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I'm a second-year Ph.D. student in Computer Science and I feel extremely burned-out because:

  • I work fulltime as a software engineer
    • I work for financial reasons because TAship pay is negligible or basically equal to one-third of my rent.
    • I asked to be part-time and I have been continuously denied because my managers think me working part-time would not be enough to get things done
  • I have to be a TA as part of my Ph.D. program so I teach one section algorithm & data-structure
  • work on my thesis
  • taking a graduate-level class which is extremely time-consuming

The semester is almost done and I'm exhausted I hate losing and dropping out is basically losing but I also enjoy school and learning.

What are effective ways to deal with burn-out while working full-time during a PhD program?

  • 10
    What is question? – user115896 Nov 25 '19 at 6:59
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    Can't you do your PhD part-time? – Poidah Nov 25 '19 at 7:07
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    Another option would be to find another job -- it might be possible to find something that still has decent pay but would have more forgiving hours. And more reasonable management. (if they're paying for your to go to school, but not being flexible about it, that's a bad sign ... and if they're not paying for your degree, unless you had some written agreement for a pay raise once you get your degree, you should start networking and find another job. Talk to the career center at school) – Joe Nov 25 '19 at 16:30
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    Don't drop out. Make changes somewhere if you can. Maybe find another job. But, don't drop out. – takintoolong Nov 26 '19 at 0:09
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    Perhaps it might be worth explaining to the people who manage the PhD that their choice is between them giving you part-time or you burning out and quitting altogether. If they think doing stuff part-time won't be sufficient, then you quitting altogether is probably even less acceptable. – SSight3 Nov 26 '19 at 2:06
51

Doing PhD studies isn't a trivial activity - there's a reason why most PhD students are full-time students. Unfortunately, that means you cannot easily both do a PhD and hold a separate full-time job. That would be equivalent to doing two jobs at the same time. No wonder you're burned out.

Options:

  1. Switch to a part-time PhD. You'll take longer to graduate, and you'll still be working 1.5 full-time jobs, but if you're willing to work hard this could still work out.

  2. Put your PhD on official hold (or perhaps even quit it if you can't put it on hold), get on a more secure footing financially, and then go back to finish the PhD. You'll take even longer to graduate, but you'll only be working one job at a time.

Personally, I'd prefer #2, because I've found that working >1 job at a time is really hard and imposes a heavy cost. It's bearable if the period is only a few weeks, but if it'll take years (a part-time PhD could easily take 8+ years to finish), I'll likely burn out anyway.

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  • 27
    Rather than Quit your PhD, you might be able to Put your PhD on hold, e.g., by taking extended leave, if this is an option supported by your institute. – user2768 Nov 25 '19 at 10:00
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    I would add that if you could find a job that is aligned with your PhD thesis you will be applying all you efforts in the one direction. I have read of something like Industry-driven PhD programs. – gustavovelascoh Nov 25 '19 at 17:57
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    Most PhD students I've known do more than a fulltime job worth of work for 4+ years too, so it's not just 2 fulltime jobs - it's more like 2.5 of them. – enderland Nov 26 '19 at 13:35
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    @user2768: Edited as per your suggestion, I hope Allure approves (otherwise they can edit it back). – einpoklum Nov 26 '19 at 21:05
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    Personally, I would add a third option -- switch to a part-time job. I understand OP's current job won't support this, but I'd rather see them find a new job than put their PhD on hold (it's hard to pick a PhD back up after you put it down). – cag51 Nov 27 '19 at 1:04
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It is not easy to assess your situation. This is a time for self reflection.

You've captured your situation, but you haven't told us WHY you're seeking a PhD.

You've found out that getting the degree can involved real sacrifice and hard work -- taking on lots of responsibilities, trading off performance in one area in order to finish busywork, having situations arise that are somewhat out of your control....

The way to make the choice you're trying to make is to ask yourself "Is this worth it?", and the only one who can make the assessment is you.

