Best of Both: Working Alongside a Full Time PhD
My father left school at 16 and worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for several years. After building somewhat of a reputation, he knocked on the doors of the University of Glasgow in the late 1980s and somehow convinced them to let him do a PhD. My mother also undertook a PhD, but after two years of data collection and literature reviews, she became pregnant with me and decided to go on PhD hiatus while I grew up (still in progress). After several years and several children, she decided not to return to her PhD, and donated her data to some lucky student so that it did not go to waste. In light of this, and the fact that my own journey to a PhD hasn’t been very typical, it appears that an unusual approach to a PhD is in my blood.
Undertaking a PhD has always been one of my life ambitions, but after completing a bachelors and masters degree, I hit the well-trodden crossroad; continue the student life and apply for a PhD, or get a big boy salary job. Getting a fully funded studentship is highly competitive, and I was in no position to self-fund a PhD, so I chose the latter and found jobs working in research trial management and subsequently within a dementia research centre. I loved working in these jobs and quickly decided that a career in research suited me. Put simply, having a salary for the first time was really fun, and it allowed me to do many things which would have been a struggle to do if I had jumped straight into a PhD. Additionally, I gained skills and experience working on large research projects, made excellent contacts, and even better friends.
However, despite my high level of job satisfaction and somewhat improved quality of life, my ambition to undertake a PhD never really dissipated. It also quickly dawned on me that climbing the research career ladder without a PhD makes everything a lot trickier. The dilemma I kept finding myself in was that the notion of regressing to the financial instability of student life was somewhat unappealing. On first consideration it seemed I had two options; either go part time between a PhD and my current job for up to six (SIX!) years, or leave my job and become a full time student living on a stipend. While I know it’s very possible to comfortably live off a stipend and supplement it with tutoring, I couldn’t shake the irrational notion that going down this path would involve backsliding to my old student days of damp flats, own brand pot noodles, and staycations. Equally the thought of committing to anything for six years makes me nauseous. Accordingly, I committed to the third, and perhaps less talked about option, work one day per week in my current job whilst undertaking a full time PhD. I’m not sure if this is always the case, but my manager was very supportive and open to me cutting my hours, as long as I was able to secure my own PhD funding. It was then a waiting game of around a year until the right studentship for me popped up.
There are many ways to approach a PhD and for some people jumping straight into one out of your masters is ideal. Equally if you are able to self-fund or successfully find a funded studentship straight out of the gate, then don’t delay, go for it! For me though, I needed a couple of years to experience the nine to five rat race and create a life outside of pure academia. After several years out, I’m now going into a PhD more qualified and with a better sense of what I want to do at the end of it. So to anyone at a crossroads between a PhD and joining the workforce, I’d recommend taking a couple of years out of education to find a job which not only boosts your academic credentials, making your chances of successfully obtaining a funded studentship more likely, but also allows you the flexibility to work one day per week whilst doing a full time PhD. Undertaking a PhD in this way won’t be for everyone, and I’m under no illusion that it will be a light work load, but for me it allows me to maintain my current quality of life without taking a pay cut, while also keeping a foot in the door within a big boy workplace. Having said all of this, ask me in a year how I feel about it all and you may get a very different response.
Wish me luck!