How to balance a PhD with full-time work (and other questions)

August 30, 2012

Continuing the series on reader's questions, here are more answers!

Today we have questions about learning during the PhD, juggling the PhD with full-time work and overwhelming worries about time, supervisors and PhD failure.

If you have any questions, email me at, and if you have any tips, share them in the comments below.

Hi James,I definitely struggle with time management and the volume of new research material there is to read. I sometimes wonder if I have learnt any new science during my PhD as I never seem to find time to read text books or attend lectures anymore.

This is a common one! It's easy to worry about whether you are reading enough or learning enough or doing the right things, and the feeling is always that you should be reading more.

You can't read everything. In many fields, there are more papers published daily than it's possible to read in a week, so you have to be selective.  Read the material that interests you,  and don't worry about volume, because you'll be fighting a losing battle.

As for learning... you've probably learned more than you know. A PhD is largely about gaining practical experience in academic research, so rather than thinking about the kind of book-learning you did before to pass exams, think about all the problems you have faced and solved since you started. That's the basis of true understanding; facing problems and coming up with solutions yourself.

Hello James,Like many mature age students I am working full time (Director of Nursing) and really struggling to quarantine PhD time. I find I am brain dead by the end of the day. I would like to study in the morning but that is the best time to get any work done without interruption so best time to do work work too and by 0830 it is all happening here or off to a meeting. I have two years left of a part time load but would really like to finish end of next year. I have done my methodology chapter and data collection but that is it… seems a huge mountain to go. I have just been through ‘should I really be doing this?’ phase but want to keep going as I really do love it once I get down to it. My supervisors very understanding although this is not necessarily good!

The common problem when juggling a PhD with work is that there are always "urgent" tasks to be done at work which seem to take priority. You end up responding to stuff happening right now, which leaves the thesis just sitting there.

There are only 24 hours in a day, and you have a limited reserve of energy and attention... So there comes a point where you can't do more without something else being sacrificed. So the simple, unavoidable, blunt truth is that in order to have any hope of getting your PhD, you have to create space for it in your schedule (which means having time set aside where you don't do work-work).

Writing requires uninterrupted time. No calls, no meetings, no emails, no internet. It's up to you to create that space for yourself, but if you do, here are some tips to help you...

1. It's hard to switch from work mode to thesis mode. If you sit down to work on the thesis, you'll find all kinds of other thoughts interrupting you... I need to email back to Rodger about that meeting and  I need to finish that report and I really must go and sort out that situation with HR... You need to ignore these thoughts and relax into the thesis. It might take 30 minutes to do this, but once you're there, you'll be able to work.

2. Consistency is key! It needs to become part of your routine. The longer you leave it, the harder it will be to pick up again. But if you do something related to the PhD on a regular basis, then it not only maintains some momentum, but it also keeps it ticking over in your mind

3. Focus on the detail. The whole thesis is too big. Instead, just pick one thing to work on. It could be as simple as organising your data in the right format, or writing a single paragraph on a very specific idea. Whatever it is, immerse yourself in it and do it well. Do this consistently, and you will finish. Consistency and routine has to start just by doing it once, so I'd suggest taking one day and setting aside 2 hours for the thesis, focusing on one specific task.

I am in phase of writing up my thesis and really in stressI am facing all situation, L.R overlap... cant control my time... My supervisors not following me... Don't know how to start writing up... short time allowance... Really I don't know what to do... I think I will fail

I think you summed up the situation for many PhD students!

When you have many things you're worried about at the same time, it reduces your capacity to work to your best. The lit review, for example, is difficult and requires a lot of focus and effort, but it's possible if you really apply yourself.

The problem is that when you're stressed and under pressure and worried about time and your supervisor and that you will fail, your attention is divided. You can't focus, and that means you find the lit review even harder, and you can get stuck in a cycle of feeling out of control.

So what I suggest is that you look at each of the things you're worried about and ask yourself what you can do to take control. Your supervisor isn't following you, but you have options. You can make contact and explain how worried you are. If they don't reply, email again, or call, or show up at the office.  If you still don't get a response, you can look for someone else to talk to. You can talk to other students or academics about specific aspects of the thesis...

Every situation has a solution, but the key is to try multiple things. As long as you can think of options you shouldn't give up. Support is there, but sometimes the hardest thing is to ask for it and to tell people how you feel. Get it out in the open, and if you don't get support from the first person, try someone else.

Then once you've openly talked about the stress, it's time to focus on what to do to take control. Not knowing where to start writing up, you can write down ideas on paper, pick one idea and start writing about that. Simplify the task and just try to focus on doing one thing well.

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