5 time management ideas… from part time PhD students

Last week @lanceb147 contacted me on Twitter looking for advice on doing a PhD part time. There’s not much published advice considering there’s a surprising number of students doing their PhD part time. At RMIT where I used to work 50% of research students were enrolled part time and this institutional profile is not unusual in Australia. Some are self funded students from the beginning; others have been forced to take up part time study after their scholarship rans out.

clocksMany academics have the impression that part time students are troublesome and take ages to finish, but a study by Pearson et al (see reference below) showed that students who study part time for their whole degree finish sooner and have better results than full time students.

Clearly they are doing something right!

I did my research masters over three years part time and worked for 2 days a week for all but 6 months of my PhD. So I know a lot about managing study part time – for me. If there’s anything I have learned about PhD study in all my years of whisperering it’s that everyone is different. So I asked on Twitter if part time students would share their time management secrets with me – and what a rich treasure trove of information they gave me!

After reading through upwards of 80 messages, I came to the conclusion that  part time students could teach full time students a thing or two about how to manage a long term research project. I have enough from my Twitter conversations for about ten posts, but I will confine myself here to five and save the rest for later.

Brief your stakeholders

Unlike full time students, many part time students have to fight to be recognised as students at all. Many people on Twitter emphasized the importance of briefing your line manager on the purpose of the PhD and the nature of your study commitments early on. Part timers should tell their employer that a part time PhD requires around 20 hours, but that the actual amount of time you have to spend each week will vary according to what you are working on.  Consider telling your co-workers about your PhD too. Some part timers I spoke to talked about bad feelings developing in teams when you refuse to work extra hours to help out on deadlines.

What can full timers learn from this? Tell your friends and family what you are working on and why. This way your PhD is positioned as Important Work, not an indulgence or excuse for not attending social engagements. I recommend entering the 3 minute thesis competition. It’s an excellent way to work on explaining the importance of your work to anyone, expert or not.


By appealing to the WIFM (What’s in it for me?) you get buy in from your stakeholders. Try to think of the possible benefits to your employer, such as enriched skills, knowledge and even the connections you make with others. Explain to your partner that your PhD will increase your career prospects or give you more job security. If everyone around you understands why doing a PhD is important to you – and to them – there is less opportunity for conflict to arise.

Spread yourself around

Experienced part timers recommended always having several things to work on at once – reading, doing analysis, writing, organising. Try to move the work forward on many fronts simultaneously, rather than finish one thing and start another. Keep a ‘menu’ of ongoing work from which you can choose a task which fits the time and energy you have available.

Some tasks, like reading, are easily portable and fit well into odd chunks of time like commuting; some are not and require quiet spaces or special equipment. Understand the difference between low focus and high focus activities and make sure you have some of each on your ‘to do’ list. You may not be in the right frame of mind to do data analysis or write after a hard day of work, so have a TBR (to be read) pile handy or tidy up your reference data base. Give yourself permission to take time off though, or you will burn out.

Full time students would do well to adopt this strategy of a time budget, but the other way around. You should aim to spend no more than 40 hours a week on a fulltime PhD (it’s just like a job my friends). I suggest budgeting time for all the non academic things you want to do: exercise, relaxing and spending time with friends then building your work schedule. So long as you are making your 40 hours it doesn’t matter what time of the day you do things. You can sleep late and have a long coffee date in the morning, then work in the early hours – if that’s what you prefer. Try to take two whole days off a week though – even if they don’t fall on the actual weekend.

Build in buffer time

Many part timers I spoke to on Twitter cautioned against setting one whole day a week aside for study. In fact some questioned whether keeping regular schedules were even possible. Even those that did keep regular schedules agreed that it can be hard to switch gears mentally between work and study. Some people used activities like cooking, reading to children or going to the gym ot create a buffer between work and study. This helped them clear their mind of work related concerns so they could concentrate better on their study.

