Postgraducates: Full satisfaction from part-time research: Liz Heron reports on a scheme launched by the Economic and Social Research Council that opens up a whole new world for mature students

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The PhD - once the exclusive preserve of young academic high-flyers and academia's employees - is now being opened up to mature students with professional or family commitments. A pioneering scheme launched by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) provides the first systematic public funding for part-time students to undertake research.

The first cohort of part-time PhD students - now nearing the end of their first year of study - include civil servants, health professionals, social workers and teachers. Many of them have devised research projects that are closely linked to their jobs. The scheme has encouraged Warwick University to open up competition for its 230 internal university scholarships to part-time students, and other universities are expected to follow suit.

Traditionally funding for part-time research has been scarce - Bristol University and the London School of Economics are exceptions where part-timers have been allowed to compete with full-timers for university scholarships. All 368 ESRC research studentships are open to competition from part-timers and students may switch between full and part-time modes.

Christine Dearne of the postgraduate training division says: 'ESRC recognises that during the course of a student's research circumstances may change. Individual cases are considered on their merits, but the Research Studentship Scheme is flexible and will allow students to transfer from part-time to full-time and vice versa if possible.'

Candidates apply for a studentship after being accepted by a university. The council provides a list of recognised departments. People whose employer has funded a doctoral student in the past five years or who work in a college or university are not eligible for the awards, as the employer is expected to pay.

ESRC part-time studentships cover fees and usually meet some research costs such as photocopying and field work but do not cover maintenance. The Open University offers research degrees through open learning across eight subject areas, including science, technology, maths and computing. Acceptance is conditional on OU staff having experience of the proposed research topic and on an external tutor being available in the student's area. Students pay fees of pounds 300 a year and may claim back up to pounds 80 per year in research costs. They register as a research degree student and after a two-and-a-half year probationary period may enter for a BPhil, MPhil or PhD. A PhD must be completed in eight years and an MPhil in six. The OU currently has 506 open-learning students studying for research degrees.

Andrew Symon, a part-time midwife in Sterling, is taking a PhD at Edinburgh University in litigation and perinatal care (care during labour and pregnancy). Although there is a lot of concern in the medical community about such litigation, his is the first major attempt at an objective study of it. 'I'm hoping my conclusions will be useful in setting priorities for risk management strategies for midwives, obstetricians and health service managers,' he says. 'I couldn't afford to live as a full-time student - the coffers were very low when I graduated from my first degree in 1992 - and I wanted to get back to clinical practice.' Going part-time meant that his salary dropped from pounds 15,000 to pounds 9,000, but he is seeking sponsorship from medical and legal bodies to make up some of his lost earnings. 'I study - in theory - for two-days-a-week. But four years of two days-a-week does not equal three years of full-time (study) and it's a bit like getting a quart into a pint pot.'

'It was essential to have a supportive employer prepared to be flexible when special circumstances arise. The first year has involved a weekly general research methodology course for which he has to be released from shift work. Midwifery is supposed to be a research-based profession and they're quite keen at work to have a research presence.'

In the long run, Mr Symon hopes to be able to combine clinical work and research. 'Such posts don't really exist at the moment, but the way things are going in the health service there are going to be opportunities to create them in future.'

Daryll Twigger, head of science at Royds Hall High School in Huddersfield, is using his own pupils as guinea pigs in a six-year study into how pupils' science concepts develop. Mr Twigger had done full-time educational research at Leeds University on secondment for three years and was hoping to do a PhD, when his funding ran out.

'I needed a full-time job as I have a family, but I didn't want to give up on the Ph D, so part-time research was the only option,' he says. He examined his own work situation to see if there were 'any pluses that other people didn't have' and settled on using the school population to track the development of his pupils over five years.

This longitudinal approach can be qualitatively richer than cross-age studies which compare different pupils of different ages. 'Since I'm a physics teacher I'm looking at the development of pupils' ideas on light and the earth in space,' he says.

'It fits in quite nicely with my job. I'm getting extra feedback from this and it makes an impact on my department.' But doing research on top of a full-time job is highly demanding. 'At evenings and weekends I can manage routine work such as copying up interviews but I haven't got the energy to write up a decent piece of research, so that has to get done in the holidays.' Mr Twigger says that prior knowledge of the university's supervisors and facilities was vital in being able to meet his targets in the limited time available.

(Photograph omitted)