Coping strategies for full time workers turned PhD students

Have you given up a great full time job to do your PhD? Some of you might have done this fairly recently – what changes can you expect?

Jo Khoo is currently enrolled in a PhD at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Her research focuses on health services use and financing, particularly related to service delivery for people living with chronic diseases and the role of health insurance. She commenced a PhD full-time in 2016 after a decade working as a public health professional in research management, information systems and health policy. Jo has managed to combine her love of travel with study and work experiences, having spent time living in Italy and Vietnam. She hopes to have the opportunity to continue combining this passion in her future career.

Find out more information about Jo here []. She also tweets @jokhooz1.

I made the decision to commence a full-time PhD after ten years in the workforce. At the time, many people made encouraging comments such as, “you’ll be fine, you’re very organised.” While I appreciated their compliments, I didn’t share the same level of confidence. Although I worked with researchers every day as part of my job, I still felt like I was stepping into the unknown.

During the early days of my PhD, I found that some of the ways that I used to work were not always helpful and added to my stress levels. I found many resources aimed at students transitioning from undergraduate and Masters degrees to PhDs, but not many aimed at those making the transition from full-time work to full-time study.

Based on my experience, here are five realisations that helped me make the transition.

The learning doesn’t stop at the end of the PhD

When I started my PhD, I was struck by the amount of time I now had to read and think about issues. I knew this was a luxury not afforded in many jobs, so I wanted to make the most of it. Accustomed to project management, I embraced learning in my PhD with a very structured approach in which I set a series of goals and timeframes to work through. However, I soon realised that I have to be willing to go where my research leads me rather than rigidly following a pre-determined plan.

A friend said to me, “you’ll spend the first year realising how much you don’t know” and that statement has certainly rung true.

I could spend every day in the three or four years of my PhD reading yet I still wouldn’t scratch the surface of all the things that are of interest to me and relevant to my research. However, there’s nothing to stop me taking some of the PhD mindset to the next stage of my career (wherever that may be) and ensure that I make time for learning on a regular basis.

Be patient and embrace being challenged again

The idea of greater intellectual challenges drew me to a PhD but the reality was more difficult than I imagined. Prior to starting a PhD, I had been in my job for more than five years and knew how everything worked. Relinquishing the role of “problem-solver” for “newbie” was hard.

I tried to apply some of my work-place problem solving skills, but soon found out that quick fixes are not compatible with high quality research. There is a reason that is takes several years to complete a PhD and a key factor is that clarity and more sophisticated reasoning evolves over time. While good time management is important in a PhD, not everything can have a deadline imposed.

As an aside, there is an important distinction between challenging yourself and isolating yourself. There has been numerous times when I have needed to put aside my ego and the thought that “I should be able to work it out” and just ask the question!

Don’t forget what works for you

Generally, you get to decide your own working structure throughout your PhD but don’t disregard what you already know about the working environment and schedule that work best for you.

I work best with structure and the feeling of making progress every day (however small that is) so having an office to go to every day, writing lists and breaking work into chunks that can be completed in a few hours or a day, are strategies that continue to work well. Despite trying to convince myself for a while that I could do more work at home, if I’m honest with myself, I’m more productive out of the house at this stage of my research. I miss the social interaction if I’m at home for days on end.

Not everything needs to be new

Starting a PhD brought change at professional, financial and emotional levels. I found that keeping elements of my former routine were comforting and provided much needed balance. I continued to work one day a week at the organisation where I had previously worked full-time. Being able to spend a few hours a week focussed on work not related to my PhD was helpful. The moral support and advice from former colleagues, many of whom have had the experience of completing a PhD, has been particularly beneficial.

Ignore social expectation and enjoy the journey

Our society focuses on a fairly narrow, linear model of career progression. Leaving a steady full-time job and sacrificing income and free time for an uncertain future career can bring both overt and subtle judgement from those around you. However, it is the path I chose and I have no regrets. I am lucky to be supported by those closest to me and energised by the knowledge and skills I am gaining. While there are things I have given up, I feel like I am gaining much more.

Change is not a comfortable process and settling into a PhD, committing myself to several years of full-time study, was a difficult decision. However, it has been immensely rewarding and enjoyable in ways I had not predicted. Despite the fact my professional and personal identity is changing, I realise that I didn’t leave behind my previous career completely and my skills and experience have helped me in my PhD in numerous ways.

While these have been the take away points from my experience, I would be interested to hear advice and experiences from others in a similar situation.

Related posts

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

5 time management strategies from part time PhD students

Five ways to soothe an anxious PhD student

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15 thoughts on “Coping strategies for full time workers turned PhD students

  1. Dr Roxana Magee says:

    I have just lodged my red covers bound thesis – a bit earlier today.
    I completed my PT PhD in 4 1/2 years while working FT as a lecturer in a FE college and looking after a family with 3 daughters (now aged 24, 20 and 17).
    My FT job is heavy and my daughters encountered serious illness during this period.
    I am not sure how I managed to climb the PhD mountain.
    A couple of reflective thoughts:

    During the first half of the PhD journey, flexibility worked for me – I went with the flow, reading loads and getting side tracked a lot, into lots of literature strands that I knew were not directly relevant to me, yet that reading helped me to understand my field of study much better.