Full timers can learn from this strategy of building in buffer time. One technique I learned was to decide the day before what the first task will be tomorrow – make it something difficult. This is an ‘eat the vegetables first’ strategy that turns sleeping into proper buffer time.

Throw money at the problems

While there are disadvantages to being a part time student, at least you have a regular wage. Most full time student stipends are below the poverty line. Part timers can take advantage of extra income to throw money at problems: house cleaning services, food delivery, child care and so on. Don’t skimp on equiment: buy a tablet, Kindle, laptop and smart phone. Invest in software while you are eligable for a student rate and perhaps a lovely pen to write with.

Can you buy in help with your research? That’s a grey area, but you can certainly pay copy editors, graphic designers and other professionals to help you produce your final documentation. I always pay for audio transcripts to be performed rather than doing it myself, although many qualitative researchers find this practice questionable.

Sorry full timers! Unless you are independantly wealthy you probably can’t throw money at problems. You should, however, keep an eagle eye out for all the special extras the university provides and apply for every scholarship going.

I’d be interested in hearing from full time and part time students about these ideas – do you have a time saving technique to share?

I’d like to thank the following Twitterers for helping me with this post (these are active links to Twitter home pages):

@lanceb147 for the idea.

@andanin, @PlashingVole, @Jengiejon, @kmicrox, @MatthewHanchard, @LorenAbell7, @AmieOShea, @dilaycock@MeganJMcPherson@SarahLaneCawte@dannyjhills@bjmci@shaedoubleu@bewildergirl, @AranelParmadil, @bewarethegeek@witty_knitter, @Comprof1@lindathestar@dan_burn@happytegs@LUDissertation@ai1sa@strictlykaren@AnnalisaManca@LuxePHD@Portiau@NSRiazat@erin_turbitt@AussieCazz@ralphmercer@AmuSky@mcgrath_chris@andienevitt@JeffreyKeefer@LBA_OX12@SimoneCoogan@HMollusc1@shiralee_poed@amandasherratt, @musicforbabes, @NigelStobbs, @carleneboucher, @emmackat, @ellyfromoz, @Anne_Matthew, @BronwynHinz, @katgallow, @Idealaw, @Psycho_Claire, @minilu, @TaraNipe, @mTullia, @sccontrol (Who wrote a post about part time study here) @lauracowen, @webmentorman

Related Posts:

Time: can you ever really manage it?

The foibles of flexibility


Pearson, M, Cumming, J, Evans, T, Macauley, P and Ryland, K (2008) “Exploring the Extent and Nature of the Diversity of the Doctoral Population in Australia: A Profile of the Respondents to a 2005 National Survey” in M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds). (17-18 April, 2008). Quality in postgraduate research: Research education in the new global environment – Conference Proceedings. Canberra: CEDAM, ANU.

63 thoughts on “5 time management ideas… from part time PhD students

  1. Anonymous says:

    Some great tips here. As a part time PhD student and full time academic I often struggle with the ‘balance’ and if I’m not careful find myself using the excuse of “there is nothing I could possibly do in this spare hour” rather than using it effectively. My biggest problem is working in the evenings when I am so tired after work and just can’t concentrate. Great post.

  2. clemenchiang says:

    Sign up for related courses at Coursera to broaden the thinking. It brings fresh perspectives to your work and this increases productivity. What is really considered full time? Even if you are staying at home, you still have duties to the household and kids! 🙂

  3. The Wisdom of Life says:

    I think that part time students also might have the advantage of properly spacing learning out with breathe in breathe out cycles so they take proper root. The same as we can;t dump a months worth of water on a plant and leave it alone for a month because the absorption rate wont allow it, learning takes time to go from neuronal to glial networks in the brain short term focus to longer term integrated contextualized understanding. There is a diminishing law of returns when it comes to a lot of things, this may be one of them.

