GuildHE Research institutions have a greater proportion of part time postgraduate research students (PGRS) than other unievrsities in the UK, as we discussed in our recent report into the lived experience of PGRS from ethnic minority backgrounds. The experiences, characteristics, and inclusion of PGRS from different backgrounds and who follow alternative routes to full time study is of growing interest to funders and universities alike as they seek to diversify those included in research.

Policy Officer Tara Binder reflects on the relevant themes that emerged at the recent conference convened by the UK Council for Graduate Education on part time and distance learner postgraduate researcher wellbeing and mental health.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a workshop that focussed on the mental health and wellbeing of part-time and distance learning postgraduate researchers, or PGRS. Talks began with the UKGCE making the distinction between mental health and wellbeing. They also explained that this workshop would look at both the experiences of staff and students.

Dr James Burford from the University of Warwick was the first speaker and he offered a useful foundation for understanding the experience of part time PGR and distance learners. Specifically regarding part time students, it was noted that their journeys are many years long which allows more time for major life events to take place during their research. The average person has 3.48 large life experiences during their PhD, and these may include bereavement, relocation or childbirth.

Bruford also spoke about how much part time study had benefited him, allowing him to care for an unwell relative. Dr Kay Guccione echoed this in her talk and even said if more people knew about the option of part time courses, many more could benefit from it.

There is sometimes speculation that as students get further through their course they lose sight of the track they’re on. However, Guccione wants to remove the idea that there’s a single path you should be taking. Part-time students are likely to be negotiating competing areas of their life at the time of doing a PhD, and fluidity in how PhDs should be achieved should be encouraged.

There was some discussion about part time PGR experiences. There is an acknowledgement that this is not a homogenous group – some part time PGRs may be doing low paid work in their spare time, whereas others may have years worth of experience in industry. It is important to consider how these different life experiences create different approaches to someone’s PhD. For example, some supervisors mentioned having to encourage their students to slow down, as research is a slower pace than working in industry. 

Furthermore, Dr Bruford notes that the status of distance learners depends very much on their institution. In some cases, distant learners are the norm whereas in others, they are treated as separate from the main student body. Barriers to feeling included for distance learners include different time zones and lack of access to material. Some supervisors report the challenges that come with distance learners and say these students often don’t feel part of the community. 

The key takeaway from all three talks was to recognize how different PGR experiences can be. This goes for both the students’ experiences prior to the course as well as life events and decisions they make throughout. Ultimately, there are many different pathways to be taken with the same outcome of doing good research.

Contact GuildHE Research on to find out more about how we support smaller and specialist institutions to create positive and enriching research environments for researchers at all stages of their career.