    During the last 20-24 months, working/writing at times for 10-12 hrs without hardly any breaks helped me to ‘break the wall’, making sense of my empirical data, starting to classify and analyse it, starting to see the main emerging themes, the first strands of discussion. Writing comes with writing. Keep writing and going over your drafts dozens of times. That process allows for the key themes and issues to emerge more clearly.

    And most importantly, in fact a key pre-requisite: choose your supervisor carefully! I loved mine and she had been the wind behind my wings!

  2. Karen says:

    Thanks so much for this wisdom, Jo.
    I have just started a PhD after many years of working as well as career breaks and p:t breaks for mothering and illness.
    My approach has definitely been a project management one, so I had a self- reflective giggle on reading your thoughts on how limiting this can be. Already the wormholes of knowledge have sucked me in!
    I happen to live in Wollongong – maybe we can start a support meetup for older PhD students? My university support also focusses primarily on students with no career yet and who are transitioning from their Bach or Masters.

  3. Robyn says:

    I also left a full time job to do my PhD and whilst i thought of the PhD as a fixed term research contract there is a scary reality at the end when the stipend runs out and you re-enter the labour market almost afresh. I was fortunate to have held a casual research position (at a different uni to the one where i was doing my PhD) which then became fixed term and from this i was eligible to apply for jobs offered internally and make my way back to job security. Not an easy path though particularly as an older PhD student! Best of luck!

  4. Alison Fonseca says:

    This article could be about me! Biggest learning has been to trust that the research will
    happen in a naturalistic way and that immersing myself may feel risky but is necessary. Letting go of the professional identity I’ve had for 15+ yrs has been challenging and yet very liberating. I know now this whole process will be incredibly growthful on a personal level. Thanks for sharing everyone!

  5. Roxanne says:

    Thank you so much for this post Jo – am going through many of the same feelings having just embarked on full time PhD study 7 months ago after working full-time for 12 years. Am finding the adjustment in my financial situation and in my professional ‘identity’ particularly challenging! But like you, I am hopeful that I am gaining more than what I’m giving up! Your post is very encouraging – thanks again and best of luck to you!

    • Jo Khoo (@jokhooz1) says:

      Thank you Roxanne – I’m glad the post resonated with you and I hope, like me, that with time the professional transition will get easier (I’m now 2.5 years in). Best of luck to you as well!

  6. Sarah Fischer says:

    Good Morning Jo,
    I have just done the same thing as yourself; I have studied off and on for the past 20 years but this is the first time since my Undergraduate degree that I have had the (relative) luxury of studying full-time. The strangest thing I’ve found is that I HAVE flexibility. If I want to study at home, I don’t have to ‘ring in’ or account for it; this has been really challenging mentally after decades of regimented work schedules. I agree with you that much of the support structures in place are there for students going down the path of committed study; that is, they haven’t given up full-time work to do this. I’ve been fortunate that another student in my shared office has done something similar (she is actually on maternity/study leave from her job, so has a lot more to deal with than me!) so we can offer advice to each other about what is working for us.
    Thanks for the insightful article; it’s nice to know there are a few of us out there.
    Best of luck to all PhD/Masters students on their journey.

  7. Sam says:

    This is me as well. I left a nice, comfortable job that I had been doing for 7 years and moved overseas to do a PhD. The transition was quite tough and I learnt that here, people are tracked from early on to put through the academic cycle, so coming here in my 30s after being in industry has made it harder. Getting back into lots of reading (instead of doing) is tough, along with the dramatic change in my finances and financial security! But I try to enjoy the adventure as much as I can. I am glad I moved to somewhere new for this – there is a lot more to discover, not just about my topic but region, life etc. But being an outsider, there are few resources here to help but I will get there. Great post

  8. Jodie says:

    Me too! I think the hardest thing for me was ‘theory’. Coming from work where everything was very practical, aimed at solving a particular problem and sometimes very urgent (I was / am a refugee lawyer) I found a lot of theory just impossibly abstract and meandering and detached from reality. My early chapter drafts had hardly any references in because I just struggled to see any relevance to them. But nearly 2.5 years in (and on course to finish in 3) I think I’m getting there. I still struggle with some of the more philosophical things, but have found what works for me.
    I would definitely encourage going to conferences and finding a community of people you can connect with – for me, that moment was almost half way through, when I went to a conference where quite a lot of people were ex-practitioners who had either moved into academia or were taking refuge there for a while, and most of them had felt exactly the same way about theory and what to do with it.
    The other thing for me is having much more time to spend with my family – the PhD is brilliant for that. Like some other commenters, I am wondering what to do once the funding runs out – I’m not that keen on teaching but not quite ready for the full-on stress of my old job yet.
    Anyway, thanks for the post, and good luck with it everyone!

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