If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Monday, October 25, 2010


This year I am our department's Doctoral Program Coordinator.  Our program is still "young" and there are a lot of areas for improvement and development.  Initially we had a policy not to accept part-time students.  This made sense for a number of reasons: all of our core courses (and we have many) are taught during the day; full-time students get assistantships, which usually helps them get involved in faculty research; there is more to a doctoral program than coursework and it is hard to get the rest of "it" when you are part-time; and, perhaps the most important point, we don't have a lot of people teaching at the doctoral level and it can be difficult to ensure part-timers have access to all core courses in a timely fashion.

However our policy soon back-fired.  Several of our "full-timers" went "part-time" shortly after joining the program.  I, for one, didn't think it is ethical to allow some people to become part-time while denying others acceptance because they require part-time attendance.  I was one of the proponents of changing our policy a few years back.  I am still a staunch believer in accepting part-time students but now it is my job to figure out how to make it work.

My main reason for backing part-time students is because I was one throughout my graduate career.  Due to financial and family responsibilities, I went to school part-time and worked full-time since my second semester of college.  It took me 6 years to get my undergraduate degree, 6 years to get my masters' degree and 8 years to get my doctorate.  I took a year and a half off in the middle to have Angel.  So from start-to-finish it took me 21.5 years to complete my higher education.  It was a long hard haul but I think I was a better student then and am a better academic now because of it.

Other than dealing with the amount of work, I had no problem combining full-time employment and part-time academics at the undergraduate or masters' levels.  However once I started applying to doctoral programs, I found I was in quite a different ballgame.  There was no such thing as online education back then and I was not in a position to relocate.  None of the nearby doctoral programs in my field would accept part-time students.  Keep in mind that (a) I lived in a very large city (some would say the largest in the country) with a lot of institutions of higher education and (b) I was already working in my field and publishing extensively.  After my first outright rejection, I learned to check-off the full-time study box and then I waited to see what would happen.

My acceptance to my doctoral program came with an offer of an assistantship with my advisor. The salary was less than a quarter of what I was making and did not come with a tuition waiver.  I politely declined the assistantship and broached the subject of keeping my current job while attending classes.  Luckily, my advisor quickly realized it would be foolish for me to give up a position that provided excellent research opportunities as well as a livable salary and she spent the next few years covering for me with the rest of the faculty.  It was also incredibly lucky that my boss was 100% supportive of my education and allowed me to take classes in the middle of the day. So it was hard, but with the help of two very supportive mentors I managed to graduate without ever being "outed" as a part-timer.

Now it is also true that I missed out on many graduate school experiences because I was not physically present in the department.  The rest of my cohort was always around.  The truth was, I was never really part of my cohort.  I was the only one working full-time outside of the university and I was the only one who had a child.  Shortly after joining the program, I created an opportunity for my boss and advisor to collaborate on a grant that we all co-wrote.  This grant, once funded, gave me legitimate means to combine my job and my schooling (and eventually became my dissertation) but also set me apart from the rest of my cohort.

I felt then, as I feel now, that denying access to part-timers is doing a disservice to the field.  I believe the 'full-time only' policy reduces a program's ability to bring in a diverse student body.  I think this is true for diversity of racial/ethnic background, of age, of class, and of life experience.  In my current field (which is not the field in which I was trained) we talk a lot about creating a diverse workforce; about social justice; and about access and equity.  I believe creating a program that not only accepts part-time students but makes it possible for part-time students to excel is a critical part of walking the walk.

However, now that I am Doctoral Program Coordinator, I am finding that the second half of that promise--making it possible for part-time students to excel--is a very tricky enterprise.  There are major scheduling issues that sometimes cannot be resolved with the faculty we have at hand. Often problems need to be solved on a case-by-case basis.  This creates more work for everyone and may make the part-time student seem like they are difficult or always in need of accommodations.  In reality it is the program that is not set-up to serve the part-time students that have been admitted. There may also be the perception that these students are not doing what they should be doing. Part-time students don't follow the same path as other students and this can give faculty an impression that they are either not progressing as well as other students; are not as dedicated as other students; or just don't have what it takes.  Some faculty members may not realize or remember that a particular student is part-time and hold unrealistic expectations of that student.

Today I met with a young woman who is planning on applying to our program.  She would need to attend part-time because she cannot afford to quit her job and has a husband and young child, for whom she is responsible.  Getting her doctorate is her dream and she realizes if she doesn't do it soon she may never get the chance.  I don't know if our program is the best fit for her but it is probably her only viable option right now.  It took about nine emails to schedule this one meeting and at one point she mentioned she might have to bring her child.  I get this.  I lived this.  I want to help her and, if her application is worthy, would be willing to admit her to our program.  However I also want to build a program where she, and others like her, can truly excel.  I'm not entirely sure how to do that right now.  We do have current students (and one graduate) who have children. Most are part-time and most have a lot of support at home. For all of them, it is a long hard haul.


Annie said...

Hi Brigindo,
Ideally, your part-timers, like you did, will be working full time in the field they are studying. This worked for me, when I was a library school student, part-time, while working full-time as a reference librarian and assistant reference department head. At the time, I didn't have a child, and it was still difficult, getting everything done. But school was more meaningful, when I could apply what I was learning to what I was doing, and vice versa. Of course, a doctoral program, is incredibly more rigorous. It's when the student is not working in the field, and the two activities, work and school, are not compatible, it may be difficult for a student to assimilate. Has your program considered offering some classes at night, even for full time students?

Mom said...

I think what you are trying to do is wonderful. And if enough schools try to make part-time study for a doctorate work, changes will happen that will benefit such students across the country. Many MFA programs have low-residency programs where students are able to keep their regular jobs and study at home with the help of (usually online) assignments and critiques of their work, then spend two two-week sessions a year on campus. Could something like this be possible to work toward? Not to mention useful technologies like Skype.

Julie said...

I'm standing up and applauding your efforts. You are RIGHT ON, Brigindo. Part-time students are often a very diverse and mature group.

I was a young mom who went to graduate school full-time and worked full-time. Like your mentors, mine were very accommodating and often offered independent study.

My graduate program also offered teaching stipends, and I was paid a salary to teach composition, fiction and poetry workshops. That comes with pros and cons. The pros are that I loved it. It gave me experience, so I could get teaching jobs in the future. It also gave me enough money to support my family.

The cons were that "grad asses" are inexperienced teachers. I cared greatly, but I knew some who didn't (we're poets and writers, after all). Frankly, one of my questions when interviewing colleges with my daughter was, "Are your classes taught by graduate students or professionals?"

Anyway, I stray from the topic. Your attitude is wonderful, and I think your efforts are to be commended.