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How to Have a Career and Write Your Thesis Too

Traditional full-time PhD students can find it difficult to balance their studies and personal lives, and for many a PhD is a full-on, full-time commitment that consumes much of their time and attention. But for PhD students working full- or part-time jobs outside of academia, the study-life balance becomes a lot more complicated. But it's not impossible. It just takes discipline, patience, and a good sense of reality. But if you're still unsure how to juggle a PhD and a career, here are some tips that will have you defending your thesis in no time.

May 9, 2016
  • Student Tips
How to Have a Career and Write Your Thesis Too

Most of the advice you'll read about undertaking doctoral studies will stress how a PhD is different from other types of academic study. It requires concentration, commitment, and a lot of hard work. And although people begin PhD studies at all points of life, the default setting for PhD advice and programs is aimed at traditional, full-time students who exist primarily within the enclosure of the ivory tower. So, what is one to do when embarking on studies while employed? First, remember that PhD studies are a means of demonstrating that you are capable of innovative, independent research and analysis and establishing your personal style as an academic. This means that while you can certainly fail to complete a PhD, there isn't really a 'wrong' way to successfully complete one. Still, most students find doctoral studies challenging whether they're employed or not, and finishing a PhD is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. For full-time students who work, that challenge is multiplied by each outside commitment but completing a PhD while working isn't impossible. These five tips will help you organize your studies, prioritize your responsibilities, and find the time to finish your thesis.

1. Pace yourself

Person drawing a Flowchart illustration with chalk on a blackboard.

The first thing to understand about part-time doctoral studies is that your schedule doesn't need to mirror those of your full-time classmates. A traditional PhD can take anywhere from two to five years, but even full-time students encounter delays in their studies. Employed students should expect to take considerably longer than full-time students, so be realistic about your goals and don't stress about keeping up with others in your cohort. Make a timeline that works with your life and commitments. If you have a spouse or children, make sure to include them in both the planning and decision-making processes. Apply a triage system to your work, study, and home-life and learn to prioritize the most important things as they come. Some weeks, your career will be most demanding, other times it will be your family and friends. You may find that you need to take time away from work and home in order to concentrate on an important part of your studies – conferences or field research for instance – but always be ready to reorganize as necessary.

2. Coordinate

Business people

We've already mentioned including your family in the decision-making process, but don't forget to include your employer and doctoral advisor(s) in your plans. Make sure that your boss or supervisor at work is on board with the decision and understands the commitment that you are making. Discuss whether you can be flexible with your working hours, have the option to work from home, or can reduce your work-load during your studies. If your doctoral degree will enhance your credentials, it's likely that your employer will be supportive and will help you arrange a working schedule that will accommodate your studies. The same goes with your PhD supervisor(s). First, find a program that works well with part-time and non-traditional students. Seek an advisor who will support your unique approach and who has experience working with employed students. If you're working on your thesis from a distance, make sure to schedule regular, but convenient, meetings that work with your career and life. Make sure that you're both on the same page regarding milestones, goals, and supervision and make sure that you're upfront about the kind of work-load you can manage.

3. Plan your writing...

Hand holding black pencil and writing on blank open notebook with alarm clock beside it on wooden table,Template mock up for adding your text.

Obviously, there will be times when you will have to set your studies aside in order to concentrate on work or family, but the best way to stay on track and keep yourself motivated is to work on your thesis regularly. Plan your studies and carve out time in your schedule for research and writing. Whether it's one hour a day, one day a week, or one week per month, make time for your studies and stick to it as much as possible. If you manage to produce something each time you sit down to your studies, you'll feel more motivated, and the work will accumulate more quickly than you might imagine.

4. And your relaxation

man on the beach relaxing on deck chair waiting for his girlfriend

But don't forget to plan time to relax. Working while studying can seem endless, and if you're not careful, you'll find yourself in a cycle of assignments and deadlines. This goes for traditional students as well, whose doctoral studies can consume their lives entirely, but for employed students, it's even more important to plan breaks and time-out from work and studying. It may be tempting to use holidays and weekends for studying, but it's important for your mental and physical health to take some time to relax and recharge. So, as convenient as it might seem to combine a research trip with your summer holidays or to spend that long weekend at a conference, opt for the beach vacation instead and leave work and research behind for a few days. Your career, thesis, and well-being will be better for it.

5. Be confident!

When book takes your away from reality

The most important thing to remember during your doctoral studies is that you are doing something incredible. A PhD is like a marathon – it's the culmination of years of study, a demonstration of skill and training, and at some point in the process you will, inevitably, hit a wall. When you get to that point, it will be tempting to give up, especially if you already have a career or family commitments that seem more important. But you started your PhD for a reason and in most cases, that reason was sound and positive. Keep your goals in mind, take your studies one day at a time, and remind yourself that you can do it!