Is it possible to work full time and complete a PhD?

  • Is it achievable to perform a doctorate while working in a private company (not in college) full time (8 hours per day, 5 days per week)? Or is it too much work or stress?

    Is the work in the private company research for the PhD, or completely unrelated?

    completely unrelated.

  • Correct answer

    7 years ago

    Each situation is different, and it might be hard to generalise, but roughly speaking, you can see a PhD thesis as requiring about 3-4 years working full time. For some people it might be a bit less, for others a bit more, but that's a good average. In addition, a PhD includes of course "technical" work, but also "academic training", such as learning how to write a paper/thesis, presenting papers at conferences, supervising students, etc.

    Now, two cases are possible: either you already have some technical material from past work (e.g., you've been working 20 years in industry), in which case you have already completed some of the 3-4 years, and you mostly need to focus on how to output your work; or you don't, in which case, you still need to complete all of the work.

    I've known some people in the first case, and they managed to do a PhD while working full-time. They would usually come in half a day per week (in agreement with their company), and work at home in the evening. In the second case, it seems unrealistic to do both a full time job and a full time PhD. In some fields, you might be able to do a PhD over 7, 8 or even more years (I've heard about someone in history who wrote his PhD in 7 years, while working full time as a school teacher in the mean time), but it might not be the case everywhere.

    In addition to Daniel's answer, and including Sylvain's comment, I'd add that some French universities forbid starting a PhD without having some source of income, either through some funding or through a full-time job. Most funding forbid to have a full time job on the side, and if your full-time job is completely unrelated to your PhD topic, then you might have the green light from the administration, but not from the academic institution in charge of the PhD programs.

    EDIT: I somehow forgot to mention that the indicated amount time in my answer concerns good PhD, and by good, I mean a PhD that will allow you to get a job in academia afterwards, which mean not only getting the degree, but also getting good publications, good collaborations, good reference letters, etc. If you only care about the title, then you might find some universities happy to make you pay tuition fees to deliver you a diploma after a few years. If you want to go to academia later, then you need to be a junior researcher for a few years, in order to demonstrate that you might be worth hiring as a confirmed researched, and then later as a senior researcher.

    In France, a full time job can be considered a PhD funding. What is forbidden is to do a PhD without a funding or being paid.

    @SylvainPeyronnet: I meant you can't have a public funding *on top* of a full time job. At least, that was the rule when I got mine :)

    That's still true, you cannot have a funding if you are paid elsewhere.

    @SylvainPeyronnet: If you were to use your full-time job as a source of funding, do you need to justify it? Or could you for instance work in a restaurant and do a PhD in CS at the same time?

    From the administrative point of view, you can : you just have to prove that you will not be without income. But the doctoral school may be difficult to convince.

    @SylvainPeyronnet: OK, thanks, I've updated my answer accordingly :)

  • I am doing that right now. I have a full time job and am working on a PhD in Computer Science. It is definitely possible, but has been the hardest experience of my life. I am past the hardest part and am wrapping up my first publication. I've also been at it for 3 years (already had my masters degree), so it's taken me much longer to get to this point than it would be for a full time student.

    It has been extremely stressful and you can kiss your life outside of work+school goodbye. You will also need to be very good with time management and be aware that over the course of several years, there will be life events that pull you away from school.

    When I was deciding whether or not to do it, I vastly underestimated the amount of time and energy required. I'm very glad I stuck with it so far, but I have to say, if I had an accurate picture of the workload I probably would have opted against it.

    You need a huge amount of dedication to the goal in order to pull this off. If you have only a casual interest in the degree, then you will probably fail. I think I remember somewhere that the graduation rate for PhD's is around 50/50. Add a full time job on that and the odds are against you. But it is absolutely possible to overcome that with enough effort.

    I would +1 what Nick said. A full time PhD and a full time job is like having two full time jobs. It's very probable to say goodbye to your social life for years. If you live in a relationship, I'd strongly advise to reconsider it as there is a danger to emotionally lose more than what actual benefit it may bring you.

    :) I'm at the same point as you are, and to make things works my graduation (Law) is very different from the PhD (Computer Science)...

    Similar to Nick I am finishing up a Ph.D. in Computer Science. 7 years in and ABD and I've finally admitted I can't be the parent I want to be, the student I want to be, and the worker I want to be all at the same time. It's a sacrifice and I am fortunate enough that at this time I am able to sacrifice the full time work. A full time Ph.D. takes a toll on your health, social life, relationships, family, etc. Compound that with full time work especially in a salaried field. I've seen some people be more successful with paid summer internships. Depends on the industry.

    If you have done job+phd together, does it plays a negative role if you want to stay in Academia as a postdoc?

  • Virtually Impossible.

    Doing a PhD is a full-time job that requires vast amounts of commitment in terms of mental effort and time. If the PhD research comes in number two position, then the results will never be very good. Also, not being available in the department to interact with your colleagues and supervisor will severely reduce the benefits you gain from the experience. Even if you finished the PhD, it may not be really worth anything, because you won't have been able to fully commit to doing it well.

