Professors in my department frown upon students working (part-time or full-time) during their MSc or PhD. Even extra TA hours are looked down upon...

The rent on-campus is ~$950/month and we are paid ~$18000/year. So there is enough money BUT the on-campus housing is very limited so students usually have to find off-campus res ... which is ~$150 more per month. Again, while I can make it work w/ $18k, I'd like some extra income to help pay off undergrad loans.

What is the reason behind saying no to students working while doing graduate studies? I'd like to understand the PI's perspective.

Does working while doing graduate studies affect the student's performance negatively?

University: top-20. Area of study: life science, computer science.

(Unrelated question: how many hrs/week should students put into their lab?)

  • 3
    maybe bcs all point of PhD is to study and work on research project???
    – SSimon
    Aug 7, 2016 at 7:09
  • 12
    If you had a full time job and started an other (part-time, full-time) job, do you think your first employer would be happy? A second job means that you cannot change turns easily, you are probably going to be much more tired and less productive.
    – Bakuriu
    Aug 7, 2016 at 10:17
  • 2
    Extending @Bakuriu's comment. If you had a full time job and started another job with better compensation and benefits do you think your first employer would be happy?
    – emory
    Aug 7, 2016 at 14:34
  • 1
    If the pay is unacceptable to you, why did you sign up for this program? Did you not know about the pay when signing up? Were you misled about being allowed to take on side jobs?
    – Superbest
    Aug 7, 2016 at 14:44
  • 2
    Btw, in the U.S., often undergrad student loan payments can be deferred (I believe interest-free) while in grad school... Aug 7, 2016 at 21:34

5 Answers 5


I have the impression that you are pretty aware of the main reason why PIs tend to frown upon outside jobs - they take time and mental energy, and most PIs will expect you to commit as much as you can of both to your grad school project. Hence, working on the side will typically affect the student's performance negatively.

There is also the added problem that outside jobs often provide unwanted rigid commitments, which tend to interfere with the somewhat unstable nature of grad school workload. It is exceedingly annoying for a PI if a major paper deadline needs to pass, because the student also had important duties at their day job that they could not get away from.

  • "outside jobs often provide unwanted rigid commitments" - indeed, and such commitments are considerably easier to handle when they are imposed internally by the same PI who wants the student's research to go on. Aug 7, 2016 at 9:13
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    At the risk of criticising the management skills of some PIs, "working the side will affect performance negatively", whereas "pulling a few all-nighters back to back because we're behind on our paper deadlines", sure, that's all positive, you should totally make sure your students are free to do that whenever you like ;-) If PIs treated sleep as a fixed commitment then they might be better-placed to manage their way around other fixed commitments. The issue with work really is, I think, that it's a commitment the PI disapproves of. If it was childcare you might (might) get more sympathy. Aug 8, 2016 at 14:58
  • @SteveJessop Not that I am disagreeing, but the OP asked why people disapprove of outside work, not whether this is justified.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 8, 2016 at 15:18
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    @xLeitix: I suppose my insinuation is that (for PIs who aren't especially effective managers) the PI's actual feelings about it and reasons for refusing it ("aargh! I don't know if I can cope with this!") might differ slightly from their stated objections ("it will interfere with your progress and your responsibilities as a student") ;-) Aug 8, 2016 at 15:45

I actually did try working parttime during graduate school for the reasons you give. In my grad work, I was paid for 20 hours a week of research (I had a research assistanceship) officially.

This doesn't sound too bad until you:

  • Add in time for classwork
    • Both homework and attending the class
  • Add in time for breaks (lunch, etc)
  • Add in buffer time for busy seasons for my grad work

Additionally, there are a few other factors. First, you greatly benefit in graduate school by having time and flexibility to ponder/investigate things without feeling time stressed. This is harder to do if your entire week and evenings are full.

Second, most graduate research jobs are effectively a "fulltime" job. I was paid for 20 hours a week, but my advisor/PI's expectation was more to treat it as a fulltime job, between all the above factors (homework/classwork/etc).

YMMV on hours expected. Some assistanceships will be incredibly focused on 20.000 hours a week, no more no less. Many will not, particularly research ones.