  4. The Practical Scholar says:

    Great suggestions here. I’ve been a part-time graduate student off and on since 2003. I finally finished my M.A. in December and have started a (part-time) PhD. The strategy that saved my thesis was the Pomodoro Technique (http://mytomatoes.com). It’s nothing fancy — just a way to discipline yourself to make the most effective use of your time. 25 minutes of focused work, 5 minute break, then back to work. No email, Facebook, etc. during work periods. I like the MyTomatoes website because not only does it manage my time for me, but I can also report what I worked on in each “tomato” and look back on it later to track my progress. I managed to write 120 pages in two months using this technique. I was also astonished to discover just how much of my “work sessions” had previously been frittered away on off-task behaviors.

  5. justblade says:

    Thank you for some timely comments, especially this –
    “This way your PhD is positioned as Important Work.” My struggle at the moment is with *my own* perception of my PhD research being legitimate Work! I’ve come to it from a professional background (social work) where reading and thinking time were often effectively luxuries that were the first to be sacrificed when service demands increased in the context of a busy clinical caseload. Too often, those things became Not-Work or Not-Sufficiently-Work and relegated to outside of work time. Getting this bug out of my thinking is proving a real challenge. Now that I think about it more, perhaps it is not surprising that 6 months in I am still working on banishing this.

    In relation to the expected hours per week, again thank you! So often I hear that a full time PhD should be putting in 50 hours a week and that less means you’ll be falling behind. When I started I set out treating this like my new job, which has actually worked very well in many ways. I know that more time doesn’t equal more work but it’s hard to find an effective comeback for this ‘received wisdom’ about doing a PhD.

    Now, if I could just get this flea out of my ear …

    • sarah wayland (@Thatspaceinbtwn) says:

      Hi Justblade – I can so relate to this as a social worker by trade and studying full time (albeit on a schloarship) I do bits and bobs of work but I find that some weeks the PhD focus works and other weeks it falls away – Im learning to be OK with that because everytime I put time aside my brain doesnt catch up.
      It is a job – but I cant help wondering what Ill ‘be’ when I finish…

    • Amanda Michelle says:

      also in a social work phd! i’m struggling with this idea of 40-50 hours on the phd – it really is my entire life, especially since stats takes up a *minimum* of 15 hours each week.

      i also still struggle with reading, though. i know we’re not supposed to try to read everything, but i find that the literature we get assigned isn’t set up for easy skimming or skipping around. i’m not sure if this is a SW thing, a school thing (we are über focused on theory here), or a me thing. i know it’s good to read outside of coursework, but my brain is so often fried that i have to find the quickest, most accessible, and free thing on a frequent basis (yay, twitter!).

      • justblade says:

        Hi Amanda,

        Gosh, 15 hours a week?! I think that would do my head in. I’m in a research/dissertation-only PhD in New Zealand, so I don’t have compulsory coursework to manage … just the small matter of a thesis *cough*

        Have you had a look at Literature Review HQ? If not, please do! Ben has some AMAZING stuff for tuning in to reading strategically for a literature review. There’s good videos on the site as well as the print stuff (worth doing the free sign up thing),

  6. M-H says:

    I have found that the one-day-a-week method is the only way I have been able to make progress through seven years of enrolment with a full-time management job. I have Saturday off and do PhD on Sunday. I also have negotiated with my employer through a combination of accumulating hours and study leave to have every second Monday on PhD as well. Plus in the last three years I have used half of my annual leave and half of some public holidays to work on PhD – e.g. over Easter I will might have two days off and do PhD on the other two.

    It has worked, but it has been a long stretch. I think the level of commitment you need is hard to imagine before you start. I am also lucky in that my partner is an academic who has picked up some of the household burden, and we don’t have dependent children – although we do have quite burdensome family commitments they are intermittent.

    It can be done, but it is bloody hard to keep up the momentum, is the take-home message.

