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I'm from the US but I work as an engineer in the UK. In the US, part-time engineering PhD students at high-profile universities are possible, but rare and usually limited to special cases.

  • In the UK, it seems nearly every school has a part-time PhD option. How does a part-time engineering PhD at elite schools [Oxford, Imperial, Cambridge, UCL] work?

  • Is it possible to work full-time and obtain and obtain a part-time PhD at these elite schools?

  • What are your chances of being admitted to these top programs as a part-time PhD student (I'd assume there would be a bias against part time students)?

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Full-time PhD student here (my office mate is part-time).

As you say, many universities will have a part-time program. It probably is possible to work full-time and do research part time, but it will be even more challenging than usual. PhDs tend to work best if you immerse yourself fully and spend your energy exclusively on research (especially if you want to have some spare time). My friend finds it difficult to balance a 20 hour workweek and a part-time research position. I've never met anyone who has a full-time job on top of the PhD.

Re funding: AFAIK grants are typically used for full-time studentships. In my group, we have often broken down a full-time position into two part-time ones, but only for postdoctoral researchers. I guess the assumption is at a postdoc level people will be better at juggling all their commitments. My supervisor won't admit to it, but I reckon he would prefer one full-time student as opposed to two part-time ones, as the former is more likely to complete.

EDIT: I spoke to my supervisor. If your day job is related to the research and is likely to help you (as opposed to holding you back), he said he would consider it a plus.

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  • My father did his PhD over seven or eight (?) years at a UK university while holding down a full-time job - it was effectively an extension of the engineering work he was already doing, so presumably fitted into the situation your supervisor mentions. (It's worth noting that he was in his fifties by this point; it wasn't an alternative to doing it full-time aged 23) – Andrew Apr 27 '15 at 18:47
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Two big differences between US and UK PhD programs are that full time UK programs are designed to be 3 years (with a pretty hard limit at 4 years) and many students, even in engineering and science, are not funded.

Admissions to UK PhD programs, even the top programs, is significantly easier than in the US. Ignoring funding for a moment, admissions in the UK is almost entirely dependent on finding a willing supervisor, while in the US having a supervisor is not generally enough to gain admissions. So if you can find a supervisor who is willing to take you on as a part time PhD student, your chances of getting in are pretty good.

Funding is a whole different story. Externally funded studentships in the UK are generally for full time students and departments generally do not like to commit themselves to 6 years. That said, tuition and fees in the UK can be much cheaper and self funding a UK PhD is much more common.

In terms of finishing, I think a part time student in the UK has advantages that part time students in the US do not. Full time students in the UK lose their funding after 3 years and must be finished by 4 years while part time students have at least 6 years to finish. As some aspects of the PhD cannot be rushed, there are times were working less for longer is a definite advantage.

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I am a part-time masters(but will be switching to PhD part-time) in Ireland, where conditions are broadly similar to the UK.

I found no bias against me as a part-time student as my application process was exactly the same as if I was a full-time student.

Part-time PhDs will normally have the same criteria as the full-time one but you will in general get double the time to finish it. One thing to watch out for is that a potential supervisor is fully aware of the lengthier time-frame to possible completion.

Just from my own experience, on working full-time and doing post-graduate study. It can be done but it is hard. I have a nine to five job. I'm lucky in that my work place is a 10 minute walk from my university where I have a desk in a post-graduate research centre. I would generally start about 6 and finish around ten or eleven. There are also full days done at the weekend. I think even with everything going perfectly you are a least committing to 4-5 years. I'm in the Humanities so holidays/vacations are now trips to archives for research!

In relation to funding, as noted in the other answers, it is near impossible to get tuition fees funded. You may also be able to apply for some internal grants within the university you study in. I have been able to receive some funding from within my university from a travel bursary to help fund my research trips.

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