Part-time PhD students' learning journeys in UK universities in changing times
: influences of academic, professional and personal relationships and life events

  • Jennifer Jones

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This narrative research explores part-time PhD students’ learning journeys in UK universities in changing times. It identifies how academic, professional, and personal relationships and life events influence students’ experiences regarding: doctoral learning, belonging, engagement, academic confidence, and achievement. The study considers how changing ideologies and contexts influence part-time doctoral journeys. I conducted narrative life story interviews with 15 part-time PhD students in two UK universities, six of whom I interviewed twice. Data collection also included in depth interviews with three doctoral education directors and a self-reflective account of my own journey. ‘Experiential’ narrative analysis (Patterson, 2013) identified turning points and developments in participants’ journeys. Cross-sectional thematic analysis also identified themes across interviews. Analysis was informed by three lenses. Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘capital’, ‘habitus’, ‘field’, ‘disposition’ and ‘playing the game’ (1977; 1988), illuminate how part-time PhD students develop doctoral learning, academic confidence, achievement, and agency. Wenger’s ‘Social Learning Theory’ (1998); and ‘Learning in a Landscape of Practice’ (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015) conceptualise how part-time PhD students develop belonging, collective ‘resilience’, creativity, ‘competence’ and ‘knowledgeability’ related to participating and engaging in varied ‘communities of practice’. Neoliberalism helps to contextualise ways in which HE changes and discourses influence part-time PhD students’ experiences. Combined experiences of unequal opportunities, overwhelming life events, and academic challenges often adversely affected part-time PhD students’ mental health, resulting in demotivation and disrupted progress. Supervisors’ and peers’ support was significant in this context. As their journeys progressed, participants acted with greater agency, and over time engaged in varied academic and research communities in the wider ‘landscape of practice’; where ‘peripheral participation’ over time provided participants with opportunities for ‘meaning’ making and creativity, and to rethink their doctoral journeys (Wenger, 1998, p185). Engaging in communities within the university and in the wider landscape are crucial in helping part-time PhD students to develop doctoral ‘competence’ and ‘knowledgeability’ (Wenger, 1998). Implications are for: policy makers, doctoral colleges, graduate schools and supervisors to enhance support for part-time PhD students by providing accessible mental health provision, funding, learning spaces, training, ‘student focused’ supervision (Brew and Peseta, 2009), and opportunities for students to engage in research communities both within and outside the university. Students should focus on their wellbeing alongside study; seek appropriate support; take breaks when overwhelmed; aim to achieve short term goals; make their voices heard in supervision; and participate in research and academic communities within and outside their universities.
Date of AwardMar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorJohn Canning (Supervisor), Phil Haynes (Supervisor), Timothy Rudd (Supervisor) & Vicky Johnson (Supervisor)

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