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I was reading through the post Is it possible to work full time and complete a PhD and had a few follow up questions:

(1) I read somewhere that one can complete a PhD without funding from a TAship or RAship, getting that funding from one's full-time employment instead. Is this allowed by most (US) universities?

(2) Likewise are fellowships/grants such as NSF awarded to those with full-time employment? I couldn't seem to find anything explicitly to the contrary on the web, except I am unsure if 'fully-engaged' in one's graduate program includes TAship/RAship particpation; can anyone speak to this?

Basically, I am interested in substituting departmental funding for an external job, yet curious about having it both ways -- still getting an external fellowship (obviously this is contingent upon many things, but I am curious about the possibility). My field is math (probably pure, but perhaps applied.

This is not a question about stress/workload/work-life balance, which are addressed pretty handily in the linked question, simply about what would generally be possible or impossible.

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  • Although many industrial employers will pay the cost of part-time tuition for an employee studying for a master's degree, it's much less common to pay for a PhD, and many PhD programs really want students to be full-time students. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 3:02

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I'll only address your first question. I'll assume that you're talking about an "academic" PhD from an R1, not a program specifically aimed at working professionals.

The key point is that tuition remission is normally tied to the TAship / RAship / fellowship, not tied to your admission. So, you would have to:

  1. work your regular job;
  2. do your grad school work, which is easily another full time job; and,
  3. pay tuition (~$40K/year).

If you're willing to do this, will they let you? Most schools probably don't have a firm policy for such an edge case; you'd have to ask them. I suspect the top schools would decline, while the lower-ranked schools might be interested and might even offer some reasonable accommodation (e.g., a partial or full tuition remission).

I read somewhere...

I suspect what you read was a special case in which you could "double dip" -- i.e., the work you do during your day job is relevant to (or is) your thesis. In particular, some universities have established industry partnerships and the funding is already worked out. For example, Northeastern University's experiential PhD. But in these cases: (1) the affiliation between your employer and the university would probably have to exist already; you probably won't be able to create the affiliation yourself, and (2) within your company, the "job" may be classified as an internship, with a corresponding salary.

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  • Many moons ago when I went to grad school, IBM would select a small number of staff every year to send to get a PhD. Several were in my department. They continued to be paid their full professional salary (hey, IBM wanted them back), and IBM covered the tuition. They would have to be a TA one semester like everyone else. No company wanting the people to come back would cut them down to an intern salary.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 13:01
  • @JonCuster If your company regards you as qualified enough, you may be sent (e.g., via a BMS PhD Fellowship) for a doctorate in pharmacy under obligation to return to the company. Meanwhile, your are on paid leave, with help regarding the tuition.
    – Buttonwood
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 15:45
  • @Buttonwood - indeed, various companies deal with this differently. Mine still has programs that do the 'we pay you as a staff member while you get your degree' thing for either a Masters or a PhD. Not everyone who wants to is selected to. The question is, how much are they paid while on paid leave? If their usual salary, then it is the same thing.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 15:49
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    @cag51 The employing company, hosting PI, and PhD candidate have the possibility to identify a topic which is of mutual interest. E.g., in chemistry, a synthetic method to advance, an attractive scaffold to vary in regard of branches around. Compared to a "standard" master student entering the PhD, s/he already has earned more hands-on insight about what is practical for a transfer to the benches of Merck, MSD, Lilly etc and constantly reports back both to PI @ uni and company. The sometimes different perspective complementary to academia may open a feedback loop to the PI and group members.
    – Buttonwood
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 20:40
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    @cag51 When companies pay for employee education, they very often have a contractual stipulation that they have to pay back their tuition if they don't stay employed for 5 or so years. There's similar US Government programs (i.e. CyberCorps) that you work for the Government on a 1 year service for 1 year support basis.
    – user71659
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 21:32
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Your situation (1) happens with the equivalent of a research assistantship funded by some company; this is common in fields where companies want to hire PhD students to do projects for them, and not common elsewhere. Otherwise you're just a person taking your own salary and spending it on a graduate program; that might happen especially for students who have already exceeded funding limits but still want to graduate, but it's a really bad idea to try to start out that way. Individual programs might allow it anyways.

For (2) you'll have to check for any specific funding stream, but generally I would expect you will not find policies that say "you can't work", but will see policies that state you need to be fully dedicated to research or something along those lines, and that it's up to your institution to make sure you're following those guidelines (in the US, the government generally tasks academic institutions with the administrative burden of making sure their money is spent well). I'd expect any reasonable university policy to say that holding a whole additional full-time job would not permit students to direct their full effort towards their studies.

For example, from this Q&A: https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2013/nsf13084/nsf13084.pdf

I am on Tenure; may I participate in paid/unpaid activities?

Fellows are expected to devote full time to advanced scientific study or work during tenure. However, because it is generally accepted that teaching or similar activity constitutes a valuable part of the education and training of many graduate students, a Fellow may choose to undertake a reasonable amount of such teaching or similar activity, without NSF approval. It is expected that furtherance of the Fellow's educational objectives and the gain of substantive teaching or other experience, not service to the institution as such, will govern such activities. Compensation for such activities is determined by the GRFP institution and is based on the institution's general employment policies. Fellows are required to check with their GRFP institution about specific policies pertaining to GRFP fellowship and paid activities.

I am on Tenure; may I work an outside job?

Outside employment is not governed by the NSF. Fellows should check with their CO about specific institution policies.

("on Tenure" here means "actively being paid by the fellowship")

It's not normal for people to do a full-time job and separately do full-time PhD work; it's impossible to do both at a high level. Don't dismiss these concerns about stress/work/life balance just because you think you can do it: the warnings exist because of all the people who thought they could but couldn't.

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Individual university and fellowship policies will vary. In general, when on Fellowship, I have seen that limited outside employment (10 hours per week) is permitted.

Here is the UCLA policy that tends to follow that pattern (p14-15)- https://grad.ucla.edu/asis/stusup/gradsupport.pdf

In general, I think most PhD programs (and most PhD advisors) would not be accommodating to students working full time.

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That's going to depend on which field you're in, the scope of your research, how many hours it really takes per week including shared responsibilities that come with the position, how many hours the job demands, how much of your personal life you are willing to sacrifice, how much sleep you need, and whether you are willing to graduate so burned out that you can't begin to think of getting a job in the field you've put so much work into.

And on how many years of tuition you are willing and able to pay while pursuing this degree.

And on whether you can find a research topic that overlaps with your job responsibilities enough that management is willing to support it.

And...

Sorry if this isn't the answer you wanted, but you made the question quite precise (thank you) and the answer is:

Is it possible? Sure, with low probability.

Whether it's practical, or possible in your specific case, is a different question, with no general answer.

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    This doesn't really address whether fellowships or universities explicitly disallow external employment in the US. If it helps I am interested in pursuing pure/applied math.
    – Jon Doe
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 21:04
  • Ask the individual fellowship or university or lead researcher. There is no universal answer to that question either.
    – keshlam
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 5:29
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The goal of a PhD program is to train you to be a researcher in an academic institution. Part of that is coursework, part is teaching, and part is learning how to research and performing original research. What you are asking for is rare for PhD programs, but I have seen the self funding model for Master degree programs.

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