I suggest writing down your long term and intermediate term goals. Forget about where you are now. Take an afternoon, and figure out where you want to be. After you've done that exercise, your can ask yourself how attaining a PhD is going to help you reach those goals, and how leaving the program will get in the way of those goals. For example, you state that you're working full time as a software engineer. Can you use that position, especially if you can put your full effort into it, to springboard you into what you really want to be doing? Will it tear down obstacles if you get your degree? Will the added financial benefits of working a real job counter any shortcoming in your career (those numbers are real!)

Ideally, such questions should be asked BEFORE you enter a PhD program. Asking them now, however, is not misplaced. If you can't understand how the degree would advance your goals, it is a success, not a failure, to change your situation as soon as you see the disparity, and not sink more time into a challenging endeavor that doesn't support your goals.

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    "Ideally, such questions should be asked BEFORE you enter a PhD program. Asking them now, however, is not misplaced." 'The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.' It's never too late to reconsider any decision. Don't let the sunk-costs fallacy get in the way of living the life you want to live. – sintax Nov 25 '19 at 20:41
  • @sintax -- well said. – Scott Seidman Nov 25 '19 at 20:48
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Drop that sucker like it's hot. I was in the same position as you - burgeoning software engineer in the defense industry. Dropped the Ph.D., devoted myself to full-time industry work and pulled myself up the corporate ranks. Life is so much more relaxed, I'm not impoverished and demotivated and I'm doing way more relevant and interesting work than my advisor had me working on. Better yet, I have a team of Ph.D's working FOR me and am considered an expert in my field within my corporation.

I'm going to get downvoted to oblivion - but QUIT. Quit so hard and so fast! If the system is making you miserable and stressed out - it's not worth it. I initially had feelings of regret for giving up on it, but when I was able to move out of my parent's house, purchase my own home, get married, adopt more cats and go on multiple vacations every year, it became worth it. Now I look at quitting the Ph.D as the best decision I have ever made.

Don't be miserable! Software engineers are very employable and you'll do well no matter what you choose. Just don't choose a moment of unhappiness. Life's way too short.

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    Keep in mind this is just one perspective. I hated working full time as a Software Engineer, so I quit to do a PhD. I'm much happier now :) – setholopolus Nov 28 '19 at 3:27
  • "I'm going to get downvoted to oblivion" That is the attitude which makes me want to downvote. Your opinion is less interesting than you think. – Carsten S Nov 28 '19 at 9:53
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Yeah that's a tough situation all right.

Perhaps there is a way to address your employer's concern that the work won't get done if you are part time. His/her fear is understandable, since there are mouths to feed and in the corporate world the work absolutely must get done.

A possible option: ask for a probationary period, let's say two weeks. During this time you work part-time as you have proposed, and your employer can then judge whether or not sufficient work is getting done.

As part of the deal, he/she can switch you back to full time he/she judges the work isn't getting done. If that happens, you can decide then how you feel about staying.

Another option: perhaps you can find another graduate student to share the corporate workload with you; you both work part-time, but the employer sees effectively one full-time employee. But this will depend on the project you're working on, and the skill level of whomever you recruit.

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You should keep going if possible, perhaps part time. Either way your future is much better if you can get to the other side. Investing in your self will pay off in ways you probably cant imagine now. Best wishes

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I did a similar thing and worked to pay bills during the second year of my C.S. Ph.D. Your job sounds a lot like mine in that they want a lot out of you and aren't going to be accommodating.

Getting a Ph.D. involves several years of both hard work and sacrifices. Are you committed to that? If so, the job (and that income) come secondary. It can be hard to walk away from the money in C.S.

In my situation, I had to have a serious conversation with my advisor and do a little soul searching. My advisor committed to making sure I had a certain level of funding for my work after my second year. I had to do good work, help with grants, and move into some terrible housing to keep my budget intact. But it all came together for another five years.

If both you and your advisor are committed to your Ph.D., you should be able to find a way to make the finances work without the full time job.

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Well, you are on your second year, let's assume you have 3 more years to finish your PHD. I would suggest that you must be patient and never quit your studies. Quit your job, finish your PHD even if you have to borrow money, I am sure when you finish your PHD, better opportunities will come to you, even better than the job you have had to quit. Good luck!

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  • Not everyone wants a PHD for a position over someone with industry experience. As a hiring manager for a dev team, I'd take a candidate with 2-3 years exp over a Ph.D. – Hair of Slytherin Nov 26 '19 at 21:20
  • @HairofSlytherin May I ask to what extent you'd "take a candidate with 2-3 years exp over a Ph.D"? A candidate with Master's, a Bachelor's or a high school graduate? – scaaahu Nov 27 '19 at 2:51
  • Working on my dev teams - bachelor's degree. I would absolutely consider bachelor's dropouts with completed freshman-sophomore level classes done. Working on an analysis task might be a different story. But the dissertation work better align closely to the theme of the analysis. – Hair of Slytherin Nov 27 '19 at 15:59
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Stay the course, take out loans if you need to complete your Ph.D; There's plenty of demand for IT professionals, and with a Ph.D you'll be able to pay off your loans reasonably quickly. Avoid dropping out at all costs. Other jobs can be had (and your current employer will kick themselves for losing you), loans can tide you over - hit on your family for loan money or a co-signatory on the loan if needed; Get a room-mate if needed to cut your accommodation costs. Your financial options will be so much better in IT with a completed Ph.D than without it, and you'll kick yourself if you just drop it... maybe not immediately, but someday. Above all, try to make some time for yourself, even if brief, to get out in the sun, breathe some fresh air, clear your mind, get enough rest (if time is just too short, try Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion sleeping method - 1/2 hour every 3-4 hours - it's not a recipe for a lifetime, but might give you the hours in the day you need during this crunch period by not letting you get too tired). Best of luck!

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    This sleeping method sounds absolutely horrible. And I vehemently disagree with "take out loans if you need". You really need to do a solid financial analysis on whether that's a worthwhile investment. It's like dieting, it's much easier not to incur the debt than to pay it off. If you're doing this for employment opportunities, I hope you have some opportunities identified that are for those with doctorates, as I haven't met many in defense. But that's just my industry. – Hair of Slytherin Nov 26 '19 at 21:24
  • Fair points, but if a job is being sought by many with undergrad degrees, the guy with the Ph.D may get more favorable treatment, may be selected for advancement more than those in the remainder of the field; The Ph.D can also work in academia (often closed to undergrads). Re the sleeping: Buckie Fuller had 20 hour workdays for a sizable chunk of his life, abandoning Dymaxion sleep only when he got pretty old. Anyway, just trying to help this beleaguered younger person see one guy is rooting for him to finish what he had (at least at some point) felt was a worthwhile undertaking. – Hal Nov 26 '19 at 23:09
  • Last thought: Nobody would have kids if they did a solid financial analysis (there's no payback, trust me on this)… but some things (like a Ph.D?) are worth doing because you feel like doing them (and I wouldn't have missed having my kids even if I knew it would take 30 years off my life). – Hal Nov 26 '19 at 23:12
  • Hal, I hear what you're saying about "may get some more favorable treatment," but a 4-6 year time investment (especially while not enjoying yourself) is a large chunk of your life to dedicate to that kind of maybe. Especially when people with bachelors and masters degrees are doing just as well for themselves. When it comes to advancement and career progression, I would say that is 75-80% how you market and sell yourself. Possessing reasonable ambition, the ability to communicate your accomplishments and not accepting than you are worth will go a lot farther in climbing the ladder. – Hair of Slytherin Nov 27 '19 at 17:25
  • That's definitely nice of you to root him on, Hal. It's the right thing to do. Sometimes something just isn't for you and it's good to be honest with yourself and acknowledge that. – Hair of Slytherin Nov 27 '19 at 17:27
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Please don't make the same mistake many others have. Research is not more important than working or teaching or anything else. Your life has to be in balance and that will mainly be created by your mental attitude.

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