Part-time PhD, full-time work: is this a bad combination?
December 17, 2008 4:59 PM   Subscribe

Part-time PhD, full-time work: has anyone tried to combine the two? What advice would you give to someone considering this?

I am considering switching from a funded, full-time PhD program to a part-time study load. This would mean I relinquish my living stipend, but would also be able to work full-time concurrently. Obviously it means the PhD would take twice as long to complete. But I would also then be graduating with several years of solid work experience under my belt, and therefore (presumably) would be much more employable upon graduating. I feel that having a bit more cash would also make student life more bearable, and enable me to pursue those "other" goals, like travel, that are not really possible on my current budget.

My question is - does anyone have experience of working full-time while doing graduate study part-time? And what would your advice be to someone considering this? [I know there are many variables such as working style, personality type and so on.]

Extra info, if it helps:
- I'd like to work in the same field as my PhD (art history/ museum studies) but not especially interested in academia;
- I'm looking at full-time work because there are many opportunities there for jobs I really want to do, but hardly any for part-time or casual workers, so I've had one or two decent short-term contracts in the area but also a lot of menial jobs (like waitressing) that I find really unsatisfying;
- I am making decent progress in my studies so far and (optimistically speaking!) am about halfway through the program (which, where I am, is purely a dissertation and no coursework).

Thankyou in advance for any input or advice!
posted by Weng to Work & Money (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Not to be flippant (for a change) but every PhD student I know who went to work "for awhile" ended up never finishing that PhD. Fair warning, I guess.
posted by rokusan at 5:05 PM on December 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Based on personal experience, it's very difficult to continue with the PhD work while working full time.

I find that everything takes precedent over the need to write a dissertation, and I think that this is because everything else in my life is responsible to someone, whereas the dissertation work is only responsible to me. For example, my students are waiting on me to return their papers, my employees need me to sign their checks, my wife needs time with me (and for me to make something for dinner!), and my design clients are waiting for me to finish a design.

Those things all come before working on my dissertation, which leaves very little time for that activity. It's not that I don't want to finish--as I desperately do. It's that I have found it difficult to overcome the responsibilities toward others.

This could easily be indicative of my own inability to prioritize or find enough time in the day. I wish you the best, though, in whatever you decide!
posted by richardhay at 5:19 PM on December 17, 2008

Best answer: As a PhD student myself, I find in my experience (and talking to others) that it's hard enough getting around to finishing when you're full-time, particularly if you are in a field like art history/museum studies (as opposed to hard sciences). I would say that you should go for it if you can accept that work and life *might* get in the way and you might never finish that PhD. I think the risk of not getting done increases dramatically the slower you go; but, ultimately, you know yourself, your ability to stick to deadlines, and your level of dedication to this particular field. You also know how much getting the PhD actually means to you.
posted by kosmonaut at 5:20 PM on December 17, 2008

Working part-time and doing a part-time PhD is really quite hard enough I speak from experience - switching hats all the time means that your concentration gets continuously broken - I would imagine that doing this with a full time job would only be much worse, i.e. factor in exhaustion too and generally not having a life. Funding is a rare privilege (at least in the UK) so I would use it wisely to get the job at hand done as quickly as possible, but YMMV...
posted by Chairboy at 5:24 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some professors are going to be more lenient about things like needing time for work. Others are not. I watched an asshat professor fail a guy, when all the others had understood that he was working full-time - in a relatively dangerous job related to our field. The guy managed to put himself in the hospital, quite likely from the stress of it.

Also, as someone once in the museum field, you really need to consider the cost of the PhD vs the earning expectations. Experience always seemed to me to be king.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:28 PM on December 17, 2008

Best answer: I think working in museums while doing a part-time PhD in art history (with a concern for art in museums) would actually work well. Most curatorial positions in art museums require a PhD, but getting a museum job as an assistant curator while doing your PhD sounds reasonable and would probably appeal to some museums. If you decide to do this, go work for a museum that fully supports your part-time student status. And if you happen to get a job at a state or university museum you may actually be able to take your classes for a discount or free as a continuing education student. If you find a sympathetic museum they may give you a certain number of hours a week to focus on your PhD and you'll still get paid for those hours. This has been the case for a couple of people I've known and it worked quite well for them, though it did take them extra years to finish.

