4

The general question: If someone has commitments and constraints which make working full-time on site in a University impractical, is it possible for them to have a research career?

If it is possible, are there practical limitations which will make the possibility infeasible in the majority of cases, and therefore, sadly, they shouldn't bother heading into academia?

I understand that, depending on field and supervisor, part-time and hybrid-remote PhDs are available in the UK, but I am interested in postdoc possibilities/limitations too.

Specifics to my circumstances: I am coming to the end of my computing (software) Bachelor's with the Open University. I am a mature, married student in my early 30s. I have been studying part-time and working remotely as a software dev part-time. I am very interested in computing research (AI/ML and programming language interests) and I am weighing up options about my future.

Here are the constraints on my options:

  1. My wife is disabled and I have care responsibilities. Meaning that it would be best for me to work 3-4 days a week, rather than full-time. I am able to occasionally increase the intensity of my work to more hours, but not for extended periods.

  2. My wife and I are very settled where we live, in Lincolnshire, UK. We have lived here for 10 years and have a house with a mortgage. We have good friends locally and are close to family, including aging parents. This means that it is extremely unlikely that we would relocate for my work, preferring for me to commute if required.

  • On the plus side we live 1 to 1.5 hours from 6-7 good universities.

Is someone in a position like mine simply not suited to an academic career?

9
  • 1
    I would say that (1) the UK/European system without classes would help, and (2) CS would seem more ideal than experimental physics. That helps on the getting-the-degree side. Then having a 'research career' is the next problem.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 29 at 22:06
  • I am quite sure there are special agreements for people caring for family member with disabilities.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 30 at 8:34
  • @JonCuster the local HPC infrastructure of a small department may be a huge workstation that requires a physical push to a button to restart it, while the CERN works pretty well without most of the people touching it ... just saying :D !
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 30 at 8:45
  • Could you please clarify, as it's not clear from your question. You say you're finishing your undergrad in computing, and are interested in computing research, but are inquiring about postdocs. Are you asking about a possibility of getting a postdoc now, or are you asking as part of your potential career path?
    – penelope
    Jan 30 at 10:45
  • 2
    Only do a PhD if it has utility to you even in the absence of a subsequent academic career. That is because it is overwhelmingly unlikely that a given PhD student will have an academic career regardless of circumstances. Jan 31 at 3:10

4 Answers 4

8

I am an academic at one of those 6-7 Universities close to your current location (most probably, the closest one -- and we have some great PhD programmes in AI just starting ;) ).

While we were only trialling some of the practices you ask about a few years back, I can confirm that especially now after COVID, a lot of flexible arrangements have become standard which might be what you're looking for:

  • Remote working:

    Most academics work from home at least 1 day a week (many do it more often, I personally like the home-office separation, and it's just a 20 minute walk, so I come in on most days). Most students and PDRAs (postdocs), likewise, don't come in every single day (and some have taken to working at various places around the campus).

    I know of at least two academics and one PDRA who live objectively far (think 2h+ on a train), and work mostly remotely, coming in anywhere between once a week and once a month. As far as I'm aware, that PDRA and his advisor are very happy (working) together. I asked my own remote PhD student to come in at least once a week, and most weeks he opts to come in thrice instead.

  • Part-time work:

    For PhDs, I've seen a few arrangements where the students either take a small "side-job" (usually a tech-type position within the Uni) for 10-20% of their time (so, effectively, 1 day a week), and we have encouraged some PhD students to explore 50% positions on research projects in the school (so, they work 50% on their PhD and 50% on a separate project). I personally don't know of any PhD students who started at 50-80%, but it's not that big of a stretch to imagine it.

    For PDRA positions, this becomes a bit trickier: usually the funding for such a position is part of a time-bound (2-3 years) project, which has budgeted for a whole person and is counting on that person to deliver within a timeframe. This means that hiring you at less than 100% would require getting another person to cover the rest, which could be tricky.

    I can imagine a way around that for PDRA: if you are on very good terms with your PhD advisor, you may try to engage in some grant proposal writing with them well before the end of your PhD (say, 2/3 thru). This will not only help your future academic career, but also will allow them to tailor the project proposal to you, specifically budgeting for a person at e.g. 70% FTE. (Having a named researcher in a project proposal is actually seen favourably, so this has mutual benefits).

  • Staying on at the same institution:

    In my opinion, we have always kept our postdocs here too long. Some excellent advice I got before my first postdoc was to leave after 2-3 years: you don't have that much to gain from your host institution after that time (but you continue to benefit them). And I can absolutely understand that many people chose otherwise, due to many valid reasons, but if most of the postdocs in the lab have been around for 4+ years, something is off. Doing your postdoc elsewhere has the benefit of showing you can collaborate with different people and switch research focus; and generally makes your profile stronger. It can be overcome with stellar work anywhere, but I think you will need to compensate somehow.

    This was particularly a problem as we didn't tend to hire internally into our academic ranks -- it was unheard of here when I started as a postdoc 7 years ago. However, there has been quite a bit of a change over the last few years -- after all, I am now here as an academic, and I can point to at least half a dozen of internal hires in the last few years.

  • Mature students:

    I think the "typical" 20-something year old PhD student is no longer as typical (I read some stats about it a few years back, but don't have them at hand). I've worked with students older than myself, and with students essentially going through a similar life stage to myself, and returnees to academia. Personally, I've had amazing experiences: usually, they have a much clearer idea of what they want, and a better work ethic.

