There are plenty of reasons you might choose to work full-time while pursuing a Ph.D.
Balancing these demanding studies with the rigors of any 40-hour job probably sounds like a handful. In all honesty, it is! But many people just like you have taken this road with incredible success and opened new doors for themselves.
So why would a professional want to pursue a Ph.D.? When in life should they begin? And is earning a doctorate while holding down a job elsewhere a path anybody can take? Here’s some insight into this work-education-life balance and some tips for getting it right.
Why Would You Earn a Doctorate? When Is the Best Time?
The first question to ask yourself is why you’d want to earn a doctorate in the first place when you already possess a degree. Many people have found themselves wondering, “Is getting a Ph.D. worth it?” and struggled to find a concrete answer. The truth is, every career field is different, and your mileage may vary. For instance, if you hope to assemble a career in the academic world, there’s an excellent chance you’ll need to earn a Ph.D. to do it.
People who’ve been through doctorate programs themselves say the work involved and the schedule required to keep up can be grueling. But it’s also a singularly valuable experience for people who have a genuine connection to the research and a desire to create what one reader of The Atlantic called, “strikingly original” and “pathbreaking” academic work.
With that in mind, it might be tempting to go after your Ph.D. right after you finish your undergraduate studies. You’re better off waiting, though.
Precisely how long is up to you, but you want to take enough time to decide on the answers to essential questions like:
- Do you know where you want to live for the next four to five years?
- Are you willing to continue in an academic setting, uninterrupted, for a total of eight to nine years?
- The material you’ll cover in your Ph.D. studies will be specialized and demanding. Do you have the required emotional buy-in, or do you need time to hone your topic?
Many people do find spending years away from academic circles makes it harder to come back to the lifestyle. You don’t need to take a year-long sabbatical, but it should be long enough that you’ve had time to consider the course your research and dissertation will take.
Those who earn a Ph.D. versus a master’s degree earn around $15,000 more per year on average. In addition to the aforementioned option of a career in academia, doctorate holders can also go on to become surgeons and general physicians, veterinarians, lawyers and judges, psychologists and other consequential members of society.
You’ll be joining a rarefied company if you see your Ph.D. studies through to completion.
What Are the Advantages of Working While Earning a Doctorate?
There are, of course, some difficulties that come with the territory. The one we’re here to discuss is the problem of how to earn a living while keeping up with your course material and independent research. Solving this brings us to the chief advantage of working while earning a doctorate.
The idea of adding a full-time job to the stresses of earning a Ph.D. might sound counterintuitive, but there are ways to do it without sacrificing your mental health or social life. There are several reasons this is an appealing option to many:
- The first and most obvious advantage of working full-time while working full-time on a doctorate is that you get to complete your studies in less time than if you pursued your Ph.D. only part-time.
- The second clear advantage of balancing work with studies is that you get to hold down a job with a salary and benefits — or at least consistent earnings. You’ll likely find that being able to count on a steady paycheck provides valuable peace of mind.
- There’s another advantage you may be able to realize if you’re particularly skillful at career-building while earning your doctorate. It’s possible to parlay the experience you accrue researching and writing your dissertation into better performance in your career, and vice versa. Even if the “meat” of both experiences isn’t similar in topic or scope, each one helps develop the discipline the other requires.
One of the best reasons to attend graduate school in the first place is to gain networking opportunities and pursue your passions. Being able to hold down a job in a particular field while you’re studying to become a doctor is a great way to pool and amplify your passions and energies.
How Can You Prepare Yourself for a Ph.D. Program?
It may feel awkward at first to watch people with whom you earned bachelor’s degrees cultivate their professional lives while you’re still at university. The first thing you need to banish that feeling is to envision the future you want to live in when you have realized your goals. You’ve decided to work toward something important and meaningful, so don’t lose sight of what it’s all for and don’t worry about the paths other people chose.