On preview: Not many people agree with me, but I think that going to work now while finishing would be positive because you would gain so much experience and make so many connections. Browsing through the AAM curatorial advertisements makes me think that three or four years of work and a new PhD would make you very competitive. Also, I'm assuming you're interested in a curatorial position because most of the museum positions I know of don't require it. If you're getting a PhD in art history and want to be a registrar, you're probably overdoing the education by a lot.
posted by Mouse Army at 5:35 PM on December 17, 2008

I think you can do this. I just finished (about 10 minutes ago...) a pretty intensive Master's degree I did while working full time. My degree had a pretty significant research project associated with it...Not dissertation level by any means, but still a pretty big project. A few things I did that made the work/school combo a lot better:

1. I lived alone. Those few hour chat/eat dinner/watch tv waylays that people who are not in school get to do just crush your productive time during the week. Its hard to not do that when you live with someone who does.
2. I didn't have cable tv
3. I had a research project that at least moderately applied to my job. For me this was key-it wasn't something I directly did all day, but every once in a while I would get to interview someone at a conference or be in a meeting about policy that impacted my project or something like that, and it kept me interested and sharp.
4. I had a spectacular advisor who made me set intermediate deadlines-and he was scary enough to make those deadlines seem real.

In my experience, working full time is a good way to go about an advanced degree if it works ok with the rest of your life. It has kept me from burning out in school and at work because I had something else to focus on.
posted by mjcon at 5:40 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm currently in the dissertation stage of a PhD program in the social sciences. The following is all based on my experience in my field and at my department, and may not apply to your field at all, so YMMV.

Master's programs, if not designed with part time students in mind, are certainly almost always designed to accommodate those that attend part time. PhD programs are not. The part time students in my cohort dropped out before comps--the study time requirement was too intense. Most students that started full time and have switched to part time following comps have disappeared, but some are certainly still around and at least one defended successfully this semester, so it certainly can be done.

Something else to consider: in my department, the faculty don't treat part time PhD students the same as their full time counterparts. I think there are a couple explanations for this. First, a BIG part of a PhD program is socialization into the discipline. This, for my field, requires generally hanging around the department "talking shop". A lot of my best work has been generated through this informal socialization so its not a purely social "country club" thing--its pivotal to being ready to succeed in academia prove that you can thrive in that kind of environment. If you aren't around, you can't do this, and (rightly or wrongly) it conveys to the faculty that you aren't interested in this important aspect of the degree.

Secondly, and more pragmatically, faculty see part time students as high risk, and are much less willing to invest resources (including their own time) in them knowing that the return on this human capital investment is much less certain that the return on investment in full time students. Essentially, I think most faculty see part timers as having at least one foot out the door. If you are going to make it as a part timer, you have to be really, really self-reliant and self-motivated. Even beyond the typical PhD student, who is pretty good about these things. Don't count on being very high on faculty priority lists. If publications matter for your future placement, finding faculty to co-author with or to supervise your research will likely be much more difficult. My email is in my profile if you want to ask any other questions.
posted by jtfowl0 at 6:09 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Going from full-time PhD to half-time doesn't mean the PhD will take twice as long. Rather it's going to take more like 4x to ∞.

Getting a PhD requires intense focus. A distraction, especially a full-time one, means that it takes a lot of time to get back to that place where you can be focused and thinking about something possibly ethereal and long-term again.

I would recommend either: 1) seeking other sources of funding that would allow you to continue with your PhD full time, anything from other fellowships to a student loan, or 2) taking a long, hard look at whether it's best to stop the PhD completely.