    On the other hand, you may have staggering genius and be ridiculously productive and have a fountain of energy, and then it should be doable.

    IMHO, if one has staggering genius and is ridiculously productive, then one can probably find a better use of one's time.

    I love the last sentence... "staggering genius _and_..." :)

    You seem to be implying that German politicians are either staggering geniuses or they are huge frauds.

    @KonradRudolph: Indeed, there is another path to a PhD my answer did not consider.

    I know people who have done it. Software engineers working full-time while working towards their Ph.D. on the subject. It helps tremendously when one's line of work aligns with a particular line of research. That most software engineering gigs are quite flexible in scheduling, it also helps. YMMV in other fields, though.

  • The big question here is what you mean by "completing a PhD". At one extreme, there's completing a minimal PhD: choosing the least demanding school that offers a PhD in your field, finding a flexible advisor, and doing only what is absolutely required to get the degree. This could be worth doing in certain circumstances: to develop greater expertise in a personal interest, or for certain sorts of career benefits. (For example, in the U.S. high school teachers with doctorates often receive extra pay, but they are not expected to do any research or really make use of the degree, so there is no need to write an outstanding dissertation.) Completing a minimal PhD can certainly be done while working full time in an unrelated job, if you are very diligent. That's a big if, though. The danger of working full time is that you won't make progress without constant effort. If you slack off or become distracted from your dissertation, nobody will complain since it's not your real job, and you can easily let months or years go by with very little progress. This is a common pattern, with an enthusiastic start that gradually trails off and never actually leads to a completed dissertation.

    At the other extreme, you might aim to become a well-known researcher and have an academic career at a top university or industrial research lab. This requires doing far more than the minimal requirements, which is almost impossible while spending 40 hours per week on something else, since you'll be competing against people who are similarly talented and hard working but have an extra 2000 hours per year. It's possible in principle, if you are really exceptional, but most people will just find it too difficult to catch up. For example, imagine a competitor who spends 60 hours per week for 5 years on a PhD. If you can spend only 20 hours after work, it will take you 15 years to put in the same number of hours. Even if you do this, you won't really be in as good a position, since many of your hours will have been spent 10-15 years ago and won't reflect recent research trends. The only way to catch up is to work harder or more efficiently than your competition, and that's difficult if you are competing against the smartest, most diligent people in your field.

    Most paths lie somewhere between these extremes, but generally closer to the second case (since all academic or research jobs are very competitive). I would not recommend holding a full-time job while working on a PhD unless you have very modest goals for what you intend to do with the PhD.

  • The universities that I am familiar with in the US and UK have regulations about the number of hours that can be worked for full time students. These rules would prevent you from being both a full time PhD student and having a full time job.

    For example, the UPenn Psychology policy states:

    The Department expects full time effort in return for its support during the five years of the program. Thus, students may not engage in outside employment while on departmental support.

    and the MIT policy states:

    The student interested in working part time off campus, and who is a US citizen or permanent resident, should first speak to his or her research advisor about the nature of the proposed work. The advisor must be assured that the work will not compromise the time that the student is expected to devote to research at MIT, and that the outside work does not compromise or infringe upon patent or intellectual property rights related to the student’s MIT research. The student also must ensure that the outside work does not violate any departmental policy.

    There are many universities that take part time PhD students and expect them to be working full time. So yes, one can get a PhD while working full time, but as for the second part of the question

    It can be too much work, stress, etc.?

    Not only can it be, it likely will be. This is equally true for both full time students without family commitments and part time students with other work and family commitments.

    Along the lines of number of hours, many scholarships, RA-ships, and other sources of funding for students are conditional that the student works a maximum number of hours at a job per week (often 10 or 20). In other words, if you work more than 20 hours a week, you become ineligible for many scholarships and fellowships and therefore will need to start paying for school from your pocket.

    Really? I don't know any university in the US that restricts outside employment for *domestic* PhD students as a matter of policy. Mine doesn't. (International students are restricted by US law per the terms of the student visa.)

    @ff524 I edited the answer to include links to the two universities I am most familiar with.

    @ff524 All of the programs I applied to did not allow you to work outside of your graduate work position (e.g. teaching assistant, research) and it is in contract and the handbook. I am sure there are nuances between each school, but the general idea is that the hours expected from you between coursework and your graduate work position put you at full time, and to do any more work than this would overload the student. If you are not taking on funding via your work position, you can work. This might have to do with the fact that each school had a union that negotiated these terms.

  • I have done it and do not recommend it. While I did not require an extension of the time required, working a full-time job will generally prevent you from travelling to conferences and from establishing contacts essential for success. You are more likely to end up in a backwater than a vital research area. You become less identified with your research than with your work, which in my case is involves specializations often considered necessary within academia and which are remunerated well outside of academia, but which have low academic value themselves. It has been a struggle changing this perceived identification--I might as well attempt to retrain Pavlov's dogs.

