Your part time PhD doesn’t have to be your life

Are you studying part time with a very full life? Yekemi is a part time doctorate (DBA) student in the Department of Marketing at Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow – and very busy person.

She worked for General Electric and Schlumberger in senior marketing roles before embarking on her research in innovative outcomes in big data projects for the energy sector. She is married with 2 children and lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. She is a keen amateur photographer and writes on her blog She is currently in the first year of her research and also works part time as software marketing manager for a global energy firm.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 4.42.54 pmI am reading an HBR article on LinkedIn when I spot an opportunity to work from home 2 days a week. It is a volunteering Marketing Director role with a social enterprise. I quickly email the CEO of the company and I make my interest known.

I tell him I’m currently doing my doctorate part time but I have time on my hands to work with his enterprise.  I say I have marketing experience and that I recently resigned from a very busy senior marketing role to take a personal break. He responds within minutes saying that my profile is interesting and that I should apply. I’m excited.

You see, this is characteristic of me. I see something interesting and I. Just. Pounce.

I admit it: I’m impulsive. Or as I like to think about it: I don’t mess about.

I’ve worked in the oil and gas industry for over 10 years and only took “pauses” to have 2 children. By the time my son was four and a half months old, he was in full time nursery and I was back at full time work. It might sound harsh but it’s all I knew.

On my first day on my first job after university, I was already married and nine weeks pregnant. I’ve always juggled everything at once, including an MSc in Petroleum Engineering and an MBA which I began when my daughter (my second child) was five months old. I did this along with full time work, and I achieved a distinction.

I tell you all this so that you can understand how laughable it was to my friends and family when I announced I was going to resign work and stay home.

I’ve always wanted to hold a doctorate. As I got older, I began to reflect on whether I was where I really wanted to be. It was a sort of midlife crisis. I realised that I enjoy academia and would like to have one foot or both feet in the next phase of my working life. I knew it would be a huge change both financially and professionally. But it was what I wanted. It still is.

However, a part time doctorate means that I’ve got time on my hands. I didn’t want my part time degree to be everything that I do. If I did, I may have taken a full time option.

I applied for the 2 days a week role but I had completely discounted the fact that I’m an extrovert. Staying home, reading and working on my laptop all day isn’t me. I need social interaction and I like to feel like part of a team. I also want flexibility. I don’t mind working hard, but I want to do it on my own terms.

That leads me to another element that I needed to cater for. I discovered very quickly into my career break that I thrive on structure. Having the regular structure to my day stripped away was quite plainly, killing me. Yes, I study but it is difficult to bring structure into it from a part time perspective. I tried to set a routine, including exercise, studying and meeting friends for coffee etc. While the exercise seemed to work, the rest of the structure was a struggle. I often felt isolated without the structure I’d developed from working in the private sector for a decade. I needed the structure of getting up, working and meeting deadlines.

I was short listed for the social enterprise role but I pulled out (I hate disappointing people so that whole conversation was awkward but served me right for being impulsive).

I now work part time for a global energy firm where I lead software marketing. I work 3 longish days and a half day. It works for me. I also do some research assistantship work for my supervisor and it’s been rewarding. It’ll be a busy few years for me but I feel like it is good busy. I enjoy working for this company. They are flexible and they value me. The work with my supervisor is helping me understand how the academic environment operates and I enjoy that too. I work on my thesis up to 15 hours a week. Some weeks, it drops to 10 hours but I’m finding a structure that works.

I occasionally wonder if my thesis will be on track to finish in time with what I’ve put on my plate. Gaining my doctorate is important for the next phase of my life so if my structure stops working and I need to make changes, I’ll do it. Like I said: I don’t mess about. In the last few months, I’ve learned that the following considerations are important if you are embarking on a part time doctorate:

Know who you are. Are you an introvert or extrovert? Consider whether you need significant social interaction particularly if you are likely to be studying away from the university
Keep motivated and productive. Do you need structure or do you thrive more on a less structured schedule (also see PhD lifestyle guilt written by Paula Hanasz on the benefits of less structure in PhD study)? You might need a routine that involves going to a local cafe or library, and perhaps include an exercise routine to keep you motivated and healthy.

Build in flexibility. For your sanity, you need to be flexible. If your part time degree is not sponsored by employer, let your employer know you are pursuing a doctorate and hopefully you might get their understanding. If it’s possible to reduce your hours at work, that could be an option you pursue. You might want to finish your degree in good time but allow yourself space to make changes if you believe other aspects of your life are suffering.

Is anybody out there doing a PhD/professional doctorate part time? How have you stopped it from taking over your life?

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27 thoughts on “Your part time PhD doesn’t have to be your life

  1. julia mason says:

    I am not half as busy as you, but am juggling a comprehensive Masters research project alongside clinical work as an OT in a full-on job, another small job as a buddy for a child, and a volunteer role with an NGO in a developing country. Even as an introvert who is quite happy to study quietly at home for hours I can completely identify with having to balance your relationships, rest, and fun with the demands of work and study. I think that engaging in a variety of pursuits alongside study, while challenging, enhances your project and learning. Thanks for the post, it’s always good to hear of another person trying to pull of similar things.

  2. S says:

    I am in the final stages of a phd… working/phd’ing part time (work 3 days/phd 1.5), and have had two young kids through the phd process (now 3 and 5). As someone (mentally, physically exhausted/almost broken) at the other end (over 7 years):
    Some of my advice…
    * Stamina and discipline. You need lots and lots of it. Just this last Saturday, I was driving to the local library, and had a good sob in the car as I watched all these families heading off for a bushwalk on a perfect winters day in Australia. I would have given anything to just head home and cave in *for the day*. But as a part-timer, I only get about 75 solid working days a year (with some night thesis-work, but that time is always too sleepy for me, given the kids and paid work too). My conclusion needs to be written. Work days are sacred, precious – be prepared for that because it can be hard.
    * Don’t do it because you believe in the misguided myth that just because you can, you should – or that ‘you can have it all’… that isn’t what it is about. You might just end up feeling like you are doing a crap job at all the bits and pieces, and as a parent, worker and student – none of it feels good when that happens. And you start resenting stuff. Do it because you genuinely find satisfaction in diversity and maintaining a balance…
    * And on balance… Don’t hold on too tight. Accept that life goes in ebbs and flows. I have taken time off when my father was very ill, two lots of maternity leave, moved house and a whole bunch of other personal stuff – not to mention the horror that is marking time/deadlines at work when everything else in life gets shut out. Sometimes, some parts of my life take over, and at first I tried to resist it. But now, I have learned to go with the flow, but never to let the pendulum swing too far and always – for me – remember that family trumps work and/or thesis.
    Good luck… one thing for sure is that it is going to be one hell of a ride!

  3. emcdvh says:

    Incredible post! Just read the recent outstanding post on Thesis Whisperer blog. I work full time in the electric utility sector, working on a PhD part-time focused on Big Data in energy sector, and married with kids.

    Nice to know others out there who can help me navigate through the “wilds” of the PhD process.



  4. Victoria Lister says:

    Great post Yekemi, thank you. In answer to your question, my problem is of an opposite nature – I’m a PT thesis student who struggles to fit research into my life. I juggle a fledging business, nonprofit consulting work, complementary healing work, occasional cooking workshops, admin for the clinic I’m attached to, and the co-ordination of several other projects… not to mention my family and friends (no children though, which is probably a good thing!). I’ve been working for myself for some years now so have become used to the relative isolation though at first found that hard. I’m more of an an ambivert so it hasn’t been as challenging as you describe it is for you but I do make sure I have regular people time if I’m not seeing clients. A lack of imposed structure has been difficult at times but I’m pretty good at self-management. In fact my greatest challenge really is not losing myself in endless busy-ness. I’ve learnt the hard way that leads to health consequences and is a great trap for us women. Many of us seem to collectively suffer from a disease called ‘demonstrating our value by constantly doing more’… and that is a real problem.

    • Natalie OConnor says:

      Are we crazy??? I still can not fathom how I found myself in a world of red pigments and artists materials research….but I also love it.
      I only hope that I can keep the juggle of work and study going well enough to ensure that life is made more interesting.

  5. Kam says:

    It’s such a great relief to read that so many other students are juggling so many balls at once. Everyone tells me my PhD should be my life…. But it isn’t and I’m worried I might be missing something… I am studying my PhD full time, but I am also full-time employed (It’s shift work so it’s not as bad as it sounds!). I am also undertaking a work placement as part of a scholarship program one day a week, and I am on the executive committee of my workplace union. I am coping, just! I am a creature of habit (of a very strict routine) so that helps. But I am always left wondering, is there something I should be doing that I’m not? I’m only 15 months in… So I guess time will tell. Thanks for your post!

  6. francisnormanulfire says:

    Great post, thank you so much for sharing and talking about the part time life.
    Like many others in this comment train I have found my part time PhD life has evolved enormously over the years. When I started I had a regular, busy, 50hrs a week full time job and struggled to fit my research in, then the 50hrs a week job became a different 30hrs a week job then that became a self employed, undefined hrs a week consultant role, combined with a very busy ’15 in a high profile NFP and now, with the NFP role behind me, some teaching.
    Through all of this my PhD work has ebbed and flowed, I have had periods of rapid and substantial progress and other periods of virtually none. My supervisors have been great and accommodated the fluctuations as they have occurred and my own, personal evolution has been one of the most surprising parts of the whole journey. I still love my field and continue to enjoy the research but I think some of this has been that I was able to adjust my activities to accomodate the relative pressures rather than collapse under what could have been an unsustainable workload under other circumstances.
    Communities such as this have also been very helpful, particularly the rare and extremely welcome discussions of similar part time experiences and, for that I wish all of you continued success in all of your endeavours.

  7. Tony Michele says:

    I’m impressed! 🙌🏾

    I’m actually considering undertaking one – A part time doctorate along with my full time job. The balancing act and other possible responsibilities in the nearest future is somethings on my mind.

  8. Marianna Ring (@BoneArky) says:

    I’m doing a part time MSc (distance learning) while working full time. That balance is hard. One day work seems to be taking over, other days it is home life, other days it is study. For me it is prioritising day by day and having the balance over time rather than balancing my time daily, that seems to let things take over. I cope well without a regular schedule though. Reading and studying opportunistically helps too. Making sure in the important things are done, and letting the unimportant go is making a big difference (or delegating to my thankfully supportive husband if it is home related). It is an ongoing struggle to make sure I get some personal time though.

    I am an introvert, so don’t need a ton of interaction. Despite that introversion my part time studies, (particularly because of the distance learning) can get pretty lonely . This is why, although not yet working on the PhD (that’ll be next), seeing a post like this makes me feel a little less odd for not being a full time, daily presence at a university. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  9. SarahWD (@ceraahwd) says:

    Great to hear of other busy part-timers! I work fulltime (but work supports my phd study), have four kids & do a couple of volunteer roles. I know others think it’s unrealistic, which makes me doubt myself & whether I can actually do it. I’ve recently switched to part time enrolment. I do feel a bit isolated as all other students I know are studying fulltime and very “immersed”, or they’re former students of mine so a bit awkward. Nice to hear of other experiences, thanks for the post.

  10. Elspeth says:

    PhD is a bucket list thing. I did it part time too, while working. On reflection,a couple of years post-PhD, I’m ambivalent about the whole thing. I don’t regret having finished, but on balance, real life is probably more rewarding than all that study time. Both emotionally and financially.Lesson learned? Choose life.

    • Charles Knight (@Charlesknight) says:

      > I’m ambivalent about the whole thing

      You raise a point that I think is under-explored and needs more research. People who do their PhDs or other post-graduate qualifications on a part-time (and often at a distance) basis often have a very difference experience and perspective than full-time students. Partly I think because they don’t not to mix as much as full-time students and thus their introduction to academic culture occurs in a different way.

      I did my PhD part-time and I’m now an academic. I did the PhD because someone else was paying for it and thought why not but I’m also quite ambivalent about the whole thing – academia is a ok job but it’s one that I keep in a box and don’t let takeover my life or get in the way of things I enjoy.