With all this said, I will reiterate what some of the other answers touched on: landing a (permanent) academic position is difficult. Every little bit of advantage helps: mobility, collaborations, involvement in funding (plus a great publication record, and good presentation skills), and frankly just timing and luck (a lot of UK Universities recently announced financial setbacks/challenges, including mine; and there is currently a hiring freeze in effect for academic posts). I have personally seen people successfully complete the steps which may be a part of your (desired) career path -- it is possible.

However, for everything to work out for you, you'll need some 'stars to align', and likely more effort than if you had less restrictions. I think I personally still kept the 'chasing the stars' attitude, and I think it's what got me here -- so I would always encourage you to try. But, it might be a good idea to look at what options (other than staying in academia) might be your alternatives if some of the steps don't pan out. Keep in mind -- obtaining a PhD is more than just a fun excursion into research land, even if you don't stay in academia -- many tech companies nowadays have research (or R&D) positions which offer interesting, challenging (and often better-paid) work.

1
  • Thank you for sharing your experience! It is good to know that hybrid and remote work is not unusual. The info about PDRA positions is very useful. It seems that being proactive about creating opportunities will be necessary in my situation. I checked your profile and it looks like you (like me) prefer anonymity on Stack Exchange, so I can neither confirm nor deny that your institution is the closest 😅, but I have seen PhDs advertised on local university websites, so I'm sure yours are listed there also! Maybe we will meet when I start contacting academics directly. Jan 30 at 22:43
4

I'll add another voice, as I am also probably at one of those 5-6 universities within 1-1.5 hours drive.

Part time PDRA positions are far from uncommon. I am on at least 3 research projects where the PDRA is 4 days or less. 4 days is generally fine - a 3 year grant generally has 3 FTE of PDRA on it, and you need to demonstrate that you have hired someone for 2.7 FTE at the end of the grant. As 4 days a week is 2.4 FTE this isn't a problem, and might mean that money is available for a no cost extension at the end of the grant.

Remote working is less common for us, but that is because it is a lab based discipline.

2

It's good to know up front some statistics about the academic job market. One estimate is that less than 1% of PhD graduates will become a professor - see this answer for more info.

Another issue for you will be that once you are specialized, there will be a limited number of postdoc jobs that match your skills and expertise. For most PhD holders, getting a postdoc means moving.

About full-time / part-time: many professors expect PhD students to be working long hours, so if there is a choice between someone who is younger who will work full-time plus some evenings / weekends, versus someone who will work 4 days a week, I expect that they will choose the person who works more. If you were to bring your own funding, however, then they would not have to choose. I know of two people who did part-time PhDs in the UK, and they both started as full-time and moved to part-time after at least a year. They also had to fight to get it.

If you really want to go for it, I would suggest you look up academics at the 6-7 universities you mention. Find people whose work interests you, read some papers, and ask for a chat with them.

4
  • "so if there is a choice between someone who is younger who will work full-time plus some evenings / weekends, versus someone who will work 4 days a week." Although many professors think they are the top of the top of the smartness, they never heard or even worse understood the concepts of "diminishing returns" or "productivity" and they are stuck in a Taylorian world of "efficency". How bad.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 30 at 8:52
  • Thanks for your answer. I don't expect special treatment just because of my circumstances, so if a professor really wants more than I can give, I have no problem shaking their hand and wishing them all the best in their search. I would hope (and search) for a professor who appreciates the benefits of a strong, experienced remote worker who is used to meeting deadlines and delivering results without micromanagement. I believe these, as well as interpersonal and public speaking skills, developed outside of formal education, can be real assets that research groups may well be looking for. Jan 30 at 11:35
  • I appreciate the point about bringing your own funding in a postdoc scenario, that is a good point. Jan 30 at 11:37
  • 2
    I think I will contact local academics, as you suggested. I also believe that my university offers careers advice meetings, so I may arrange a meeting with the OU too. Jan 30 at 11:45
2

I am quite sure there are local and national agreements for people caring for family member with disabilities, but for this you need to inform yourself.

Unless you are physically bound to performing experiments in a specific lab infrastructure, a career in research done working remotely is possible.

As a postdoc, ideally you have to care about your own fundings and therefore you have to arrange your working schedule to meet deadlines/reports/deliverables. Regarding the postdoc position openings already funded, the scarcity of postdoc positions does not imply that the most flexible person will get easily the position, quite on the contrary, the potential employer is ready to make some compromise to accept the best candidate that can start working on the position as soon as possible (usually).

Doing a bit of speculation, if there are two equal candidates applying for a 1-2 years postdoc position at University of Manchester, working remotely for University of Manchester from Linconlshire it may be preferrable to a candidate from Australia that will move to live in Manchester for the position. Yes, the candidate from Australia has more options available since they can apply in the whole world.

Of course there is always the looming Damocle's sword "What will you do after your postdoc".

Nonetheless, having 6-7 universities around you in a 2 hours range seems to indicate you are in a thriving academic environment and therefore there should be plenty of research institutions and research-oriented positions (plenty = more than 0, but not that many per year :D ).

2
  • Thanks for you answer, this is along the lines of what I was thinking. CS does often lend itself to remote/hybrid work. I have no problem commuting once (or twice) a week to the university for meetings and in person arrangements. But it would be very preferable for me to work from my garden office the rest of the week and connect via video conference as required. Jan 30 at 11:21
  • I understand that, by their nature, constraints do tends to constrain my options though 🤭 Jan 30 at 11:25

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .