I have read this question posed a lot for math and science doctoral degree, but my question pertains to pursuing a social sciences doctoral degree. I'm currently working as a Management Analyst in local government. I've decided to pursue a PhD in Psychology at a nearby university. Being accepted is a big "if", but if I were accepted, my goal would be to retain my position in government as long as possible and find ways to connect my research to social behaviors pertaining to civic engagement and public health. I'm also in my early 30s, which means I'll be doing this during the decade when most people are settling into their careers. The eventual goal is to pivot to academia and pursue a career in lecturing and research.

My hope is that the overlap would ease the tension between holding down a relatively demanding, full-time job and would benefit my research. With that said, I'm wondering if I need a reality check here. Has anyone else endeavored anything like this? How difficult is it to balance both?

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    A PhD is (usually) the equivalent of a full time job (the majority of PhD students I know work at least 40 hours a week). Most PhDs are relatively demanding. Only you can decide if you have the time and energy to keep two relatively demanding full time jobs on the go. Commented May 19, 2020 at 17:00
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    Is your employer willing to somehow support your education and research goals?
    – Anyon
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 17:23
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    I have heard of those who go to work (full time) when all that remains for their Ph.D. is the writing of the thesis. They may take many years to finish the writing, or even never finish.
    – GEdgar
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 17:29
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    A better use of your time is to use your paying job to save up a nest egg to supplement a PhD stipend. Maybe knock out some classes if you can (state and local employees often get tuition benefits at state universities) Commented May 19, 2020 at 17:35
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    @PhilipSchiff "The eventual goal is to pivot to academia, and pursue a career in lecturing and research" OP is considering this with a goal in mind of an academic career for which a PhD is required.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 23:33

5 Answers 5


I don't want to repeat the points made in other good answers.

If you want some , keeping the full-time job and doing a PhD at the same time is impossible. In most cases, having a consistent while doing a PhD alone is very hard.

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    Nice. But even with no overlap it ain't always easy.
    – Buffy
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 22:21
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    @Buffy totally agree. I am trying to do it now with only a full-time job and fail spectacularly. Commented May 19, 2020 at 22:49
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    If OP wants to defend a thesis that is good enough to support a career in academia, the center becomes "five-legged unicorn-rare". Commented May 23, 2020 at 8:51

You can consider doing a part-time PhD that can be completed any time between 4 and 7 years (actual times may vary). This is an option provided for people with external responsibilities, such as having a full-time job. It is certainly feasible, but it includes the supervisor and the department agreeing. Also, the situation around fees and funding needs to be clarified, as the department may hesitate to provide funding to a part-time student with a full-time job and allocate it instead to a full-time PhD student with no other means. You might still be able to secure paid work (teaching or marking), a stipend/ bursary or for fees to be waived or covered by something else. This, of course is country and department specific. Technically, combining a full-time job and a part-time PhD is doable.

That said, even a part-time PhD requires a significant time commitment provided continuously, or at least in specific productive periods doing the PhD. In brief, research is a strange beast that cares little for your personal circumstances and cannot be put easily in boxes or timetables. It requires clarity of thought, calmness, time (often time to waste!) and personal commitment, which the conditions might not provide despite your best efforts. Even if the goal is not an academic career but simply completing a PhD, the demands are still high and you need to consider how to balance work, further responsibilities (social life, family, caring etc) and possible changes in the future (e.g. moving away, starting a family). I dare compare it to someone like a fencing or chess champion: a high level athlete, with all the dedication that demands, who cannot support oneself from that activity and needs to put as much time and effort in a full-time job. It is not a leisure hobby or a past-time activity. I do not know how you imagine research to be, and everyone has a different story according to their field, personality and circumstances. The more stories you hear, the better.

The advice I give to anyone is to think very carefully about the reasons for starting a PhD. Such a commitment is not undertaken because "there is nothing else to do", "I want to be a student again/more", "all my friends have one" or "I want to be a Doctor". It is a very demanding, long endeavour, unlike most experiences and requires a clear, persistent and strong personal desire and motive. I am not trying to dissuade or indirectly criticise you, and have no reason to doubt your composure, personality or abilities. I am only emphasising the need for careful thought, because quite early on, and after the first experience, you will need to decide what level of quality you will be able/ willing to reach in your work. The level of quality greatly depends on what I discussed earlier, so it becomes a virtuous or vicious cycle. At the end of the day, nobody knows your conditions better than yourself and you are the ultimate judge on how to combine the two.

