I thought I would reflect a bit on my experience as a part-time masters student at UofT.  This may or may not help you if you happen to be contemplating the same.  I realize everyone’s situation is different, so I can only share mine.

My situation:
After an undergrad degree, I put grad school on the back burner in order to scratch my nomadic itch that never seems to go away. After a volunteer internship abroad it seemed to be practical (and more fun!) to try out a post-grad college program than grad school. The program immediately led to a contract at Environment Canada that after being a poor student for so long seemed pretty enticing. As I grew accustomed to those biweekly paychecks and grew closer to my team, it got harder and harder to commit to leaving. When it came time to become a permanent member of the team I sat down with my manager to figure out if he would let me take a year or two off to go back to school.  Instead, the part-time solution was brought up and to me it seemed like the best of both worlds.

I started at UofT with no idea what I wanted to research.  I had one day a week to go to school as well as weekends to work on any work.  I know a lot of people find this hard to believe, but I am painfully shy in new situations. This is especially the case with situations where I feel out of my element…but most people are, aren’t they? Anyways, I wandered on and off campus for almost a year, not contributing in meetings and finding very little direction in the area of research. I finally took mercy on my advisor who was desperately trying  to get some sort of research area out of me and decided I would switch to special student status and continue to take courses but forgo the research and the degree.

Enter Greg…
In terms of part-time research, this is what worked for me…and what led to me actually being able to finish the program:

  • Basing my research topic on a work project. This way I had the support of my manager, supervisor, and team.  It was related to both parts of  my double life, so I didn’t have to become an expert on two drastically different topics.  I was already expected to be an accessibility expert at work, and was encouraged to research the topic.  I could work on my research while I was at work,  win-win, and it helped me to not lose focus.
  • Getting the right advisor. As you could probably tell from my last post, my advisor was key to me finishing.  I won’t go into it again…but trust, it’s important.  I don’t have much advice on how to find the right advisor, but I ended up with 3 throughout my time at UofT and all were supportive of me talking to other professors about research.  So don’t be afraid to.
  • Having a research partner. I wasn’t around the university offices much, nor did i have a place to call my own as part-time students don’t really get desks.  Having someone to meet with every week is much less intimidating than having to meet a whole research group of people you hardly know. It’s also better for time management.  Being at school one day a week didn’t give me the time to get to know everyones research area. Having that one point of contact allowed me to not only have someone to talk to, but also one person I could actually return the favour and also listen to and give advice.  Eventually, I also moved into my research partners desk (it got serious!) which made me a little bit more present and visible and allowed me to get to know everyone a bit better. It gave me a reason to stay on campus and work instead of just coming in to meet with my advisor and go home or back to work.  Again, I don’t have much to say in the way of how to find a research partner, as we were brought together by fluke, but if you click with someone (even if your research areas don’t align)  try to meet up with them regularly.
  • Caring about my research. Some grad students might be able to get through the program if they aren’t 100% invested in their topic.  But as a part-time student it’s already hard to stay motivated and actually finish. Having a topic that you care about provides the added incentive to follow through, while making it enjoyable.
  • Splitting the cost and effort. My work paid for any courses I took that were related to my job, and they gave me work-time in order to attend. Which is great! But I also paid for certain courses, and research semesters.  And for every hour work gave me to go to school, I spent 2 or 3 or more of my own free time to dedicate to school.  I think the fact that I had invested so much of my personal time, money, and effort played a big role.  It also makes the degree mine, not my company’s…which I think is important.

I don’t really have a list of what didn’t work, as I think that list is pretty standard whether part-time or not.  Having said all of the above, I still wouldn’t recommend choosing the part-time route if you at all have the ability to be a full-time grad student.  There is nothing worse than cutting corners with something you would ideally be taking pride in.  But a lot of the time that’s what I found myself doing…and it’s a pretty shitty feeling.  I continually felt like I wasn’t giving 100% to school or work, and just trying to complete the minimum expected of me in order to get things done.  So because of that I can’t recommend being part-time over full-time if you can help it.  Part-time can work obviously, and I’m pretty happy I did it…but in a perfect world…