A part-time professor

Alison Phipps


Alison Phipps is Director of the Centre for Gender Studies and one of three part-time professors at the University of Sussex. The university is keen to make flexible working the norm and to get more women into senior posts. One way is to unpick traditional norms around career paths.

Alison [pictured] was promoted to professor a year ago after working part time as a university lecturer for seven years.

She has been at Sussex University for 13 years and began as a full-time lecturer in Gender Studies. She went part time after having her first child, reducing to 0.6 FTE. She says that was fairly straightforward and agreed with her head of department who was supportive. She says some people, including her partner, felt at the time that it would have a detrimental impact on her career.

She now has two children and took one year’s maternity leave with each, benefiting from a generous occupational maternity policy. After returning from her first maternity leave she was promoted to senior lecturer and had to contend with a high teaching load, which meant she was not able to do any research in her first year back.

After her second maternity leave she returned to a normal teaching load and in fact took some research leave before her leave to finish a book manuscript. She says this was in part because she was more established in her career and because there was a move from a focus on quantity to quality in research at the time. Promotion in academia tends to be linked to research output.

Hitting the ground running

Alison returned on a 0.6 FTE contract, but increased this to 0.8 FTE when she found she could not do her research at the level she wanted to at the lower hours. She says she was also lucky that she had “easy” babies which meant that she could do a bit of reading in her first leave to keep her hand in and in her second was able to do some writing and build her social media profile. “I could hit the ground running,” she says, “and as a result was asked to do more things which meant I needed to increase my hours.”

Over the years she has learnt to say no to things that are not crucial to her job, such as speaking at external meetings. “At first you think you have to say yes to everything, but it is better to do one amazing keynote speech once a year and be remembered for that than 10 that are not so good,” she states. Delegation is another important strategy, she says, but only if it doesn’t exploit others, for instance, writing joint articles.

Alison is one of three part-time professors at Sussex, all female, and was not the first to go part time. She says she was not asked about working part time when she was promoted. The post brings additional responsibilities, more mentoring and so forth, but it also means she is more able to say no to things that are not relevant to her work. She says the fact that she is part time is generally respected. She does over her hours, but says she would do so if she worked full time – it is the nature of the job. “Academic workloads are difficult to quantify,” she adds, although attempts are being made to quantify the non-academic part of the work such as equality and diversity work.

Part-time male professors?

Alison says: “I feel I have been very lucky and that it hasn’t hurt my career working part time. If anything it has made me more focused and efficient and helped my mental health. I was not pressured into it by my partner and we could have afforded full-time childcare. It was me wanting to spend more time with my children.”

She doesn’t know many other part-time professors at other universities. She would like to see more men go part time and more administrative staff being able to work flexibly.

Overall, though, she thinks she and her fellow part-time professors are giving an important message that you don’t have to work full time to make it to the senior posts in academia and that there are other ways of reaching them.

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