    • JCB says:

      Hi I’m working on my D.Ed in a similar way to you. Working full-time, trying to read/write/edit/plan evenings and weekends. And yes, the transition to work to home to study is really hard – often impossible for me. The worst though is when people ask ‘how was your holiday?’ and all you can say is ‘I studied’ – that’s when it’s a bit demoralising! I was starting to think I was the only one in this full-time work vs part-time study situation though so thanks for the article!

      • The Practical Scholar says:

        JCB, I think most of us do the same. We do get funny looks when people ask, “So, what are you planning for spring break?” and we reply, “Research!” 😉

  7. mafh says:

    This article provides great tips but based on the assumption that full time Phd students don’t work at all or don’t have much other commitments. Some students cannot be part-time for some reasons such as because they’re on scholarships so they have to do their Phd full time and also because they’re on student visa so they must do their Phd full time. There are a lot of this type of Phd students where they have to do their Phd full time but also working (as a tutor, research assistant, etc) and yet they have limited time to complete their Phd, if not they have go out of the country (this is another pressure that a lot of domestic students cannot imagine). And a lot of them are students with young children that need childcare because their spouse is either working or also studying. Also some are single parents. So there are lots of full time Phd students that actually behaving (time management etc) like a part time students but their administrative status is full time. These types of students may have to work beyond 40-hours a week but usually they still manage to have community commitment and have fun during their buffer time. The key is do what is important first, have monthly goals but set priorities each week and revisit it everyday.

      • rusty (@mativity) says:

        Yes, thanks for that maph. I am also a f/t PhD student with both casual, weekly tutoring and subject coordinating as well as being a “carer”. Balance is very difficult, but one thing I’ve decided to make a priority this year, my 2nd, is not to treat my thesis like it is the be-all and end-all of my world – like I did last year. My cousin, a PhD supervisor said that too many candidates let their thesis take over their life and invest too much emotional energy in it as well as time. Treat it like a job, she said, and make sure I have a whole day off a week, not use free time to fit in a bit of thesis work. She thought the emotional energy issue was as important as the time management one.

  8. emily nelson (@emi40) says:

    I was a full-timer until my scholarship ran out. now i’m working 3 days per week on a new job with 2 days at home working on my thesis part-time. I have a June deadline for my full draft so I sat down and produced a calendarised plan of what needs to be done on each of my two weekly PhD days (slashing word count on specific chapters etc). Immediately i felt a weight off and that completing the full draft might be doable rather than over-whelming.

  9. El says:

    I find a task management matrix can be useful. You can set up four columns to categorise tasks as: important and urgent, important but not urgent, less important and urgent, less important and not urgent. You can use this to divide up your tim

  10. Kelly Dombroski says:

    ‘At least part-timers have a wage’ — ah no. Many part-timers are part-timers because of full time caring responsibilities. In my case my partner and I lived off HALF a scholarship for at least 2 years of my 6 year PhD, because I was the one doing breastfeeding and giving birth even though he was the at-home dad once he could take over at 6 or 7 months (x 2 kids). I’ve met quite a few other people in this position, especially international female students who have relcoated their families temporarily to Australia in order to do PhDs. At one stage we had to pack up and return to NZ due to housing costs skyrocketing in Canberra and no matching increase in scholarship. Thank goodness my husband was an accidental Australian citizen and could get a parenting payment (accidental in that he was born here to kiwi parents in the 70s when that was enough to get your citizenship. Grew up in NZ!).

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks for telling me all that. I have not come across that many people in your position. Most part timers I meet have full time jobs. It’s good for me to be aware of how many variations there are in circumstances between part time students.

      • Corrie says:

        I’m about to embark on my PhD. I keep getting told I’m crazy as i have four children, two who have ASD, and I unfortunately missed out on a scholarship. I was warned that mature aged, Masters path students rarely get them. So either until I can get one or if I can make it work, I will be a part time student, part time worker, full time carer. PhD candidates do come in all shapes and sizes but I would love to be a full timer on a scholarship. Unfortunately until carers get recognised as being disadvantaged and get eligibility to equity scholarships we have to do things the hard way.

