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

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 james@jameshaytonphd.com, 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.
Many thanks,
anonymous

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.

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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!

Susanne.

Hi Susanne,

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.

P.S. thanks for the kind comments!

I am in phase of writing up my thesis and really in stress
I 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

Regards,

Shaikha

Hi Shaihka,

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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16 thoughts on “How to balance a PhD with full-time work (and other questions)

  1. Hello there. I found this blog as a great start for me to step into working life while trying to finish up bits of my PhD work. Doing a PhD in Chemistry with a very tight financial support, I found myself at the crossroads of work and getting the PhD done. Finally I made a choice of doing both together with a proper time management. Hopefully I will succeed with all these tips. Thank you so much.

  2. Hi! I’m working full time in Cardiology and doing a PhD in Law. I was wondering if anyone else finds it really difficult a) to have the energy to start work after a long day at other work but also b) to completely switch thought processes after a day’s work in an entirely different field.

    I know people work full time in fields related in some way to their research. Have I perhaps made a huge mistake? FYI, I’ve just completed my third year, my supervisor is kind and facilitative (not always helpful when I need motivation) and he seems fairly happy with my progress. It’s just not good enough for me and I want to finish this year.

    • If you’re working full time (especially in such a demanding job) then a PhD will take longer to complete than it would if it were your sole focus.

      If your time outside you job is limited, you could perhaps squeeze some greater efficiency out of that time by avoiding multitasking wherever possible so you have a single point of focus, but there is a limit to what you can do in say 2 hours per day even if you are super-efficient in that time.

      Is there any way you can increase the time you have available for the PhD? If not, don’t be so hard on yourself regarding your progress!

  3. This is really useful information. I am currently doing my PhD full-time but am almost finished my data collection and considering taking up a full-time job. Glad I read this to help inform my decision.

    Thanks,

  4. Hi James and everyone ,
    I am mature student ,mom of 5 years old kid and have been offered fees only scholarship award to commence the phd project in Computer science/regulations. Due to finance issues I will have to opt for full time/part time job while doing Phd. Is it really possible to meet commitments with job and phd together ? or will be tough to manage work/life balance. Would be nice if some one can advise as I am in big dilemma and bit stressed to take decision at this point of time. Although I am keen to pursue as it will get me in the field I want, not sure what would be the right thing to do.

    • Yes, it is possible, and yes, it will be tough. It depends how many hours you can find to dedicate to the PhD- could you manage, say, 20 hours per week (equivalent to a part-time job)?

      • Hi James,

        Thank you for your reply. Yes I should be able to contribute 20 hours per week, as could stretch certain hours in weekend as well. And my work would not require me to be in university all the time, I can work from home. Although at times I feel worried as I will not be able to give time to my child, as often while I talked through the students, they did mentioned its very pressurising and stressful at times.

        • OK, well I think 20 hours is a minimum- whether that means you get to spend enough time with your child, I just don’t know.

          It’s important to also consider how much academic support you will have- if you work in isolation it is significantly more difficult to develop your research skills and to motivate yourself to work.

          It can be done though!

  5. Hi I am due to start a phd in film studies in September, however I am a mature student and finance is an issue. Do you think it is possible to do a full time job (4 or 5 days per week) and a full time phd? I am used to work in senior management and therefore used to heavy work loads, prioritising and being focused etc. do you think the workload would be manageable for an organised person. ( I coped with a masters and work fine).
    Anne-Marie

    • it is possible, but might not leave any time for a social life!

      when the PhD work piles up it can be a nightmare. The main difficulty is that PhD work is mentally demanding and is much harder if you are tired, but if you really want to do it and love the subject you can find a way

  6. Hi James and fellow groundhogs,

    Just coming back to the thesis after a good 10 weeks nowhere near it :-(. So much for post above Aug 31! Cant do anything about it now though so just need to get back into it as best as I can. Will try really hard. Merry Christmas and may the new year bring on lots of writing time and progress towards our goal.

    Susanne.

  7. Thank you James. Your blog has lit up my confusion.
    I’ve tried some of your ideas; 25 minute timer, focus and finish one specific thing, try multiple things.
    It worked for me.
    Thanks again!

  8. Thank you so much James. It’s almost as though you are sitting on our shoulders as when I am working your advice and ‘what would James say’ often flit through my brain. I am in a much better headspace since signing up to 3MT so huge thanks for that.

  9. Great post thanks. I’m struggling. Have spent an entire year supposedly doing nothing but the thesis and a part time job as a columnist, and, though I have worked on other academic publications this year–two of which have come out in the past few months, I have not even finished the introduction and literature review for my thesis. For about half a year now, I have tried to make sure I don’t go online until the evening. As of last week, I have gone off of Facebook and twitter (I think I’ll allow myself to check them on the weekend.) I feel like I’m making a little more progress this week, but I am still discouraged at how slowly everything is proceeding. I think reducing social media will help in the long run though. I MUST finish by next semester…

  10. I have adopted my time clock approach for writing sessions.
    I set 25 minutes of head down writing, then reward myself by looking at my emails or a slight distractive break. I then have a drink of water, a long look into the sky to relax the eyes- night or day, do a few yoga stretches then go for it again. I do this for 3 hours each day (as a minimum).
    I also need a break in between reading as a writer and reading as an editor.
    Sorry I’m not on facebook – too many reasons for that – probably a good PhD in it somewhere 😉

  11. Hi!

    Many thanks for the share.

    I am intrigued by one theme of yours, which appears invariably in most (if not all) of your writing:

    Internet and/or e-mail distraction via-a-vis thesis writing.

    I shall remain obliged if you would elaborate more on this please (perhaps a separate post, with your own experiences please).

    Sincerely,

    Stuti.

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