Graduate school tends to be more loose and spontaneous than work, too. Each department/PI will have their own feeling here, but in my experience graduate school is a lot more likely to spontaneously decide to have a meeting or cancel/reschedule something than the working world in such a way to inconvenience you. At work, moving a meeting from 10am to 11am has minimal impact since I'm at work all day anyways. In grad school, if portions of my schedule are blocked with work, it's really hard to do this effectively.

Ultimately, I ended up finding myself frazzled to the point where I couldn't keep up in graduate school, so I quit my part-time job.

  • Fantastic, I was really looking for someone with this type of experience. I am leaning towards not working part-time unless I have total flexibility.
    – player87
    Aug 7, 2016 at 17:21
  • @player87 I hope it's helpful. Graduate school can be intimidating and in many ways is intimidating.
    – enderland
    Aug 7, 2016 at 19:13
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    "Second, most graduate research jobs are effectively a "fulltime" job." This. In the dark, I would suspect any supervisor that downplays this to be lying to you.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 8, 2016 at 9:08

This may not be totally relevant to your question, but I think it should be noted that there exist PIs who don't think the same. For instance, my professor does not have a problem with me having a part-time job, as long as I do my main job. The reason is, as he told me once, life is hard enough for us and if we are prohibited from making some money, although we would have more free time, but our mind would most likely be occupied by financial concerns and primary needs, which results in declining the overall performance. He made his point by saying that a PhD degree is on top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs while food and shelter lies at the bottom. And it is really hard for a human mind to ignore the bottom and focus on the top.


There are several possible reasons for your supervisors to frown upon your involvement in non-academic work.

I think the most probable concern is that you will end up being overwhelmed by the cumulative workloads of research and flipping burgers, which might prevent you from making a significant enough scientific contribution to deserve a PhD. Most supervisors care about the career prospects of their students.

Of course there is a corollary: your commitment and output to the lab is smaller if you're invested in a side activity. A student is a significant investment in money and effort for PIs and they naturally prefer focused and high performing ones.


The PI wants to pay you for 20 hours/week of work and get 40-80 hours/week of work out of you.

If you get a part time job, or any other commitments really, you won't be available to work 40-80 hours on the stuff the PI wants you to do.

A really bright student working 40-80 hours/week on the PI's projects will both help the PI advance their own career, get the things that the PI wants done done, and is (very slightly) more likely to be a student who graduates and goes on to become a useful contact for said PI in the future.

They don't want to pay what a really bright person who is competent in computer science can earn outside of academia on a 40-80/hour schedule. Instead, they pay 18$/hour for a fake 20 hours/week 50 weeks/year and hope for 40-80 hours of work.

Initially, you may be spending the extra hours/week on classroom instruction, but that tends to fade rapidly.

This is similar to the internist trap in other industries like publishing. Underpaid or unpaid interns at the start of their career are expected to donate their effort to produce things of value to prove themselves. A percentage of those are then invited onto the next tier (postdoc), where they are still underpaid (after all they compete with the previous tier somewhat) in precarious contracts for a period of years.

A percentage of those are then invited onto the next tier (tenure track in the academic case). Some percent of those are still winnowed out, with the remaining fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction going on to get tenure. Most of those who get tenure are at some small university with limited research opportunities, and only a small fraction end up being the kind of professors that are imposing the above constraints.

With tenure, your promotion/salary increases are then tied to your ability to do the same to the next generation. If you can convince dozens of new grad students and postdocs to work 40-80 hours/week on your research you'll be co-author on all of their work. When they graduate, they'll cite your papers, granting them a high impact factor.

So why does the PI frown on outside work?

There is an oversupply of overly optimistic people who want to be academics, caused by the lottary nature of the system and the fact that each layer is selected from the people who "won" the previous layer. They can use this to convince you to work extremely long hours for little pay. Those who do not buy in are not as useful to the PI.

Or, because the PI can.

Now, if you really want to become an academic, or really want to focus on your research problem because you want to solve it, this is in your long-term best interests as well. A chunk of the payoff for the PI is having those students who graduate and go on to do great things, and by putting in the hard long hours you are more likely to make it out the other side of the pyramid intact.

Still unlikely to make it out, but less unlikely.

Now, I know of at least one Computer Science grad student whose PhD project (with their supervisor's work as well) turned into a commercially semi-viable startup, which then sold for a few million dollars. They then semi-retired and started working on fun projects (what others might call work) outside of academia. Being paid enough to eat while working on such a project may be economically reasonable.

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