and the need for connection

This is a guest post by Ros Beaumont, a Lecturer working in Academic and Researcher Development, at Newcastle University. Tweets @RosBeaumont. This article is presented with thanks to Dr Gail de Blaquiere and Hanh Pho.

A person standing alone in a field juggles three balls.

A tension exists between the individual endeavour of a student research project and the notion of being in a research community – the need to learn independently, and also to engage with others to understand what it is to be a researcher in a discipline or institution. This is particularly true for those who identify as part-time research students, as the time spent on ‘research’ is more fragmented and elongated than those whose main focus is in their research programme. 

I speak from experience – apart from my first degree, all my qualifications have been done part-time whilst working full or part-time. For me, there is something exciting about learning new things part-time as this ‘part-timeness’ affords more time to digest, think, and incorporate my learning into my professional and personal life, as well as into the course of study or research. But it can be hard to keep all those plates spinning. Throw in a few ‘life events’ and responsibilities, and over a prolonged time period, it can be a real slog, and not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, part-timers are those to be admired, with the tenacity and resourcefulness to press on and get stuff done. 

How can we, as researcher developers, best support and enable part-timers during their years as research students? 

A few years ago, as a result of my personal experience and professional expertise, I was invited to convene part time (PT) focused workshops for research students at my institution. Notably, numbers were always small but always enthusiastic. It encouraged me to explore the small but growing area of interest around ‘PT-ness’ in postgraduate HE. Neumann and Rodwell (2009) reported that part‐time research graduates are less satisfied with the infrastructure support provided, and have a less favourable perception of the research climate of their department, than full‐time research students. Our project builds on the work of Edwards (2010) concerning the need for a greater focus on the personal and emotional elements of the part-time doctoral experience, and how face-to-face and digital technology can complement each other for PT learners (O’Regan, 2020). In this post, I want to share some themes and implications which arose from these workshops and the subsequent cross-faculty research project into part-time research students which I co-led in 2019-20.

Recognising differing priorities and valuing expertise

From our survey and focus groups, we could appreciate that whilst our PT student respondents had an emerging identity as a ‘researcher’, it was not necessarily the most prominent voice due to their additional roles such as teachers, clinicians, businesspeople, parents, carers, etc. Being a research student was a relatively small part of who they were, compared with full time research students. Consequently, they may not have had specific or allocated research time when they can come to campus, and even if they did, it may not be when campus-based events were taking place. Instead, what they often did was to fit their work into any empty time slot they could find in their lives. In this context, with research taking up a relatively smaller part of their lives, students tended to prioritise ‘doing’ the research over engaging with training provision, even when the provision could assist their research or provide other support. Also, as many were in their 30s or older, their pre-existing experience and expertise could make some of the career-focused researcher development provision seem redundant. Thus, the provision offered needed to be seen to be valuable and relevant to merit the time spent (particularly that which is deemed essential or mandatory by the institution or funding body); and needed to be advertised well in advance to make it possible to engage. 

Planning for flexible access and engagement

Our research also suggested that when there was a desire to engage in training and development activities, provision needed to be offered in different formats. For example, a session on time management provided on campus on a weekday, wasn’t deemed very accessible for students working or living away from campus, or the timing made it difficult for those with childcare or other responsibilities. As one survey respondent stated, ‘anything that requires a particular time is difficult’. These findings were supported by Rudinow Sætnan’s (2020) work, looking at graduate students’ motivations for participating in development workshops,  and pointed to a need for a more flexible approachin which taught provision is offered synchronously and asynchronously, both on campus, and at a distance, and enabled students to take a more individualised route.

Enabling connection and community

The project findings highlighted a feeling that they didn’t always have easy access to a group of peers, and in some instances, this led to feelings of isolation, with the majority of their communication and relationships being with their supervisory team, and professional services staff. Dr Nicole brown’s post on her PT experience and Dr Jon Rainford’s recent piece  on the social side of the part time doctoral experience, resonated with our participants’ responses, as they too reported missing out on the casual ‘kitchen’ chats between peers. Those who attended the PT workshops stated that they enjoyed the interactions with other PT-ers, irrespective of discipline areas, as they could understand the notion of ‘part-timeness’ and the need to juggle priorities, especially those with few other PT-ers on their programme. 

Exploring this in our project, there was a strong sense that whilst the social aspects were valued, organised interactions needed to have additional purpose to been seen as worthwhile  e.g. exploring and sharing aspects of the research process, signposting resources, or developing professional networks. There was support for occasional campus-based or online synchronous events, and an asynchronous online space for ongoing discussions. 

As a consequence of the project, we decided to increase the visibility of PT-ers in our faculty-level provision through targeted induction and networking events, in addition to revising existing PT and mainstream provision. We’re also exploring what kind of peer-led community would be useful and sustainable. We are keen to hear what others are doing – please get in touch, or leave a comment below.

Finally, a note on Covid-19: As my institution continues to make efforts to connect with their research students, some part-timers have anecdotally reported that they are feeling more involved with their Schools or Faculties as both formal and informal events are now being held online and are easier to access. A small but important positive to hold on to in future.

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