    Consider yourself fortunate to have access to My relatives were unaware of the commitments involved and provided well-meaning but uninformed advice ("you're smart enough"), not recognizing that scheduling has to be considered independently of ability, effort and experience [see Decio Coviello, Andrea Ichino and Nicola Persico. Don't Spread Yourself Too Thin: The Impact of Task Juggling on Workers' Speed of Job Completion NBER Working Paper No. 16502]. Employers often don't recognize or choose not to recognize the independence of these factors either, so I cannot blame my relatives for bad advice. Most of all I blame myself. I am not proud of the outcome. I had published a paper in the beginning in graduate school, but left the field. It was a mistake not to build on early successes, but the distractions of full-time work made it difficult to absorb the right lessons at the right time.

  • I was able to complete my PhD while working full time as a consultant. Based on that experience ...

    1. Have a mentor that's done it, preferably one at the school you're thinking about attending. A lot of the 'for profits' have very interesting models for keeping students on track. For me, it was someone who remains an important mentor in my life. Prior to applying, I spoke with her and she mentioned she earned her PhD while working full time as a consultant and then provided some sound advice and encouragement.

    2. Some programs do a better job then others at scheduling graduate level courses so they don't conflict with normal working hours. You might have better luck with a metropolitan university or one that accommodates non-traditional learners.

    3. There is a trade off related to there only being 24 hours in a day. The university experience includes many talks and presentations that enrich all scholars, whether or not the scholarship being presented relates to your area of expertise. The more flexibility you can find in your work schedule to take advantage of these unique opportunities the better you'll be for it.

    4. Plan 2-3 hours out of class for every hour in class except during final project time. Then, plan lots more. Also, the academic calendar and many industry calendars are tied in subtle manners. The client wanting a project completed before everyone goes on varying summer breaks means extra work during final project time for classes.

    5. Have a fairly good idea of what you want to study and/or who you would like to study with sooner rather then later. Find out which professors are able to graduate their students in a timely manner. A lot of time can be spent trying to figure out what you want to write about, and that is time that could be spent either writing or working towards the end goal of graduation with PhD and job still intact.

    6. Have a detailed plan/schedule for your day once you transition from classwork to dissertation work. Practice the plan the last semester you're taking classes. Stick to the plan, even when the alarm goes off at 4am and you were up until 2 taking care of something else.

    7. Some might be luckier, but for me, for both my master's thesis and my PhD dissertation, I had to scale my work hours way back - 6 months for Masters and 12 months for PhD - to be able to produce work at the level I was demanding of myself. This is something that needs to be planned for re material needs.

    8. If you have responsibilities to others (spouse, parents, significant others, kids, some combination of) make sure they're on board as well. I am grateful for the 2 am bottles fed to children as I read through thousands of lines of code because I was up anyway. I'm also forever grateful to my teachers and committee members who understood the work-school-life balance issues and worked with me to be as helpful as was fair.

    Finally, know there are a lot of us that viewed earning a PhD as an important milestone in the senior part of our careers. For me, it led to a teaching position in a regional public university that was more rewarding and fun then I had imagined. Hang in there, take it a day at a time, and enjoy what you're learning. Best of luck!

  • I'm doing it now. The big issue for me was learning how to balance school work with the rest of my life. That's something that needs some thought prior to beginning your program.

    Make sure your significant other is TRULY onboard. School takes a lot of time, and resentment can build, if otherwise.

    Know how much you can take. I was taking two courses a semester in order to satisfy a university requirement. It was killing me. I'm only taking one course a semester now, but I'm much happier than I was.

    Understand how long your coursework stays valid. Coursework only lasts for several years, so plan accordingly.

    Make sure your faculty will give you the attention that a full-time student receives. In some programs, part-timers are second-class citizens. Not good.

    Try and graduate prior to the fall semester. Appointments usually begin at the beginning of the fall (winter) term. Don't want to wait too long for a position to show up.

  • That's possible in some fields, impossible in others

    I am in TCS, and I know of several high school teachers who obtained a PhD in TCS after a few years. Basically, they were able to work 1 full day on week-end for their research + a few hours during the week. Of course they needed more than 3 years to graduate, but this is possible.

    My wife is in history/archeology, and many (more than half of them) PhD students work full-time in library or other places since there are very few fundings. We have friends who graduated after 10 years. In this field it is difficult for those who work full-time in a place unrelated to their studies since access to old sources is needed for doing research. Most of these students took their holidays to go to libraries/museums/field archeology places in foreign countries.

    I have relatives in plant biology and in animal biology. It is impossible to complete a PhD in these fields without working full time in a lab. Indeed, most of the time is spent in doing heavy experiments, with living things, which means being available when needed.

  • During the first year of my doctoral studies I had no departmental support and kept myself indoors and fed by working about 2.5 part-time jobs.

    Put bluntly that situation was not sustainable: it was physically wearing me down notwithstanding that I did nothing but work, study, eat and sleep.

    Moreover, later in my studies I needed to devote more time to school than I did that first year. Perhaps there are exceptional individuals that could manage it, but if you are merely smart and productive you should not count on managing.

    Your story is very enlightening.

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Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM