Oct 18, 2022
You have your bachelor’s or master’s. You’re working 40 hours per week and pulling in decent money. You’re also taking care of two kids and trying to manage a semi-active social life. But when it comes to work, you want more. You want the degree that’ll put you at the top of your field, and that allows you teach at the university level someday. You want a PhD. The rub? You need to keep working, for the salary and the benefits. The next question that comes to mind is…can I earn a PhD while working full-time?
Yes, but it takes discipline and a rock-solid support system. Here are four tips from PhD advisors that you need to consider before applying, as well as five PhD pro tips from graduates who have been there and done that.
Find a program that fits you, not the other way around.
First and foremost, start with programs that meet your academic and professional needs. After all, the goal is to learn, grow, and move your career and salary forward and upward. From there, focus on programs with one key ingredient: flexibility. Colleges today know that more working professionals are pursuing additional higher education, so they’ve added part-time programs and online programs and courses to make earning a degree more convenient. In fact, part-time PhD programs (more on those below) are quite common today.
The takeaway: Part-time and/or online programs can be a great way to earn a PhD while working. Find PhD opportunities in your field with these options available.
Once you have a few programs in mind, talk to people.
In this case, an advisor at each school, a program representative, and even former students. The devil is in the details. They can help you better understand the program, the expectations, the challenges, and the best ways to overcome them. At this point, you should have an idea of whether earning a PhD while working full-time is feasible for you.
The takeaway: Go straight to the source. Talking to people with knowledge of your intended program is an absolute must.
Discipline, discipline, discipline.
“Habit” is the word that people throw around as the key to a successful change. It often comes up with new exercise routines or diets. But habits can be fleeting and, yes, even cause more stress by forcing you to cram more things into an already packed schedule. The real solution to creating substantive change is discipline. According to Ilana Simons, PhD, writing on Psychology Today, discipline is “the ability to give up immediate pleasures for long-term goals.” Why is this important? Earning a PhD while working full-time means prioritizing research, reading, and study time over other things in your life that may seem significant. If you’re OK making this sacrifice, a PhD could be the right move.
The takeaway: Earning a PhD with a full-time job requires discipline. Make sure you’re willing to make the necessary changes in your life to succeed on both fronts.
It can be a 6-7 year journey, especially if part-time.
Earning a PhD is a commitment no matter the program, and if you choose a part-time opportunity, it can stretch to seven years past your bachelor’s. However, part-time PhDs, whether on campus, online, or hybrid, have become commonplace, and more people take advantage of them every year. Make sure you’re ready to stay disciplined for the entire PhD journey.
The takeaway: It’s a long ride, but many PhD programs today have flexibility built in. Read our page on part-time PhD programs to learn more about this option.
PhD Pro Tips: Learning AND Working
PhD program advisors talk to students and graduates all the time. Their recommendations come from years of professional experience helping them strike a work/life/personal balance. That said, it’s helps to hear from the students and graduates themselves…from the ones who have been through the challenges and can share detailed and personal insights. Here are five pro tips curated from PhD graduates who worked full-time during the process.
Pro tip 1: You need time to yourself.
You’re already splitting time between work and school (and likely family, too), but you absolutely need time to yourself. It’s critical to turning off your brain to balance the weight held by all your responsibilities. But what does that mean, really? Here’s how five different PhDs did it.
“I got outside. It didn’t matter what I was doing: hiking, walking, listening to a podcast, or even yard work. Outside took me away from the computer – away from work and school…” – Jason Ault, PhD in economics
“I used to schedule sleep. I studied for two hours every morning before work, and then would take an hour nap after work on the couch in the basement. A huge thanks to my husband for watching the kids while I napped (make sure you put that part in there).” – Shannon Lee, PhD in psychology
“I crocheted. Either after dinner in front of the TV or right before bed. It was gloriously mind-numbing. I didn’t have a ton of time for it, but I looked forward to it every day.” Krista Jean Simonds, EdD
“I’m an extrovert, so constantly studying and writing on my own fed my need to socialize. Sure, I had co-workers and cohorts, but that wasn’t the same. I made sure I had dinner or beer with a friend at least once a week. It kept me grounded.” – James Edmonson, PhD in sociology
“I knew I was strapped for time, so I combined my study time and my exercising. I chose to work on my dissertation at the library downtown. It was a 30-minute bike ride, and I used that time to clear my head. It became one of the best parts of my day.” Dennis Frame, PhD in public health
Pro tip 2: Find your energy.
Everyone’s energy peaks at different times of the day. Some people feel mentally clear in the morning, others in the evening when the day is winding down. Whichever camp you belong to, use it to schedule your school time. Taking advantage of your mental energy can lead to better work product.
Pro tip 3: Find a quiet space with no interruptions.
Easier said than done, right? Especially if you have kids. But when you’re analyzing research or hammering out a critical part of your dissertation, the ability to shut out the rest of the world is priceless. Literally (OK, virtually…), no amount of money can replace a quiet room in which you can focus.
Pro tip 4: Passion or bust.
It sounds cliché, but if you’re not studying something about which you’re immensely passionate, you could be in for a tough ride. Staying disciplined for 6 – 7 isn’t easy, but loving the work helps you stay committed to the goal.
Pro tip 5: Learn the power of “no”.
It can be the hardest word to say, especially when something “important” comes up, but that little word is essential to staying focused on your studies. It may be ad hoc social outings or last-minute plans with neighbors. This doesn’t mean you can’t say yes to these things once in a while, but yes can be contagious.
What About a PsyD, EdD, or DBA While Working?
The short answer is yes, and here’s why. Practical doctorates are different than their PhD counterparts: they’re designed specifically for working professionals. Many of them are part-time and either fully or partially online to begin with, and students have active careers working with patients, clients, or students. In other words, they’re continuing education degrees to promote advanced leadership skills with minimal career disruption. If you’re in a field with a practical doctorate option, e.g. education (EdD), psychology (PsyD), public health (DrPH), business (DBA), or physical therapy (DPT), see if these are more in line with your academic and professional goals. If they are, the flexibility they offer naturally may be right up your alley.