(passed quals and proposal ABD here)
posted by zippy at 6:12 PM on December 17, 2008

I think it depends on where you work. If you can get a job where your work doubles for your dissertation, then I think it's feasible. Several people at my current job have done this successfully but if that's not an option, I'd agree that it is very difficult.
posted by gyroscope at 6:17 PM on December 17, 2008

Yeah, 2nding gyroscope. I know a woman who finished her PhD part-time while working in about the same amount of time as her fellow students that entered full-time...because she was working in the R&D arm of a large corporation and her research was exactly what she was working on at work. It was an electrical engineering PhD, so the dissertation itself was not as big a deal as getting the actual research done and the data analyzed.
posted by crinklebat at 6:31 PM on December 17, 2008

I may not be much help in my 2 cent opinion (I have a PhD but that was in neuroscience, I really have no idea what people outside the sciences do for a PhD...I also never met anyone going to school part time for a PhD, but again, that may have been my field).

What about an intense internship (at a museum) during the summer? Then you would 1) have experience and 2) know areas that you could focus on for research, or if you have time, course work.

After you complete the internship, could you keep the museum work part-time but perhaps do research at the museum or teach an independent course that includes taking students to the museum? I think you could carve out time and acquire experience, and perhaps even a unique if you design research or whatever you want to do in combination.
posted by Wolfster at 6:33 PM on December 17, 2008

Best answer: Outside of the US, it is quite common to work full time and study part time for a PhD (amongst other reasons, because funding is so very hard to come by, and when available hardly constitutes a living wage). It's not all doom and gloom.

I completed a research degree part-time and by distance (here, you can do 100% thesis degrees at the masters level) and here's what worked for me:

- blocked out two evenings a week for literature searching, obtaining and reading. I didn't do this from my computer but rather went down to several libraries (that I was not affiliated with) to do all of this while in the building to reduce distraction.
- another evening a week for writing up, working on other bits and pieces.
- took a couple of two week trips to my university which was also the city my parents lived in. Stayed at their place and timed the trips around the bulk of my primary research analysis and writing up. I wrote up half of the thesis in a week.

The key is reducing distraction. I took the wireless card out of my laptop and disconnected the internet while studying.

My husband is now considering switching from his research program into a PhD and will do pretty much the same thing.
posted by wingless_angel at 6:34 PM on December 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

I do exactly this, in part time Design PhD and full time work as a Graphic designer, and I would say time management is the best and most boring answer I can give. I'm always asked how I manage it, and I really have to think, because combining the two has become second nature. My day job doesn't use a whole lot of mental energy, which I think really helps. I haven't got the psychic energy to invest in two very taxing things equally, so while I do my absolute best at work, I sure wouldn't transition into a more challenging job role at this stage of the game.

Apart from family relaxation/fun time (which comes first) I have allocated every other remaining moment in the day to my PhD work. I never, ever watch television or sit around idly nibbling at my cuticles and daydreaming, which I really miss and I'm sure would be really good for me. So I guess you can expect to lose a bit of pop cultural currency in that you probably won't be able to talk about TV. You'll also need to learn to say no to invitations, or at least get flexible about when you do things, say on one particular night of the week only.

It's kind of like budgeting your finances: I mapped out the hours available to me, and by this I mean truly available to me. You really can't get overly optimistic - you need to eat, do laundry etc. Once I knew what I had available, I partitioned that time into practical chunks, then I swore off offers to do other things in that time.

Another tip is that I outsource everything I possibly can - I have my groceries delivered, someone cleans my apartment, and I would get everything else done by someone else if I could. I know it sounds obnoxiously bourjeois, but with work, study, a home to run, a relationship, and a baby to care for, I really don't have all saturday to clean anymore.

The most important thing is you must love the study - which you seem to already. It's tough going sometimes and only passion can get you through at times.