  11. thegrailquest says:

    It’s gratifying to see I was not the only person in the academe to juggle impossible loads…
    I hope it will work for the author…
    Actually, I did my doctorate in just under 4 years, with a 4 month baby break, full time, and had a part-time job as freelancer, which theoretically would take me 4h/5days… I worked a bit less on this after my son was born, because he stayed at home up to the age of 3,5… Thanks to my mum and my husband, who also worked as freelancers at the time and helped lots with babycare. I have also worked as a stable hand (because I am a crazy horse addict) during one summer, while continuing to freelance part-time and to hand in my doctoral assignments…
    It was a crazy life, as I see it in retrospect. But it felt good. And everyone said my thesis was very impressive, too.
    So I wish good luck and perseverance to Yekemi, she is a very brave person. The only note I would like to make is about character types: we all need some structure and socialising. I am an introvert, and enjoy working on my own with no routine at all, but, after my son was born, I felt very isolated at home, away from the uni, and from (some) regular hours at the library. Well, we had some structure to our days, but it was governed by feeding and sleeping patterns of my infant, which seemed to be hardly predictable…
    I think PhD students need to be very flexible, hard working and crazy people, and they also need to have very, very understanding and supportive families. Young specialists need these things to, as I have learned in the two years since I got a Dr. in front of my name.

  12. C.J. says:

    I am working full-time, have two small tots (4.5 and 1.5 yo) and have been chipping away at my PhD for 5 years now (with a year in that mix for parental leave). I have taken full advantage of my maternity / parental leaves from work to complete course requirements and conduct my research (thank goodness for sitters and daycare!). I dedicate as many hours as I can in a week to writing (mornings on the weekend, evenings when I have energy). I try to be patient and kind with myself (this is NOT easy!) and not get too down/hard on myself if I miss milestones because of life. I liken my journey to that of the tortoise – slow and steady 🙂 It’s nice to know there are others out there trying to achieve the same goal / balance!

  13. Christie says:

    Certainly the work and interest has ebbed and flowed during this doctoral program for me. I am lucky because as a public school teacher, I have several months off in the summer to dedicate to my studies and research. I am also lucky that besides my supportive family and friends, I have rich interaction with others all day during the school year. The process has taken me longer than in would have if I had not continued to travel on my vacations but that has kept me whole. I do miss the art I have put aside but I do get some opportunity to create in my work as a teacher, I think that keeping yourself whole is critical to so much in life and this experience is proving that in spades!

  14. John Doe says:

    I finished my PhD in medicine a couple of years ago. I’d worked in senior roles until then, and part way through my PhD. But then, I realised that PhD’s are not about balance. They are an extreme sport and you just have to spend 100% of your time, at least for a year or so doing it. (and I have children family etc).

    PhD’s are called Doctorates of Philosophy for a reason. The content is almost irrelevant. Phd’s do to your thinking what spending 6 months meditating alone in a cave on the side of a snowy mountain may also do equally well.

    Is it a good thing? Maybe. The process certainly makes you think more clearly.

    Is that a good thing?

  15. CCNA Chennai says:

    Pursuing a full time PhD I have always wonder life would have been better with a part time course. Then I realized it is all about time management. Now I have taken up a part time job as a psychiatric assistant.

  16. Rose Ann says:

    I will embark on a self-funded part-time PhD in Applied Biological Science. I am happy to read that I am not alone on this. I will continue to work in the industry 4 days a week. My employer is supportive and flexible. However, my superviso is very skeptic about me. If not for my interesting topic, I don’t think he would have taken me in. He is worried it will take me ages to finish my PhD. M

  17. purposefulfornow says:

    I am employed full time (teaching undergraduate courses at a college) and doing a PhD part time. This post was helpful in that it clarifies that my needs will be different depending upon my nature.

    [I am about to defend the title of my proposed thesis next week (I’m in India and PhD title defence comes at the end of the first year of your admission to the PhD programme here), was meandering through Thesis Whisperer to see if I could get pointers for 5 minute presentations.]

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