Those interested in getting a PhD but dreading the several years of no income or a stipend that doesn’t meet their needs may consider a part time or even a full time job. That way, they can gain experience in the field, save up a little money and have a non-academic route they could later make use of. After all, if you’ve already made it to the point where you’re eligible to study at PhD level, you’ve already proven that you have great time management skills and that you can dedicate yourself to your studies, right?…
It might sound like a workable plan to many, but getting a PhD while working might not be as easy as you may think. Take it from many PhD students and postgrads who warn that it a slippery slope from a part time PhD to no PhD at all.
If you decide to go down this route, keep the following considerations in mind to give you the best chance of succeeding.
1. Know Your Programme
Some part time PhD programmes, especially the ones offered by online universities and distance learning schools, are well suited for those who want to work and study at the same time. Some aren’t as rigorous or time-consuming as others, and in some fields, the experience of working in industry through your current career will be a great benefit. A part time PhD will also have a more manageable workload, and supervisors will usually be more experience in providing support to working students. But keep in mind that some PhD part time programmes will not be eligible for financial aid or funding, at which point part time study may no longer be personally worth it.
2. Know Your Job
If your work is related to your field of study and your employers understand and support the requirements of your PhD, you will have a much less stressful few years. Therefore, one of the first things you’ll want to do is to get your employer on your side.
You can go about this by sitting down with them and explaining what your research will be about, how it will benefit your professional development and how it will benefit them as a business. You will also want to reassure them that you’ll be able to remain committed to your job during your studies, as this is likely to be their biggest concern. Don’t just stop at their verbal support, ask your manager to sit down with you to discuss the possibility of funding support, study days and the assignment of a mentor if your workplace has a doctorate holder.
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3. Know Your Situation
If you have young children, a sick parent, or generally any commitments that require hours of your time, it’s probably best to stay a full time student. If your field requires many publications or relies heavily on being able to network and interact with other researchers, keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to live up to their expectations if you already have work commitments you need to keep up.
4. Know Your Supervisor
Your supervisor should be supportive of the fact that you’re attempting to carry out a PhD whilst working part time rather than seeing it as a hindrance. As is to be expected, part time students generally struggle more than full time ones due to having greater external commitments, less contact time and a longer programme duration (beyond five years). You will want to find a PhD supervisor who is aware of these challenges, and if at all possible, try to get one who has taken this path themselves.
A good supervisor won’t only limit their support to physical help, such as introducing you to other researchers, suggesting relevant literature and facilitating data access, but also to emotional and mental support. A supportive supervisor maintains a good attitude and demonstrates concern for your research project. They should be keen to see you excel, help you refine your research skills and make you feel confident enough to experiment with your research approach and share your work whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether it is at a conference or in your place of work. Although you will be responsible for navigating yourself through your doctorate, a good supervisor will act as your safety net for when you get a little lost.
5. Know Yourself
Even the most organised people aren’t prepared for the workload that comes with a PhD. Make a time chart and be truly honest with yourself about how much time you have in the day, it might not be as much as you would think once you’ve factored everything in. Doing a part time PhD requires about 15-20 hours of commitment per week – will you have 15 hours to spare alongside your job, family and friends and other obligations? If not, then working and studying at the same time will most likely be out of your reach.
These considerations will hopefully put you in a better position to tackle a PhD while working part time (or dare I say it, working full time!). Even still, tackling a several year long PhD programme whilst working is probably one of the hardest things you will do, so if you decide to go down this road, much kudos to you.