Your part time PhD doesn’t have to be your life



I am reading an HBR article on LinkedIn when I spot an opportunity to work from home 2 days a week. It is a volunteering Marketing Director role with a social enterprise. I quickly email the CEO of the company and I make my interest known.

I tell him I’m currently doing my doctorate part time but I have time on my hands to work with his enterprise.  I say I have marketing experience and that I recently resigned from a very busy senior marketing role to take a personal break. He responds within minutes saying that my profile is interesting and that I should apply. I’m excited.

You see, this is characteristic of me. I see something interesting and I. Just. Pounce.

I admit it: I’m impulsive. Or as I like to think about it: I don’t mess about.

I’ve worked in the oil and gas industry for over 10 years and only took “pauses” to have 2 children. By the time my son was four and a half months old, he was in full time nursery and I was back at full time work. It might sound harsh but it’s all I knew.

On my first day on my first job after university, I was already married and nine weeks pregnant. I’ve always juggled everything at once, including an MSc in Petroleum Engineering and an MBA which I began when my daughter (my second child) was five months old. I did this along with full time work, and I achieved a distinction.

I tell you all this so that you can understand how laughable it was to my friends and family when I announced I was going to resign work and stay home.

I’ve always wanted to hold a doctorate. As I got older, I began to reflect on whether I was where I really wanted to be. It was a sort of midlife crisis. I realised that I enjoy academia and would like to have one foot or both feet in the next phase of my working life. I knew it would be a huge change both financially and professionally. But it was what I wanted. It still is.

However, a part time doctorate means that I’ve got time on my hands. I didn’t want my part time degree to be everything that I do. If I did, I may have taken a full time option.

I applied for the 2 days a week role but I had completely discounted the fact that I’m an extrovert. Staying home, reading and working on my laptop all day isn’t me. I need social interaction and I like to feel like part of a team. I also want flexibility. I don’t mind working hard, but I want to do it on my own terms.

That leads me to another element that I needed to cater for. I discovered very quickly into my career break that I thrive on structure. Having the regular structure to my day stripped away was quite plainly, killing me. Yes, I study but it is difficult to bring structure into it from a part time perspective. I tried to set a routine, including exercise, studying and meeting friends for coffee etc. While the exercise seemed to work, the rest of the structure was a struggle. I often felt isolated without the structure I’d developed from working in the private sector for a decade. I needed the structure of getting up, working and meeting deadlines.

I was short listed for the social enterprise role but I pulled out (I hate disappointing people so that whole conversation was awkward but served me right for being impulsive).

I now work part time for a global energy firm where I lead software marketing. I work 3 longish days and a half day. It works for me. I also do some research assistantship work for my supervisor and it’s been rewarding. It’ll be a busy few years for me but I feel like it is good busy. I enjoy working for this company. They are flexible and they value me. The work with my supervisor is helping me understand how the academic environment operates and I enjoy that too. I work on my thesis up to 15 hours a week. Some weeks, it drops to 10 hours but I’m finding a structure that works.

I occasionally wonder if my thesis will be on track to finish in time with what I’ve put on my plate. Gaining my doctorate is important for the next phase of my life so if my structure stops working and I need to make changes, I’ll do it. Like I said: I don’t mess about. In the last few months, I’ve learned that the following considerations are important if you are embarking on a part time doctorate:

Know who you are. Are you an introvert or extrovert? Consider whether you need significant social interaction particularly if you are likely to be studying away from the university
Keep motivated and productive. Do you need structure or do you thrive more on a less structured schedule (also see PhD lifestyle guilt written by Paula Hanasz on the benefits of less structure in PhD study)? You might need a routine that involves going to a local cafe or library, and perhaps include an exercise routine to keep you motivated and healthy.

Build in flexibility. For your sanity, you need to be flexible. If your part time degree is not sponsored by employer, let your employer know you are pursuing a doctorate and hopefully you might get their understanding. If it’s possible to reduce your hours at work, that could be an option you pursue. You might want to finish your degree in good time but allow yourself space to make changes if you believe other aspects of your life are suffering.

Is anybody out there doing a PhD/professional doctorate part time? How have you stopped it from taking over your life?