Good luck with it, it's a worthy endeavor. These thoughts sustain me: That big things are rarely accomplished quickly, and that I'm running a marathon, not a sprint. If I put solid effort into the work daily, I will get there one day.*

*In my case, in 2013. Who knew there even was a 2013.
posted by lottie at 6:57 PM on December 17, 2008

I think it all depends on what stage of the PhD you're currently in. If you're ABD and want to work full time, I think it is completely doable (I did it, and I'm the laziest person I know). This is especially true in the museum field. I work at a major museum and I would say that many of our assistant curators are working on their dissertations. My path was similar to that of wingless_angel. I worked two evenings a week, one full weekend day, and one half weekend day.

I would add that I never would have completed the dissertation if I hadn't been working full time. When I was a "full time student," I worked a part-time (unrelated) job for $$ and taught two adjunct classes per semester. On an given day, I would have to choose dissertation or grading/prepping for classes. Because the classes were always coming up, I made zero progress on the dissertation and was gripped for years by financial anxiety. I finally decided that this wasn't working and quit graduate school (as an ABD). I worked in an unrelated field for about two years and got my finances under control. I also got the job under control. No longer did I have to grade or prep well into the night; no longer did I have to worry so much about money. Concentrating my energy in ONE PLACE every day (instead of racing around town with my slide carousels in the back seat) suddenly freed up a huge amount of time and reinvigorated me. I say try it! You might be amazed at how easy it could be after you relieve yourself of the academic grind. Oh, and I was married and I NEVER cancelled cable. Some things are sacred.
posted by fiery.hogue at 7:10 PM on December 17, 2008

After my master's degree, I was doing an internship. Now where I was working, to get above a certain grade of manager, you had to have a PhD, so several people, upon talking to me and hearing that I was deciding between going for the PhD and going to work, told me:

"Do your PhD now, while you're young, don't need money, and don't have a family." Presumably, these were problems for these guys. So it can be done ... but as I suspect you know, is not easy.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:15 PM on December 17, 2008

I am ABD in the humanities. I moved far away from my graduate program for a neat, interesting, and (relatively) once-in-a-lifetime gig. I work in a museum, 50 hours a week. I dissertate from 7:30 to 10pm M, T, W, F. I take off Thursdays. I write for about 4 hours on Saturdays and Sundays. It blows. It is exhausting, emotionally draining, and anxiety-causing. I can't tell you how it turns out, because I'm only halfway finished with the diss. But after about six months of practically no writing at all, lots of anxiety every time I sat in front of the computer, I got a therapist and some deadlines from my advisor. I have been turning in chapters, although it is really effin' difficult. I am setting my own deadlines, doing regular breathing exercises, and I run three times a week to get the blood flowing. I read fiction before I go to bed, which I think helps with my sanity. It is so freaking HARD. But I'm doing it. For the record, I have no spouse, offspring, mortgage or dogs. I work in non-profit but my bills aren't insane. Although paying for those diss hours is pretty difficult. In sum: not impossible, not thrilling, hugely challenging, but it can be done.

Best of luck. Oh, and an ergonomic keyboard and mouse will make a big difference.
posted by cachondeo45 at 7:24 PM on December 17, 2008

Sounds like a good way to end up stuck as an ABD forever.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:42 PM on December 17, 2008

Best answer: In my opinion, if you're working full time and trying to write a dissertation, either the dissertation is going to suffer or the job is. I think it's completely possible to do both at the same time, but it would be very, very difficult to do both well. If you're going into the work situation hoping to impress some people and net some references, then you'll probably want to focus on being the best employee possible. If you want what you came to get the PhD for (I'm not sure what your personal goals were, but I think most people go to make important contacts and write something suitable for publication in addition to the degree credit) you'll probably want to focus on writing the best dissertation possible and knocking the socks off of your professors. If you do both at the same time, you might do well at neither.

I think a better option would be to set a personal goal to finish the dissertation ahead of schedule. You'll impress your professors with your dedication and get yourself out into a work situation a bit faster. Doing this will take a lot of time and effort but probably less than it would take to try and do both things at the same time.
posted by theantikitty at 6:43 AM on December 18, 2008

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