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Can I Earn a PhD While Working?

Learn how you can earn a doctorate while working, including do’s, don’ts, insider tips, and key info you need to make it all gel.

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Written by

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Apr 21, 2023

Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a rut, working 40 hours a week and taking care of a family, while striving for more in your career? Maybe what you’ve been searching for is the ultimate academic achievement – a PhD. But hold on, can you realistically achieve your educational goals while working full-time? Balancing family and work with your education may seem overwhelming, but it’s not impossible. The potential rewards of obtaining your PhD and being at the top of your field are immeasurable. So, you might be asking, is it worth taking the plunge?

We believe the answer is yes, but achieving a PhD requires discipline and a strong support system. Consider these four tips from experienced PhD advisors before applying, and benefit from five pro tips from graduates who have “been there, done that”.

1

Find a program that fits you, not the other way around.
To put your career and salary growth on an upward trajectory, start by selecting programs that both cater to your academic and professional needs. Don’t forget that the ultimate goal is learning and development. As you sort through potential programs, ensure they offer flexibility, a must-have for working professionals. Thankfully, many colleges have caught on and now offer part-time or online programs designed to let you maintain your work-life balance. It’s worth noting that part-time PhD programs are a common occurrence nowadays.

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.

2

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.

3

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: Achieving a PhD alongside a full-time job demands discipline. Success can be yours if you’re willing to make the necessary lifestyle adaptations.

4

It can be a 6-7 year journey, especially if part-time.
Getting a PhD demands commitment, regardless of the program. And if you opt for a part-time program, brace yourself for seven years of study beyond your bachelor’s. But worry not as part-time PhDs, whether taken online, on-campus, or through hybrid options have become more popular each year. Just stay disciplined through the journey and earn that coveted degree.

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

When it comes to striking a work/life/personal balance during the PhD process, advice from the pros is valuable. Advisors talk to students and graduates all the time and their recommendations stem from years of experience. But nothing beats hearing firsthand insights from those who’ve already been through the challenges. So, we’re sharing five curated pro tips straight from PhD graduates who managed full-time work alongside their studies.

Pro tip 1: You need time to yourself.

Balancing work, school, and family can be overwhelming, but carving out some me-time is crucial to avoid burnout. After all, shutting off your brain is instrumental for maintaining productivity. But how do you actually do it? To get some inspiration, read about how five PhDs make space for themselves amidst hectic schedules.

1

“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

2

“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

3

“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

4

“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

5

“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.

People have varying levels of energy throughout the day. Capitalize on your mental clarity by scheduling school work during peak periods, regardless of the timing. This strategy can enhance productivity and the quality of work produced, no matter when it’s completed.

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.

Choosing to study something that you’re deeply passionate about lays the foundation for success. Let’s be real, putting in 6-7 hours of work each day can seem daunting, but it’s easier to remain disciplined when you love what you’re doing.

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.