The Advantages and Disadvantages of Working on Your PhD Part Time

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I took this photo when I was on Temple’s campus during an unseasonably warm day in December, 2015.

A lot of people consider about going back to school to get a PhD, however, there are a number of things to think about before heading back to the classroom. For example, a person may have questions about the application process, wonder how to select the right school and who to contact for letters of recommendation. Yet for many the most important question is whether to go to school full or part time. This one decision alone can have an impact on which program a person applies to, as well as how long it will take to complete the degree.

Below I outline some of the pros and cons of going to school part time. I draw on my experience as a part time doctoral student as well as the conversations and interactions I had with my full time doctoral student peers.

The Advantages of Going to School Part Time

There are some advantages of going to school part time while holding down a 9-5. The most obvious is that with a full time job you may be in a better position to pay for all, or at least a portion of your education. In my case, because I have a full time job and help from my employer I can afford to pay my tuition as well as purchase the required books and other materials for my classes. I am not rich, in fact, as I will describe later, I will go to great lengths to save money. But since I have a full time job I can juggle some money around and financially make things happen.

I work for a school district and they pay for a part of my education. This is a huge perk as they are essentially helping me move up on both the social and economic ladder. It’s almost like they are saying go ahead and get your education, we will pay for it and when you are done your doctoral degree we will move you up on the pay scale. I also have excellent health benefits, it’s just an all-around sweet deal, one that is just too good to not take advantage of. I simply could not turn down the opportunity to work during the day and take classes part-time at night.

My employer provides me with an office as well as a computer, free Internet and a printer. They also gave me a laptop. This puts me at a huge advantage – my job essentially pays for most of my gear, which I use for both work and school. As a matter of fact, I typed this blog on a computer the school district gave me.

Another advantage is that by taking classes at night and working at a high school during the day I can see both sides of educational coin. On one hand, my doctoral courses provide me with up to date information on the current trends in education research, recent educational policy developments, the college admissions and recruitment process and the historical origins of urban schools. On the other hand, since I work in a school I feel like I am on the “front lines” and have a good idea about what is happening “on the ground”. For example, when my classmates, particularly those who have little to no experience working in an urban setting, share ideas I chime in and let them know when some things will not work in an urban school district. In sum, it is good for me to take classes at night and work during the day because I can glean and share information in both academic and professional settings.

The Disadvantages of Going to School Part Time

Part time students are typically ineligible for scholarships, fellowships, assistantships and grants. When compared to full time students this puts them at a real disadvantage. I could never determine why funders seemingly don’t want to help part time students. I can only speculate, but I am lead to believe that universities and organizations don’t want provide funding for part time students because statistically they are less likely to complete their degree and often receive lower grades. Regardless, more often than not part time students must navigate the murky financial waters of academia alone. I have taken classes off and on for the last 20 years and the story is always the same, “We are sorry Mr. Freeman but only limited (translation none) funding is available for part time students.”

Earlier I mentioned that my job offers tuition reimbursement. I failed to mention, however, that I have to pay for the classes up front. Excuse me I don’t always have 5 to 7 grand lying around at the beginning of every semester. As a result I usually enter into a payment agreement/plan with the university and pay my tuition down over a period of time. On the surface this might seem great but Temple, like other universities is good for hitting you up with various installment plan, university and late fees.  My employer won’t pay for these fees so I have to absorb them.  In the past when times got really tough I borrowed on my pension, put bills on a credit card or found ways to cut corners. For example, when my clothes got tethered I take them to the cleaners and have them sewed up, and when my shoes fall apart I took them to a cobbler.  Instead of purchasing a new vehicle I drive a 1989 truck that way I don’t have to worry about a car payment. My point is that I will do whatever it takes to pay for and secure my degree. About the only thing I won’t give up was lunch at a fast food joint or local deli. I can’t help it, I enjoy having a cheeseburger or a grilled chicken salad from time to time.

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My 1989 Toyota 4Runner. I don’t want to give it up in part because a car payment would affect my ability to pay for school.

Students who take classes at night often don’t have much free time. This puts them at a disadvantage because as doctoral students time is the one commodity they really need. Indeed, in the past when I received a poor grade it wasn’t always because I couldn’t grasp the material or understand the concepts. Instead, there were times I received less than stellar marks because I didn’t have time to really read the required chapters or make sure that my papers were clear, succinct, cogent and free from errors. I will never forget how in a moment of candor one of my full time peers said, “I don’t know how people with full time jobs do it.” She was clearly having a hard time keeping up with her coursework and she wondered how part-time students stayed on top of all the readings and assignments. On a separate occasion, I heard one of my full time peers talk about how he liked to spend the entire day reading. Unfortunately, part time students don’t have the luxury of saying immersed in a book because they have obligations at work. There were times when I wanted to call out from work to catch up on my studies, but doing so would mean I would miss important meetings or counseling sessions with my children, and it wasn’t like I could go to my supervisor and say, “I won’t be in for the next two weeks because I am a doctoral student and really need to catch up on my reading.” I had to grin and bear it and do the best I could to keep my head above the academic waters.

Part time doctoral students are at a distinct disadvantage because they cannot stay immersed in the research culture that is so vital to their development as budding scholars. To use a sports analogy, imagine a professional weightlifter who cannot exercise like he wants to because he has a full time job and has to be at work at 5:00 am. Now imagine that after work, family and other obligations prohibit him from pumping iron or even getting on a treadmill. Because of time and circumstances he won’t be able to practice his bench press, a movement which is needed for core strength development. What’s more, since he can’t get to the gym, he will miss out on the locker room conversations about supplements, techniques, and upcoming contests. Well, it is the same with doctoral students; they need to be “in the gym” or, to put it differently, they need to be submerged in the rich, academic and scholarly environment that can only be found on a college or university campus. Sadly, part time students often miss the crucial conversations that take place in the hallways and the stairwells of the academy. Additionally, I would argue that part time students often miss out on publishing and research opportunities “coming down the pike” because they do not spend as much time on campus as their full time peers.

The Bottom Line

There are advantages and disadvantages to being a part time student. When making a decision about whether to go to school part time I recommend doing your homework. Will your place of employment financially help you secure your degree or make life easier for you if you go back to school? Will you have time to dedicate to your studies, be able to endure the stress of a PhD program and how do you handle failure. Ultimately it all comes down to your willingness to endure the financial and physical pain of a PhD program. I am convinced that going to school part-time is harder, but I am a living witness that it can be done.

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