In the world of graduate school, part-time students are a group largely invisible to the administration and the professors who run the program. With the economy continuing to suffer, it is often hard to justify quitting a day job to become a full-time graduate student. Part-time grad students may have different needs, but may also have the same needs as a traditional grad student. Here are a five ways that programs can help part-time students find a balance between academics and their outside life of work and/or family.
Be flexible on hours. Often, we are coming straight from work or dropping off kids in rush hour traffic just to make it to campus on time. When offices close at 5, it means that any administrative work that needs to be done requires that we take time off of work or make extra concessions with daycare. By offering nontraditional hours for the part-time graduate student, a graduate program would allow students the ability to connect more with the program and not be bogged down with countless e-mails that could be avoided with one simple appointment. Furthermore, part-time students miss out on the various on-campus activities provided during the day. The brown bag lunches are great for those of us who are already on campus, but for those of us who really want to hear that speaker, it is very difficult justifying a drive to campus for an hourlong talk.
Be timely. For those of us trying to juggle our "other life" outside of the university, it is critical that we know schedules as early as possible. If a required course will only be offered at certain times that may conflict with a nontraditional student’s schedule (e.g., day courses when usually night courses are taken, having a twice a week class as opposed to just once a week, etc.), let them know ahead of time so they can plan accordingly. This is especially pertinent for planning summer courses. Since summer courses are often truncated into a shorter period, the student workload per week will increase for the student, while none of their other responsibilities go away. If your students have children, they’ll also be juggling whatever summer plans involve their children; whether that includes vacations, summer camps, or just having bored teenagers who may need a little more time with mom or dad.
Build community. It is easy to feel alienated as a nontraditional graduate student. Make sure that there are ample opportunities for these students to get involved with “normal” university activities, whether attending football games, holding positions in student leadership, or having happy hours. It can be difficult for students who are working full-time during the day or have children (or both!) to make time to attend extracurricular activities, but having the option to join in during the rare downtimes can bolster a sense of community. If cohorts are not a part of your program, encourage the students to get to know other nontraditional students to support each other as times get tough. Never underestimate the importance of boosting morale for a bedraggled parent going through comps together with someone else going through the exact same thing.
Advise early on. Since most part-time students take fewer courses per semester, it may be quite some time before they actually take a course from their actual adviser. Ensure that the advisers are aware that they have nontraditional students and that they need to be flexible. Whether this means more online advising or after-hours meetings, the adviser/student relationship should be forged early on to help students feel that they are, in fact, true graduate students. This will also help keep students on track while keeping you abreast of their progress.
Encourage publishing and conference attendance. While your part-time grad students may not know for sure if they want to go into academe, encouraging them to get involved with the larger academic community will only help them — and increase the exposure of your program. While it may be more difficult for these students to commit to conferences, the offer of travel grants may help entice them to get involved. Plus, if there’s a nearby conference, they may be able to carpool with other students which will help further cut down on costs while building that critical sense of community.
Finding balance for part-time grad students can be difficult for them and their programs, but flexibility and creativity can go a long way to help this population.
Cory Owen is senior international advisor at Rice University, and a doctoral student and the University of Houston.