The unplanned but supported part-time DPsych experience – how to foster belonging and becoming in part time doctoral students

Dr Lindsey Burns is the Director of the Professional Doctorate in Health Psychology at GCU. Dr Richard Golsworthy is the Director of the Professional Doctorate in Counselling Psychology at GCU, and Dr Paul McCarthy is the Director of the Professional Doctorate in Sport and Exercise Psychology at GCU. All three are HCPC registered Practitioner Psychologists and Chartered Psychologists with the British Psychological Society. Together their three programmes form the Applied Psychology Doctoral Framework at GCU. 

A colourful painted jigsaw puzzle mural with pieces all fitted together, adorns a brick wall.
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

The Applied Psychology Doctoral Framework at GCU

In our department we have three taught doctoral programmes which sit within our Applied Psychology Doctoral Framework (ADPF): Counselling Psychology, Sport & Exercise Psychology and Health Psychology. Given that around 80% of the Health and Care Professions Council Standards of Proficiency are shared across the Psychology domains, a substantial amount of teaching is shared across the three programmes with smaller proportions of domain-specific teaching within each. This approach has let us create programmes where trainees in different domains can learn with and from each other. 

Our intention is that they can start to really create a sense of identity around their own domain-specific profession using their knowledge both of what makes them a practitioner psychologist (the shared aspects) and what makes them a Health Psychologist, Counselling Psychologist or Sport & Exercise Psychologist (the domain specific aspects). 

Another positive point about our APDF is that trainees become part of a large, diverse cohort. For the Health Psychology and Sport & Exercise Psychology programmes in particular, this means that instead of being a very small cohort of 6 other trainees with whom they shared their doctoral pathway, they become part a cohort of more than 30. While we think of this as a very positive quality, facilitating a sense of belonging and community, we also think it can sometimes be trickier for those trainees who move to a part-time mode of training. 

Losing a sense of belonging

For the APDF we don’t recruit into a part-time study route, so there is no option to do the ADPF programmes entirely part-time. What we do offer though is the opportunity to switch to part-time study after the first year, if life circumstances change to a degree that means progressing full-time is no longer possible or desirable. While this helps trainees to manage their work/life balance and to progress with their chosen career path it can also bring potential problems that we need to help them navigate. For example, having shared the training experience with colleagues, both in their domain-specific group and the wider APDF cohort, they suddenly find themselves more isolated and without the same social support that can be so vital to the perceptions and experiences of, training (van Gijn-Grosvenor & Huisman, 2020). Added to this is the necessity of seeing the people who were their peers and their support group progress while they stay in the same year of study potentially feeling left behind. Finally, if trainees choose to return to full-time study, they need to be able to integrate within an existing cohort who they have not known from the beginning.

From a Programme Lead perspective there are also some oddities associated with the part-time route. There is no option to do individual modules part-time so instead trainees take half the modules one year and the remaining modules the next. This means that the programmes can sometimes seem less coherent in structure, with the integration of theory, practice and research competencies required on a BPS-accredited and HCPC-approved programmes not as clear cut as in the full-time programmes.

How to promote belonging to facilitate becoming

So, what can we do as PLs to help trainees who make these transitions, and how can we maintain that sense of academic and practice coherence for those who make the switch to a part-time route? Although all GCU programmes have certain support mechanisms in place such as part-time contracts of learning and personal tutors, we do not feel these go far enough. The circumstances that result in the switch to part-time study sometimes needs more discussion and consideration than these support mechanisms can sustain. 

We think that the key extra element is to help trainees maintain a sense of belonging and community within the programme. Helping students feel part of something bigger than themselves can impact positively on student progression (Vigurs, 2016) so as Programme Leads we look for ways to facilitate this.  We want to ensure they do not perceive themselves as peripheral but are instead able to fully participate in a wider learning community (Vigurs 2016). 

There are several ways we have tried to do this. Part-time tutorial meetings are one example, some of which can be peer-led and some involving a staff member. These foster connections between those within a part-time stage, especially where different trainees might not have been part of the same prior cohort and so not known to one another. A further example is that trainees maintain the same research supervisor throughout their study so that is an existing and ongoing relationship that can help give a sense of belonging and progress.

Interestingly, the changes necessitated by Covid have also in some ways helped with providing opportunities to make all trainees feel involved (Mavengere, Henriksen-Bulmer et al, 2021). Our Year 1 trainees were geographically disparate and found the entirely online environment a difficult medium through which to form a community of practice and really get to know each other as trainees and us as staff. This mirrored the issues for trainees who study part time and really highlighted for us the need to address this. Setting up a ‘Sharing Good Practice’ group within MS Teams gave the trainees somewhere to share information, to meet and discuss practice, research, and their own individual interests within their domain of practice. They have arranged synchronous sessions around for example, how best to work with particular client groups and how to maintain professional records. 

Supporting individual group members to interact with each and share knowledge has been suggested to build a sense of belonging (Li et al, 2009). We hope the creation of this Team has gone some way towards establishing that sense of belonging and to allowing part time students to learn through relationships that is such an important part of any doctoral journey (Leonard et al, 2006). We are hopeful for the future that we could expand this, and that trainees can use it to maintain a network of trainee and qualified Practitioner Psychologists that includes full-time and part-time trainees giving them a sense of belonging and facilitating their becoming fully qualified Practitioner Psychologists. 

Three key things we can do to increase a sense of belonging:

  1. Talk openly and honestly with students about their experiences rather than assume we know what they are experiencing.
  2. Encourage discussion and debate within larger groups of students to create a sense of community and professional development.
  3. Be willing to step out of the formal programme leader role and foster a network of support. We need to think compassionately about students and their sense of belonging within the constraints of approved and accredited programmes. 

Any further ideas on how we do this are most welcome in the comments.


Kember, D., Lee, K., & Li, N. (2001). Cultivating a sense of belonging in part-time students. International Journal of Lifelong Education20(4), 326–341.

Leonard, D., Metcalfe, J., Becker, R., and Evans, J. (2006) Review of the literature on the doctoral experience for the Higher Education Academy. Cambridge: Institute of Education and UK GRAD Programme.

Li, L.C., Grimshaw, J.M., Nielsen, C. et al. (2009) Evolution of Wenger’s concept of community of practice. Implementation Sci 4, 11.

Mavengere, N., Henriksen-Bulmer, J., Passmore, D., Mayes, H., Fakorede, O., Coles, M. and Atfield-Cutts, S., (2021) Applying Innovative Technologies and Practices in the Rapid Shift to Remote Learning. Communications of the Association for Information Systems48, 24–.

van Gijn-Grosvenor, E., & Huisman, P. (2020). A sense of belonging among Australian university students. Higher Education Research and Development39(2), 376–389.

Vigurs, K. (2016). Using Twitter to tackle peripherality?: Facilitating networked scholarship for part-time doctoral students within and beyond the university. Fusion Journal8, 1–22.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: