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I was wondering if it would be okay for a full-time PhD student (in biology) to pursue a part-time degree in an unrelated subject.

I had an undergrad experience that was pretty "focused", which was great in that it gave me decent training for graduate school, but also meant I never really got to experience certain subjects as much as I would've liked.

I came across a mostly-online degree programme in liberal arts from an accredited university and it got me thinking. Classes are mostly-online and I would be able to work at my own pace; I could spread the whole thing out across, say, 5 years. Any synchronous online sessions would take place in the evening/night, or during the weekend.

Do I absolutely have to enroll in a programme like this to fill out the "gaps" in my education? Admittedly no. I could just read books. But I feel like I want to. I would prefer the structure, engagement and feedback/advising that comes with formalized instruction, especially since I understand self-study is not exactly the best approach to subjects like Philosophy.

I do think the exposure to liberal arts subjects would develop me personally (different ways of thinking, better articulation). It's something I regret not having touched while an undergrad.

I don't mean to sound ungrateful or uninterested in my graduate study. I genuinely am. I just also genuinely want to enrich myself in this particular way, on the side. I know what little free time I have would become even less, but my heart is telling me it would be worth it. And I do have an interest in Philosophy I would like to explore. If things go south, I will pause or drop it.

If it doesn't interfere with my progress in my PhD, do you guys think it would be a good idea? I would have to tell my advisor, right (would I?)? I don't wish to upset him or give him a wrong idea.

Sorry for the long post, thank you for any advice.

  • I am not pessimistic. It is just that for me it would have been impossible (hard-core science and labs, in my case). – Alchimista Oct 27 at 13:00
  • Some places will not admit you to a bachelor's if you already have one - are you sure this program will? – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 28 at 16:35
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    I did an unrelated undergrad program throughout my PhD as a hobby, and it was very rewarding! It is an advantage just to understand the expectations, knowing how to write, and generally experience of academia. I was rather relaxed about it. If my PhD project was in an intense phase, I'd skip e.g. a test, and do it later, accepting some average results. However, I never failed any unit and I feel that I understand the material. At the moment I'm writing a paper in my main subject, using methods I learned from my BSc. (My PhD is in 'hard-core science', my extra BSc in 'hard-core humanities'.) – Tactopoda Oct 28 at 23:38
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    One advantage I'm sure you will have will be that you will be a much better academic student. You have study habits, problem solving skills and test taking magic at a much higher level than most people taking an on-line only program. I took an "executive masters" degree (i.e., one geared towards professionals working in the field). The professors often commented on how our much higher level of knowledge and practical experience matched with our piss-poor test-taking skills seemed odd. But, as one said "taking tests are those folks' job" – Flydog57 Oct 29 at 23:21
  • It is possible, but almost all the people who I know who did not complete their PhD had another activity that took over their time (other study, business, job, family, etc). "Displacement activity" at the emotionally hard parts of a PhD (experiment "fails", "boring" thesis writing, funding running out, advisor less attentive) is very common. I would suggest a long hard look at why you need to do this now and not after your PhD is complete. – afaulconbridge Oct 30 at 12:31

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If it does not interfere with your graduate studies, then no one could possibly object. People should have hobbies outside their PhDs, and if you a Physics student has an interest in Classic Philosophy, then so be it.

But you need to be sure it won't interfere. There is a world of difference between taking the odd evening class in something and enrolling in a degree, even part time. Think about how much time you have: Our full-time undergraduate degrees are designed to require 37 hours a week of study. Even doing such a degree over 5 years, rather than 3, you would still be talking about 23 hours a week. Are you going to manage to be working at peak performance if you are doing this on top of 40-50 hours a week of graduate study?

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    And, you need buy-in from your advisor. Otherwise the situation could become untenable. – Buffy Oct 27 at 12:44
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    One thing that might come in handy regarding the work effort though: Imho a lot of the starting courses account for the fact that students need to learn to learn (by themselves). If you already know your learning techniques and can judge which time investments are worthwhile and which aren't that can save a lot of time the average starting student "wastes". And in addition, when you do it just "for fun" you might not be focussed on grades, so an overall passing might be fine, because you focus your time on the bits that interest you, but indeed OP needs to be aware of those aspects at least. – Frank Hopkins Oct 27 at 20:47
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    I feel like someone who's competent enough to be a PHD student wouldn't need to spend 37 hours per week studying for a full time undergraduate degree. Especially because the liberal arts are less rigorous than what the OP is used to, and their main goal is to enrich themselves (instead of necessarily getting a 4.0). – Inertial Ignorance Oct 28 at 1:14
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    I can't speak for liberal arts degrees, but I wouldn't expect my PhD students to be able to take our degree in much less than 37 hours. I don't even think I could do it in substantially less time. – Ian Sudbery Oct 28 at 12:07
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    “Liberal arts are less rigorous than what the OP is used to”? That is just not true. The various liberal arts are legitimate, rigorous fields of study, not frivolous, unimportant, or easy. – Reid Oct 28 at 20:34
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I find it a bit sad that a question like this even needs to be asked. Yes, of course it’s okay. You are a PhD student not an indentured servant (though too often people confuse the two...), and anything that you choose to do with your spare time is your private business. This is no different than someone who goes home at the end of the day and writes poetry, or plays guitar or board games or does any number of other things that graduate students (and people in general) do outside of work. Of course, I’m assuming that your study activities will in fact take place in the off-work period as you indicated. If you are worried about any appearance of impropriety, remember that it’ll be your responsibility to maintain a healthy separation between your work and your philosophy “hobby”.