      • Anonymous says:

        I would definitely say that not all part timers are working full-time!! I work 3-4 shifts a week and am enrolled part-time (due mostly to financial constraints) and there are quite a few other part-timers in my Faculty, some of whom have parenting responsibilities. It’s a slog and I wish I was full-time at times but it is what it is.

  11. Nusrat says:

    I have just submitted my thesis with a full time job, stressed work environment and a crazy boss! It was hell at times and thesis whisperer was a huge support i leaned on several times. Most of the time in my office 🙂 , I had it planned many ways, on the drive to work, i lent my brain to original ideas, how to compile, how to discuss a finding or how to plan a schedule, that was one quality time for my research. I did most of the rephrasing at work, during lunch breaks and between tasks. Being in a very very seriously competitive environment , where people kept tabs on my research progress, I let them believe i am no good.I did not speak of the many ups and downs of my stress relationship with my ph.D. One thiNG, i will surely advise to all phd students with jobs is to simply ignore the job stress, i used to write down every thing that bothered me and emailed it to myself with a mental note to adress it after submission of my thesis.i COCCOONED myself and never really payed heed or compete with the coworkers.That helped! and now after a week of submission of my thesis i took a print out of all my emails and loved reading them on my day off. I feel more respectful and accomplished and although many have a real contribution in my ph.d, i am glad i guided myself throughout the very very gloomy times. I spent most of my money paying to journals, statistitian and got as much help as i could:)

  12. Bex Hewett (@OrgMotivation) says:

    Great post, whisperer. I’m on the final stretch of my part-time PhD. I worked 4 days a week for most of it, and am now down to 2 1/2. I aimed for 15+ hrs per week on PhD when I was working 4 days and now my aim is 20-30 hrs.

    My biggest tip would be to compartmentalise – I schedule me whole life, which sounds tedious but really works. I speak to my partner about which days I’ll cook dinner on and we plan in time together. When I’m in my paid job I try not to think about PhD and vice versa.

    When I feel overwhelmed, which I do periodically, I plan my way out by writing a list and a strict timetable for a week or two until I feel in control again.

    I’m going to finish in a little over 4 yrs, and there’s no secret to this, I just worked really hard and have had very little time off. I love my PhD, and that helps, but sheer determination and planning is where it’s at.

    • jennifer watkins says:

      Bex, your method sounds the best I have read and ideal for my situation. I work too and like you, on work days I try not think about the PhD but devote myself to work. On other days, I go for it as much as possible. Compartmentalising is the way to go, as you say. I have a list each day and even write on it things like “wash hair” etc., which my daughter thinks is crazy, but it keeps me on track. Many thanks Bex.

  13. Dirk Porsche says:

    Thanks for the tips. I’m part time masters student and full time employee. And there is only the thesis left to tackle. It is a bit difficult for me to keep on working on something for a longer time span.

  14. says:

    Reblogged this on The Ivis Story and commented:
    No I am no phd student, but the post highlights how strategies tt can be applied in daily life.

    When u say ‘no’ or in unpleasant situations:
    1. Brief stakeholders (explain fact)
    2. Wifm (your target aud)

    1.Task checklist: List all tasks per cat n do all tt can be done within ur limited time
    2. Buffer activity to change mode between diff roles: have that as a purpose matters

  15. Susan says:

    I’m a F/T student, but I live a part-timer’s life because I also have three children and my husband is travelling about 8 days out of every 10, and I’m not talking workdays here, I’m talking days. He’s not even around on weekends. So it’s all up to me. I get the children off to school, then cycle to campus (my exercise), work 4-5 hours, then cycle back home. I then spend 4-5 hours supervising homework, getting meals, taking children to swimming lessons, music lessons, sports practice etc, then once they’re in bed I settle down to do 2+ more hours of PhD work. So like part-timer, I have to partition my work tasks into those that are best done on campus and those best done in the evenings when I’m tired. Other tasks are done pool-side, or beside the rugby pitch on Saturday or while I’m in the car waiting for someone to finish soccer practice. School holidays are coming up and I’m throwing my scholarship money at someone to come in and take care of 3 active boys for at least 3 days a week. Yes, the part-timer way of thinking does have to be adopted by we full-timers too!