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    4-7 years part-time would make sense in a system where a PhD is usually completed in 2-3 years. In the US, a full-time PhD in psychology would be expected to take 5 years. (not sure where OP is)
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 23:10
  • I am not familiar with a country where the expected time for PhD completion is 2 years. Most commonly it is 3 (also the time of a full-time studentship), with writing up granting an extra year. A good approximation for a part-time PhD is double the time of a full-time PhD, and in that context 4 means a brief extension over the standard full-time period.
    – user117109
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 23:16
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    Ok; in the US it would definitely not be 3 years, though, so if OP is in the US they would need to substantially adjust their expectations.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 23:32

As you have already learned, it is very difficult. Normally a doctoral program (in the US, where I assume you are) is a full time "job", but for most of the students that includes a fair amount of work as a TA to avoid tuition charges and provide a meager living. If you already have an established lifestyle and a family to support then giving up your job for this probably isn't feasible.

I'm assuming the US, here. Normally you start a doctoral program with coursework leading to comprehensive qualifying exams, followed by research leading to a dissertation. Normally universities impose a time limit on your studies, perhaps seven or so years. But things vary. If you already have a psychology masters it could be a bit different. Possibly some other masters would make a difference. Most students will have an undergraduate degree in psychology or a closely related field so the coursework is somewhat advanced. If you don't have that, it might be harder, both to get into a program and to fill in any gaps in your background.

But supposing that tuition is not a problem for you and your current job pays you well, then it might be possible under, perhaps, a modified study plan provided that you don't need to work as a TA (caveat below). Since you say it is a nearby university, you should find a way to communicate with them. In person is best, but hard now with the pandemic. Ask whether it is possible to start out with a lighter than normal course load so as to see how you can manage it. You have to get prepared for comps and you have to take care about any time constraints.

Thus, it might be possible to manage it up to the point where you start serious dissertation research. After that it may be less feasible to do both, but you will also have a better sends then of the tradeoffs and sacrifices you need to make.

But the best advice would come from the psychology faculty of the institution you would like to study at. They will point out any constraints and possible pitfalls.

Note, however, that for some programs, serving as a TA is a requirement for the degree, it being considered an important aspect of the education. In such a program you would almost certainly have something like two full time jobs.


As other commentators have stated, a full-time PhD candidate is usually expected to study full-time hours, which is nominally 36-40 hours a week, but it often turns out to be longer. Most universities impose rules on their PhD candidates that require approval from the Department for the candidate to take an outside job for more than some minimum number of hours per week. For example, when I did my PhD candidature, the rules said that I needed Department approval if I wanted to work more than 10 hours per week in an outside job. If I had asked to work a full-time job during my candidature, I am quite certain they would not have approved it.

As with all university administration matters, you will need to look up the rules at your particular institution. Your university will have a set of written rules for the PhD candidature, and that will tell you if there is any formal restriction on outside work during the candidature. Ordinarily, if a candidate is working a full-time job, they will be expected to drop their candidature back to a part-time load. This is desirable both for the university and for the sanity of the candidate.


I was in a somewhat similar situation, getting accepted to a U.S. PhD-program in the social sciences while being a senior analyst at a local government. I arranged for a reduced schedule for the first few years while doing coursework, taking exams, and ultimately the orals. It worked reasonably well, but it came with a cost both in terms of my "old" job where I was less available, and also as far as being less focused on my new program, forming networks, being part of group research projects, etc.

After my orals, I quickly moved back to full time, which made it at least a challenge to hit a good and persistent research stride. It took longer to finish, I was more scattered in most endeavors--including my young and growing family, and certainly, while my professional and academic interests overlapped substantially, I didn't have the same research output as some of my more academically focused peers had.

Which brings me to my final point about your motivation. I kept my leg in the professional world and didn't jump fully into the academic one, and am now back in a regional agency, which suits me quite well, but I often wonder how different my academic experience would have been if I had jumped in 100 percent and had gone the more traditional route. You say you want to pivot to academia--that seems to me to be an indication that you may start out by keeping your job, but be prepared to choose if things get tricky, and get a more focused academic experience.

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