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Studying part-time

By Margaret Adolphus

The challenge of part-time study

What distinguishes part-time study from distance learning is that the former is class-based and involves attendance at a particular time and place, whereas the latter is mostly self-paced and can be done at home. As distinct from the many students who work part-time to help finance their full-time studies, part-time students study fewer courses which they fit around family and (often full-time) work.

Who are part-time students?

In general, part-time students are much more likely to have careers and families, and may therefore face difficulties juggling many different priorities. People with disabilities or who are recent migrants and want to integrate study with life in a new country, may also be attracted to this mode of study.

Whereas some people who embark on a university course immediately after school may do so because it's a good way of postponing major decisions about what to do with one's life, those who study part-time may have a clear reason for so doing. They may want to further their career or they may have a particular subject in which they are really interested. Gaining a higher level qualification may be a way of closing on the "unfinished business" of an interrupted earlier education, and thereby increasing self-esteem. Such factors can increase motivation and give a strong sense of purpose.

Motivation and a sense of purpose are particularly important because there are big challenges in part-time study. On a practical level, there will be a need to leave aside other commitments and get to a class at a particular time, often negotiating rush-hour traffic. Some students may not have access to a car, in which case they will have to rely on public transport, which may be unreliable or dangerous later at night.

There are bigger challenges, however: the juggling of competing priorities, finance, and studying itself. While many part-time students have their fees paid by their employer, many do not and it can be tough sometimes funding these (although help may be available). The work itself cannot be avoided, and the requirement for essay writing, critical thinking, and absorbing a lot of information, may prove daunting even for those who are highly educated, but who have not studied for a while. However some students may have previous bad experience to contend with and, for them, dealing with their educational gremlins and fear of failure may be especially difficult. It is therefore particularly important that part-time students are offered help with study skills.

How to succeed as a part-time student

  • Build on your motivation – having a goal is important. Ambitious students are more likely to succeed than those with little sense of direction.
  • Develop your time management skills – organization is important in juggling differing priorities.
  • Recognize that, while studying may present problems, you have a wealth of life experience on which to build. This may be especially useful in management and vocational courses, where you can relate your own work experience (and that of your peers) to what you are studying.
  • Make sure that those around you support you. This means both your employer, who (even if they don't offer financial support) should understand your need to leave promptly on certain evenings, and your family who will need to understand your disappearing for hours on end with a book or computer.

What can you expect from your institution?

Undergraduates

Institutions vary markedly in the accommodation they make for part-time study. Whereas there are several established distance learning universities (such as the UK's Open University), and online universities (such as Athabasca University in Canada) are becoming quite fashionable, relatively few institutions specialize in the part-time student. Those that do offer the big advantage of being geared to the needs of this group by having classes in the evening, and longer opening hours for administrative services and libraries.

Many universities, while specializing in full-time students, offer a part-time option, which in effect means that you study alongside other students during the day, but at a slower rate, taking fewer modules and earning fewer credits per year.

If you are studying part-time at an "ordinary" university, you will need to consider what the requirements are and how flexible they can be. How many credits do you need to obtain in order to qualify for part-time status? Can you take as long as you like to complete courses or is there a time limit? Can you transfer from full-time to part-time and vice versa? It may be difficult enough for you to attend classes on particular days (as opposed to evenings); how helpful can the university be in trying to fit in your other academic commitments (e.g. seminars) on your class days?

There are other issues which you should consider when looking into the possibility of part-time courses:

1. Academic advice and counselling

Can you get this at times convenient to you, either in the evenings or by timely answers to e-mails?

2. Administrative help

Much about academic study involves administration, for example registering, adding or dropping courses, knowing which room courses are in, handing in essays and receiving grades. Is the administrative office open in evening hours or are you able to do these things via the Web?

3. Library

You cannot study without a library, but how will it meet your needs? For example, does it:

  • Offer convenient opening hours, not just during weekdays, but also evenings and weekends?
  • Have an online catalogue, enabling you to check availability of books and journals, and access journal articles and databases online?
  • Make borrowing and returning easier, for example with a longer loan period/lower fines, posting books to you, a book return box for out of hours returns, phone renewals, having sufficient numbers of core texts, and making due effort to get books back?
  • Allow queries by e-mail?