    • christinaines says:

      I read a good part of The 4-Hour Workweek and swiftly passed it on to my father who owns a small business. I found it utterly impossible to apply much of what he said to anyone in graduate school. I, too, struggle with procrastination and productivity as I am currently writing my dissertation (full time?) remotely. I don’t have a job so this is *supposed* to be all I do, but of course I’m excellent at inventing chores and errands. I’ve also had lots of success with the pomodoro technique and sites like Simpleology.com and focusatwill.com Great topic! I’ve enjoyed this thread.

  16. Carole Tansley says:

    Focus to finish, that’s my motto for doctoral students. But help is needed for organising. I have just found a nice little app called 30/30 which allows for a breakdown of tasks and working in bursts of 30 minutes and tracking time spent. I’ve just used it to work on a review of a journal article I have been putting off and have notched up some meaningful hours during a busy work schedule. 30/30 in the Apple App store.

  17. Danne says:

    I’m a self-funded PhD student and work to pay for my studies. It’s good to see this topic being addressed at last! However – and tell me if this is unusual – I don’t think I have any more money than if I was a full-time PhD, so there’s no “throwing money at problems” in my situation. I try to do just enough paid work to cover my expenses and perhaps travel a bit if that’s possible, but even with low expenses and pretty good wages I only just make it.

  18. louisamamouney says:

    I can’t resist adding my tips to this: (1) Choose a topic which relates to your day job or one that you really love; (2) do a little bit everyday, even if you are tired/not in the mood/really busy, as it will make the next day easier; (3) structured procrastination; (4) cultivate friends, colleagues and family members to take an interest; (5) set yourself little milestones eg finish a draft paper/chapter this month; (6) use preparation for conference presentations and meetings with supervisors to develop content for your thesis

  19. Pingback: IS News Blog
  20. AL AQSA says:

    I have a question for you all…I know that a part time PH.D. requires 6 years. But what about a possibly very fast candidate able to complete his research thesis by the fourth year? Is he/ she forced to defend his / her Ph.d thesis after 5-6 years in any case??
    Thank you very much

  21. Kemi Otaru says:

    Hi there,
    I’m part time and spending between 15-24 hours/wk on my research, depending on what I’ve got on at work. I’m lucky Iwork part time too so I could potentially put more time in.

    I think it’s important to stay connnected to the faculty. While I cannot be at the school every month, I try to spend 2 days a month there. This is aside from attending my research methodology courses. I get a sense of what motivates folks, I make friends with full-timers and they give me the faculty scoop when I cannot be there.

    Great tips – thanks!

  22. jocostin says:

    I’ve just started a part time PhD. I was doing a lot of research before I applied for it – I work as a house parent in a boarding school, so although it’s full time hours I get a lot of time during the day and depending on what’s happening can read while on duty. My previous employer didn’t really understand what I was doing, and that there were no compulsory lectures etc, but I started a new job in September and they’re much more understanding – my boss often asks how it’s going.

    In terms of time-management, I like to go somewhere to work. This means I spend a lot of money on coffee, and a lot of time in libraries, but when I sit down with a coffee and a book and some paper I can sit and make notes with pretty good focus for an hour or so. I think it’s important to find the right physical space as much as (or more than) the right time to work.

    I definitely agree about trying to spend time with the faculty. I have one historian friend from my undergraduate days who’s still about (and now doing a PhD too, but full time), so I try and meet up with her once a fortnight or so. We have a historian seminar at uni roughly once a month too, so we can get experience in presenting to one another and have time to talk.

Leave a Reply