As for telling your advisor: you can, but you are under no obligation to tell them. And if you do decide to discuss it, make sure that you tell them as opposed to ask them. It’s not something that you need permission or approval to do, and (re: your “I don't mean to sound ungrateful” comment) certainly not something to apologize for.

Finally, for what it’s worth, if you were my student I’d be totally supportive and encouraging of pursuing this idea (to the extent that my support is required, which as I said it isn’t really), while cautioning you that you may be putting some money at risk and that graduate school is for many people a very demanding pursuit that leaves less time than they expect for other activities, especially intellectually demanding ones.

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    As a PhD widow/er I'm puzzled by the concept of 'spare time' – Strawberry Oct 29 at 17:38
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Many PhD programmes allow you to enrol in undergraduate classes from other parts of the university (I know mine did). I would explore this as an option, it would seem to retain almost all the benefits of your plan without such a large risk of overcommitment. Missing out on the actual undergraduate certificate seems not a big deal if you are already getting a PhD.

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I know people who did multiple second BS and MS degrees while doing a PhD. Mainly business.

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I got a Master's degree in astrophysics while completing my PhD in math. When I asked my supervisor about it, he said "As long as you finish your dissertation on time, it's fine by me. Go for it!" and was very enthusiastic about the idea.

You might have to take some time off to pass exams for the degree you want to get on the side, so you would want to talk to your PhD advisor about it. But as long as you do the work for your PhD, there is no reason you can't get another degree on the side.

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I went through the same dilemma during my PhD in engineering and solved the same problem by taking some courses for credit and auditing others--Introduction to Wines, Existentialism or Marxism, Latin, and Religion and Reason. In my university we also have to take two minors when getting a PhD, and I was able to squeeze some classes I was interested in in one of my minors--Project Finance and Business Strategy. My adviser was not much of a fan of the idea, so I had to compensate for it by working harder.

Something else to keep in mind is your funding situation. In certain departments students have funding almost guaranteed for almost whatever time they need to graduate. If that is your case, why not just take an extra semester or so to graduate and take a few more classes? Otherwise, just try to gauge what your adviser would let you do and how much you would be able to get done. I do think it is worth it sacrificing a bit of the production work to become a more well-rounded person, even because being a good thinker, good communicator, and more empathetic person, all of which you can improve by taking philosophy and other classes, will definitely help you in your future profession.

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My vision:

  • Costs are money and time.
  • Risks are 1) Fail your PhD 2) Fail your other diploma 3) Fail both. Its implications are loss of money, time, career perspectives and maybe some self-esteem.
  • Expected benefits are 1) Intellectual stimulation 2) No regrets 3) The small possibility to completely change your job domain.

For the record, a friend of mine was in a similar situation: He was in its last year of business bachelor and started a part time history degree. He ended up failing his final exams in his business bachelor and completely gave up the history classes. He re-tried the bachelor business next year and succeeded. In other words it was a complete fail for him and he was not lazy or stupid, but any human has their limits.

If you really hesitating try to do your own list of positive vs negative aspects, it might help.

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Some others say this is entirely your own choice and you needn't tell anyone.

I disagree. This is not like playing sport or being part of the university drama troupe. There is serious time and head-space demand accompanying this activity. A supervisor has a right to know this, I think, as there is a risk of distraction from your own work. There is also a risk of disaffection among others in the research group if they sense a lack of commitment to the work in hand.

I don't think any decent supervisor will impede you if there's no bad impact on your work - in which case you stand to even benefit mentally/socially from it. But be aware that philosophy is not about ideas alone: it's a strict mental discipline and you have to clearly and rationally explore these ideas. It's not for nothing that Phil graduates quickly master other (and very competitive) professions like law, accountancy, business management, etc. Having met one or two Phils in transfer courses to software eng, I was always stunned at the strength of their logical faculty.

I'd be more worried about attitudes of other PhD students in your group. Maybe you could ask your supervisor to keep this between yourselves but not deny it if someone twigs.

Finally, if it needs to be said, don't wall out too much of your spare time so that there's no time to relax and try and keep a normal social life for someone of your age - i.e. unstructured and mutually discretionary engagement between people. We all need to engage with someone on a purely human level. While this may not enhance our rational mind in any way, it will enlighten our appreciation of the human context of our work and this in turn feeds into our motivation to work creatively and pleasure in such achievement. Studentship grant allowing, of course!

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Your primary advisor, if an apprenticeship, has tacit reason to believe that all of your work efforts (outside of free time) are spent towards completing your biology PhD. To pursue another degree otherwise suggests: 1) your dedication to your current PhD is lacking or waning and 2) you are potentially going to split your interests, which is not to the benefit of your primary PI.

While I recognize and appreciate your wide-ranging interests and skills, this is likely not going to be met with acceptance from your peers. You should have a very frank discussion with your advisor and try to come up with a mutually acceptable plan, if any.

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When it does not interfere with your graduate studies, then there cannot be any objection on it . Hobbies or other related study on related streams can be done in along with the PhDs. Chemist can show interests in Classical Chemistry and Earth Science, All the more the growth rate and the Performance will be high . so it can be as it is .

As long as you can manage there wont be a problem in facing both the test related to once subject . But make sure it won't interfere. Difference between taking the odd evening class in something and enrolling in a degree, even part time. Hence Time Management will play key roles. Think about how much time you have and the time left and keep it on track.

Finally, at the end of the day , it’s worth it, if you were my student I’d be totally supportive and encouraging of pursuing this idea , is for many people a very demanding pursuit and unencouraged on various level which will lead to less time than they expect for other activities, be it curriculum and many more .

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