4. Child care

Are there good crèche facilities, and are these subsidized?

5. Study skills

Are there dedicated staff who understand the needs of the adult learner and available at times when you can see them?

6. Computer facilities

Are computer labs open at night?

7. Car parking

Does the car park stay open, and is it safe and secure?

8. Refreshments

Will you be able to get something decent to eat on campus?

In simple terms, you should be able to arrive at classes refreshed and without having to worry about parking, receive timely advice either by e-mail or in person, and not be hampered by libraries or administrative offices shutting at 5 pm.

Part-time MBA students

If part-time undergraduates are the Cinderellas of the academic world, the situation is very different for their counterparts on Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses. As people become far more likely to count the opportunity cost of stepping off the career ladder and studying for two years, then institutions need to make a real effort to accommodate their needs. They do this not only by offering classes in the evening delivered by their best and most enthusiastic lecturers, but also by such initiatives as:

  • Making sure that students don't miss out on the additional experiences of graduate school, for example having celebrity guest lecturers at the weekends.
  • Being flexible – for example, they may be able to reschedule an exam missed due to a work crisis.
  • Offering web-enabled courses and more electives.
  • Providing a specialist careers service.

There is no doubt that while part-time study is never a soft option, it can be particularly stressful for MBA students, who have to combine a demanding programme with a demanding job, not to mention personal commitments – students report working until 3 am and having to get up at the usual time for work, leaving office work undone, and neglecting family. A particular pressure is job mobility – many MBA students are likely to get moved around the country (and indeed to other countries), which adds a complication to their studies.

There are, however, solid advantages of studying for an MBA part-time: the opportunity to relate work experience to management theory and research, to learn from other people, no loss of income, and the fact that it's often easier to get into a part-time programme. The sheer pressure of part-time MBA study provides valuable experience in handling the pressurized situations that inevitably arise for managers.

Finance

The type of help you can get will depend on where you live, and also whether or not your employer is prepared to help. The best situation to be in is where your employer is prepared to pay for part or all of your fees. What help you can get from the state will vary from country to country.

Examples

In Canada, high-need students may be eligible for grants, as may those with dependants. Visit the CanLearn website for more information on financial assistance for education in Canada.

In the US, students can apply for state and federal aid, providing they are US citizens, permanent residents or eligible non-citizens. Bursaries may be available from individual institutions. See the US Department of Education and Federal Student Aid website for information on student aid.

In the UK, students can receive both a fee grant (for tuition fees) and a course grant (to help with other aspects of the course, such as books), the amount increasing the greater the percentage of the full course being studied [see the Directgov website's section on student finance for more information on applying for financial help as a part-time student]. Note that in the UK, part-timers have to pay tuition fees up front, unlike their full-time counterparts (see the BBC's website: "Q&A: Student fees").

In South Africa, part-time students are not eligible for state funding, and are expected to fund their studies through savings or via their employers.

Wherever you are studying, your institution should be able to provide you with information on available grants and loans.

What are the benefits of studying part-time?

If you are over a certain age and have a full-time job and/or dependents, full-time study just may not be an option. The choice may be – assuming both methods are available – between part-time and distance or online learning. Despite the practical difficulties, the part-time study route has the key benefit of the classroom experience, offering as it does interaction with fellow students and with the lecturer.

Ultimately, education is a social experience, and one of the most demotivating aspects of some distance learning programmes is their isolation. Coming to a class and meeting with other people makes learning fun; the human contact keeps you going.

The real reason for pursuing a programme of study, however, is to achieve a goal. That goal can be to achieve a better job or a change of career, or it may be to pursue a subject of specific interest or prove to yourself that you can get a qualification. The nature of the goal is not important; what is, is to keep it in mind in the dark days when you get stuck in rush-hour traffic before class, your presentation has gone badly, you have to miss an exam because of a work crisis, or you are studying at 2 am. The end result will be worth the effort!

Further reading

Business Week Online provides a survey of part-time MBAs: you can see it at http://www.businessweek.com/bschools/00pt/index.html [accessed November 17 2009].

National Center for Educational Statistics (2003), Work First, Study Second: Adult Undergraduates who Combine Employment and Postsecondary Enrollment, US Department of Education, Washington DC.

Pittman, V. (1997), Surviving Graduate School Part Time, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.