Alexander M. Wyglinski, Live, Sandhya Balasubramanian, WPI

Getting Your PhD While Working Full-Time: 5 Tips to Succeed

The PhD is the ultimate postgraduate degree recognizing the critical thinking and problem-solving achievements of an individual whose research efforts have significantly contributed to the overall body of knowledge and have made transformative impact on our society.

Most people who think of someone getting a PhD often imagine an individual working 24/7 in a graduate research lab somewhere on campus, committing four to six years of their lives in pursuit of this degree. This common stereotype often masks other possible opportunities for obtaining a PhD, especially if one works full-time in industry. Once admitted to a PhD program, the real work begins with respect to making progress toward your degree that ultimately translates into a dissertation you can successfully defend to your committee. However, the path is often an uncertain and complicated one as you try to manage your paid “day job” at work and your “other job” as a PhD student. Nevertheless, many people “burn the candle at both ends” when it comes to working full-time and getting their PhD— and they successfully handle both obligations in addition to responsibilities at home as well as other commitments.

Here are five tips that may help you succeed at getting your PhD degree while working a full-time industry job:


1: Communicate often with everyone. Communication is key in any complex situation or relationship. In the case of doing a PhD degree while working full-time, communication is critical for managing the complicated logistics of navigating your PhD degree with an active work schedule in addition to duties at home. For example, you should always be communicating with your PhD advisor with status updates, latest results, challenges/issues you are experiencing with your research, or guidance on your five-year plan-of-study; your PhD advisor is your mentor and guide throughout the PhD degree journey and your primary advocate for achieving your educational goals. Even if you do not have anything to report for a specific week, connect with your advisor and let them know that things may have been slow on the PhD front. At the same time, your manager/direct report/boss should also be in the loop with your PhD degree activities in terms of a workload perspective, especially as you are trying to balance your day job and PhD studies at the same time. This includes your partner at home and making sure they are aware of what is going on at any given moment in your day job and/or PhD studies.


2: Set deadlines, goals, and milestones no matter how small, short-term, and/or ambitious. PhD degrees are a 100-mile ultramarathon; they’re all about setting definitive intermediate milestones and goals during your journey to help define the pace of your progress as you work your way toward the day of your dissertation defense and the completion of your PhD degree. This becomes challenging when you are also handling your day job and its associated deliverables. All too often, when push comes to shove, the day job will take precedence over the PhD studies resulting in the milestones and objectives of the latter being delayed to accommodate the activities of the former. Unfortunately, it is often very difficult to “reboot” the PhD activities and get them started again once things start calming down at work (and sometimes work never calms down). As a result, instead of setting self-imposed deadlines and milestones that are relatively easy to defer, use deadlines and milestones of actual events or other fundamentally important activities related to your PhD studies defined by the program or department, such as a conference paper deadline or some important academic milestone associated with your degree, such as your proposal or an annual review by your committee; these are quite a bit harder to push to the back seat when things come up at work. (Note: things will always come up at work, and it is necessary to assign some level of priority to your PhD studies, as well.)


3: Allow the “worlds to collide” wherever possible to save time. When you think about it, working a full-time job is at least 40 hours per week. If you want to make decent progress toward your PhD degree, that’s a minimum of another 20 hours per week and sometimes much more. Given there are only 168 hours per week, 117 of those hours you will be awake (assuming 7 hours of sleep per night), that gives your 57 hours per week to do everything else, including spending time with family, grocery shopping, exercise, home maintenance, and other activities. To make more efficient use of your time, try to leverage what you are doing outside of your PhD for your degree. For example, if there is a project that you are working on at your day job, and it lends itself very nicely toward your PhD dissertation research, see if you can share work across worlds. Of course, it is possible the project at work is internal to the company and there are restrictions on how it can be accessed by the outside world. Nevertheless, there are ways  of combining your day job and PhD studies, such as focusing on the fundamental research aspects of the project at work and those scientific contributions to the research community. (Note: this will require quite a bit of communications with your advisor and manager.)


4: Practice healthy time management and always make a block of time for your PhD studies. One of the biggest challenges with pursuing the PhD degree is time. As they say, “you get out what you put in,” and a PhD is no exception. However, unlike your conventional on-campus PhD where you are working on your PhD full-time and have no other professional obligations to worry about, the PhD studies for an individual working full-time for a company is a completely different matter. In the case of a full-time employee working full-time and doing PhD studies, the fundamentally important strategy here is to always carve out blocks of dedicated time for your research. Simply working on your PhD for one to two hours a day will not get you any closer to completing your degree, so always look for routine blocks of time to do your PhD work. For instance, use early Saturday mornings for three to four hours to get some research done or perhaps several evenings a week. In some companies, employees are permitted to have some “professional development” time to work on projects; find out if your company has such an arrangement with staff and whether it can be used for PhD research. When a major milestone approaches, such as a qualifying exam, proposal defense, or dissertation defense, try using some vacation days or other accrued time off to help prepare for these.


5: Choose a university that supports industry practitioners pursuing PhD degrees. It turns out that many schools do not permit individuals working full-time to also pursue PhD degrees due to issues such as residency requirements. At other universities, many industry practitioners pursue PhD degrees as “self-funded” students on an ad hoc basis without much of the additional support needed to ensure their success when pursuing their degree. To make sure that you successfully achieve your PhD degree while maintaining a healthy full-time industry career, consider looking at schools that have PhD programs and frameworks specifically designed for full-time industry practitioners.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) we have both Experiential PhD and Executive PhD programs in addition to conventional on-campus PhD programs to support full-time industry practitioners.

So, there you have it! If you have any questions or would like to learn more about how to successfully obtain your PhD and work a day job at the same time, please feel free to connect with us. Good luck with your future graduate studies aspirations!

Alexander M. Wyglinski, PhD (Associate Dean, Graduate & Professional Studies, WPI)
Sandhya Balasubramanian, PhD

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