Can You Earn a PhD While Working?

A PhD student planning their week of studying and working

Earning a doctoral degree is a common goal for many who value education and career advancement. In some fields, earning a PhD offers the chance of climbing to the pinnacle of the profession. For other fields, such as psychology, a PhD is often a prerequisite to begin practicing. 

In most cases, doctoral students enroll in their PhD program on a full-time basis—which may sound like it would leave little time for working. However, there are exceptions, and some students do decide to earn their PhD while working.

Earning a PhD While Working: Is It Possible?

Doctoral degree students fund their graduate education in a variety of ways, such as through tuition waivers and stipends from their schools or with outside scholarships. However, not every PhD student will be fully or even partially funded; this makes it necessary for them to earn their PhD while continuing to work.

Additionally, many people decide to return to school to earn a PhD after spending a few years working in their industry. For these students, the idea of resigning from their positions to return to school on a full-time basis may be a bittersweet pill to swallow. The dual issues of finances and employment raise an important question: Is it possible to earn a PhD while working?

The short answer is: Yes, it’s possible—and many people have done it. However, it can also be quite complicated. After all, balancing so many significant commitments can be a bit stressful. If you’re thinking about earning your PhD while holding down a job, you’ll need to do some careful planning and have sustained motivation to finish your degree.

Before you make the commitment to enroll in a doctoral program, you should consider several factors: 

  • How long will it take you to finish a PhD in your desired field? Note that degrees in some subject areas typically take longer than others.
  • Do you have a strong social support network in place? 
  • Do you want to work full time and be a full-time PhD student? Or will you work full time and be a part-time PhD student?

It’s important to embark on this journey with your eyes open. Yes, it’s going to be challenging. But if you keep reminding yourself of your reasons for pursuing a PhD, you’ll find that it’s easier to continue pushing forward.

Talking to Your Employer About Getting a PhD While Working Full Time

If you’re planning on earning your PhD while working full time, you’ll need to have a discussion with your employer before enrolling. This will be easier if you’re going to earn your PhD in the same field as your current job. If that’s your plan, you can even ask your employer about tuition reimbursement from the company.

Even if your PhD isn’t in the same field as your current profession, your employer may be empathetic about your goals. Discuss whether flex-time work arrangements are available as well as whether the company has any employees who already have a doctoral degree. The extra support from someone who has already been on the PhD journey could prove invaluable for you.

Choosing a Doctoral Degree Program

Your choice of doctoral degree program will influence whether it’s feasible to earn a PhD while working. Ideally, you’ll want to choose a program with online classes. This will give you some much-needed scheduling flexibility and reduce your commute time. 

If you’ve decided that you’d like to be a part-time student and a full-time employee, then you’ll need to carefully review the requirements of the degree program, department and university. In some cases, there is a requirement that PhD students complete their degree within a certain period, such as six or seven years.

You should also be aware of all other requirements, such as whether there are any residencies. Even in an online program, residencies take place on campus. They are great opportunities to network and to work closely with professors, advisors and peers.

Discussing Your PhD and Work Schedule With Your Advisor

Although it may not always be possible, it’s ideal to work with a dissertation advisor who also earned a PhD while working. Regardless, whether your advisor worked part time or full time, they should have some valuable insights that can help you.

Once you’ve found the right dissertation advisor for your needs, you can sit down with them to discuss your plans. Some specific topics to discuss include the following: 

  • Frequency and scheduling of meetings with your advisor 
  • Fitting your dissertation work around your work schedule 
  • Expectations for your progress on your PhD 
  • Preferred methods of communication (advisors usually prefer email) 
  • Course load for the first few semesters

You can even ask your advisor for time management tips if you wish. To keep yourself on track toward PhD completion and to hold yourself accountable, it’s a good idea to draft a brief action plan toward the end of each meeting. Make notes about what you need to accomplish before your next meeting and the process of completing those steps. 

Tips for Earning Your PhD While Working

Earning a PhD while working is no mean feat, but it’s definitely possible. Use the following tips to facilitate the process. 

  • Find a routine: Try establishing a set schedule for at least most days of the week and figure out when you are most productive. 
  • Designate your study space: Even if you don’t have a spare room to use as your office, you should try to designate a distraction-free area of your home to concentrate on your PhD work. 
  • Use motivational reminders: In your study space, hang up a list of the reasons why you want to earn your PhD to keep yourself motivated. 
  • Use a timer: If you can’t seem to focus, try setting a timer for an hour. Then, commit to working non-stop during that hour before you allow yourself a brief break.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Doctoral Studies is a leading destination for students who wish to earn their PhD while working. GCU offers a variety of online doctoral degree programs where students can benefit from flexible scheduling, financial aid opportunities for graduate students, and networks such as the Virtual Doctoral Community Network™ to help students connect with each other. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to explore your doctoral degree options at GCU.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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