I have experience of working with a few full-time students, but I am now faced with the prospect of advising a part-time student for the first time. To gain insights into this unique scenario, I sought the opinions of some colleagues. Their response was that the success of a part-time student with a full-time job largely depends on the individual's commitment. While this makes sense, I am interested in learning if there are specific pieces of advice to ensure such a student's success. Particularly, when funding is not provided, what level of commitment can I reasonably expect from them?

1 Answer 1


From The Student's Side

Having been in nearly this situation when I was pursuing my doctorate, I can answer this from the perspective of one student. In my case, I was working half time in a technical job and researching half time. Somehow this ended up feeling like working two full time jobs.

On the topic of commitment, everyone is different. I saw fellow students with even heavier burdens than mine succeed along with me. I saw fellow students with comparatively light burdens crash and burn, despite some pretty direct Advisor warnings and fellow student interventions. Do not generalize.

In general: Nearly everything boils down to the management of and expectations about time, which is now an even more scarce resource. Nearly everything else boils down to the management of exhaustion, which is the natural result of not having enough time for multiple years.

Beyond that, some brief but more specific thoughts, on the operating assumption they will be working in academia for 20 hours a week:

  • You should probably have an up front and very blunt (not hostile, of course, but very blunt) conversation about how many hours per week this student intends to be working on academic activities, and what (if any) understanding and accommodation they receive from their employer.

    • You may not need to discuss it (you'll freak your student out) but you should be aware in the back of your mind that these arrangements are often worked out with direct supervisors, or maybe one layer above. But org charts can change quickly, your student will have exactly zero control over it, and the consequence of this is that arrangements can get changed involuntarily.
  • You should probably have another up front and direct conversation about scheduling and planning for the long term. It's not reasonable to come up with a complete research outline for the length of a PhD over the course of one or two meetings. But you should pretty quickly work out an idea of how many publications are necessary, and how that's going to fit into radically different work schedule.

  • You should also-- and this is somewhat fraught, for someone you don't know very well-- sanity check the weekly time commitments your student is suggesting. You have nothing to go on but your own experience, but if your student is promising 20 hours a week, every week, on top of a 40 hour per week job, now is the time to think about whether that is feasible over the length of a degree that may take twice as long as usual.

    • On that note, personal experience tells me that unless your student's doctoral research is directly related to their day to day activities, their mental efficiency will go down not only due to fatigue, but also due to regular task switching.

    • You probably can't discuss this directly, but you'll be unable to avoid thinking about it at some point: If this degree goes for ten years, a reasonable time commitment at age 30 might seem a lot less reasonable at age 40.

  • If your program or research requires a lot of time on campus (either due to classes, or due to access to labs or other facilities on campus) you'll both need to figure out how to deal with that.

  • Collaboration, my personal Achilles Heel. If your program requires, or encourages a lot of collaboration, your student may have difficulties.

    • First, if they're rarely on campus, that makes it hard to get to know people, and to coordinate, although this is less of a problem now than 15 or 20 years ago.

    • Second, if you only have half as much time to work as everyone else, you work only half as fast, almost by definition. A collaboration that takes only 10 hours a week becomes an incredible commitment for someone working only 20 hours a week. And while a young 20-something grad student can suck it up and work 50 hours a week for a while, a 35-year old grad student who's been pulling sixties for the last five years solid might break down in tears at the thought of going seventy for a few months. Not to mention the psychological fear of being that guy that needs to be carried through collaborations or group projects.

  • That second point generalizes to, well, everything. But especially administrivia and non-research activities. You cannot let your student run open loop. But every meeting you ask your student to attend looms twice as large in their schedule.

  • If your university has a maximum time limit for doctoral work, you should probably find out immediately how rigid that policy is, and if exceptions can and will be made for someone in this student's position. My heart almost came out of my mouth the first time I was asked to file for an extension.

  • Your student probably lacks the experience to recognize this up front, but the time crunch will probably affect their appetite for risk in their research. Almost everyone swings and misses at some point and realizes maybe they tossed four months of their life in a hole in the ground. Except your student just tossed eight months. This is an area where I think you may really need to monitor them to make sure they're not spending too much time in high risk or low payoff activities. To be sure, this is one of the fundamental issues of learning at all level, but it is critical for researchers and may become acute here.

  • Conferences can be a thorny issue, too. On the one hand, you don't want to deny your student the conference experience and the pleasure of presenting their own work and making connections with other researchers. But your student will probably be burning their own vacation hours in order to get time off work. This means they get even fewer opportunities to take real vacations through the year to rest and recharge.

And this is all off the top of my head. Not all of these come with concrete recommendations. What worked for me only worked barely and (don't generalize) may not work for others. Your student, like me, will probably only realize these things when they get smacked in the face by them. Overall, I would suggest you try to bear all these in mind, try not to be overwhelmingly negative, and try to work pro-actively with your student to manage these issues.

The bottom line is, you and I and your students have all run academic marathons. This student is going to be strapping on ankle weights first.

It can be done. I am proof, and I am not the only one. But is not trivial.

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