If you intend to maintain your 40-hour, full-time job while earning your Ph.D., it’s a good idea to reach out to your closest superior at work to see whether there are flexible scheduling options available. We’ll talk more about how to balance work and studies, but one tenet is to create productive routines for yourself. One way to do that is to fit your studies into your professional life as comfortably as you can.
If you have an employer who’s willing to help you out with that, you’ll be in even better shape. Find a way, if you can, to draw a connection between the goals of your doctorate and dissertation and the vision and goals of the company you work for. Explain that you’ll require a small amount of additional flexibility, but that your studies will make you even more valuable in the future.
Preparing yourself for a Ph.D. program also requires that you reimagine some of what you know about the academic process. In the past, you may have been able to get by with saving major projects until the last minute. But this approach won’t work if you’re serious about earning your doctorate.
You don’t want to be among the 50% of Ph.D. candidates who depart their university of choice before they’ve earned their doctorate in full. And there’s no reason you have to be. But Ph.D. candidates must be self-motivated, ambitious and serious about staying productive.
Writing a dissertation requires deep reading of secondary research materials as well as primary research, where you generate original data or content for analysis. The entire experience is a highly iterative one, where your research might take you to unexpected places and your thesis itself might have to change one or more times.
If you want the best chance of success, set deadlines for distinct tasks as you go, include dissertation work in your schedule consistently and seek frequent feedback from people you trust. Most importantly, don’t stay stuck if you feel like you’re in a dead-end. One way to free a logical or creative logjam is to try out freewriting and see what comes to you that might advance or sharpen your argument or dictate where your research goes from here.
Tips for Balancing Your Doctorate Studies With a Career
Balance isn’t impossible to find. However, maintaining your mental health and the demanding pace required by both your career and your doctorate means setting the right expectations for yourself and getting into the right mindset.
Here are some things to remember.
a) Get into a routine:
It doesn’t matter what field your research is in, what your job is or what your dissertation is all about. Many successful people throughout history found their success by creating personalized and comfortable routines for themselves. Associating a particular place and time of day with productivity is a smart way to slip into the right frame of mind, instead of stealing time wherever you can find it and hoping inspiration comes to you.
b) Break projects into tasks and budget your time:
You’ve been in academia for a few years, so this isn’t new, but you need to become even better at dividing your projects or goals into tasks and then blocking off time specifically for tackling those tasks. Laying the groundwork for your dissertation takes years, and it runs in parallel to the other demands of earning a doctorate. Learn this skill early.
c) Use your adviser as a resource:
Your academic advisor is there for a reason. Holding down a job may make it difficult to meet in person, though. Lean on email, Skype or Google Hangouts to find spare moments to touch base. With few exceptions, advisors are ready and willing to give you feedback on the direction your studies are taking and what they think of your methodologies. They can help keep you grounded and focused.
d) Take care of your mental health:
It’s OK, and even encouraged, that you peel yourself away from the books when you need to. People who work and study full-time have chosen a uniquely demanding path, and it’s only right that they take regular “me time.” Whether that includes cooking meals for yourself every week, going to the gym regularly, unwinding with family and friends or all of the above, make time for it.
For some people, part-time doctorate studies are an option if you don’t want to divide your energies to the extent that full-time studies require. Taking this route lengthens the time it takes to earn your Ph.D., but it also helps you avoid fully doubling the demands on your time.
It’s also possible to seek out work opportunities on-campus at your university or even consider scaling back your duties at work to part-time while you give your studies your all. Everybody finds a balance here, but people don’t necessarily strike the same equilibrium as everyone else working while earning a doctorate.
Ready to Earn Your Ph.D. While Building Your Career?
If you have been considering the advantages and potential challenges of earning your Ph.D. while keeping up with your career, we hope these tips prove informative and useful. Maintaining this balance won’t be easy.
But you can vastly improve your chances of success — and keep yourself sane — by entering into the experience with a full understanding of awaits, a strong work ethic and the ability to subdivide your time to focus on individual goals along the way