The Full-Time Employee in a Doctoral Program

I cannot recall how many times I have been asked since beginning the Texts & Technology doctoral program, “How do you do that?” During the candidacy exam process, I asked myself the same question constantly as I would start my workday at 8am and end my studying at midnight. I am a full-time faculty member at a state college and teach six classes in addition to committee and faculty training responsibilities. I did not totally ignore academic pursuits either; I published a few articles, presented at multiple conferences, gave guest lectures, and continued to do research. I am by no means the only person with this level of commitment. Many of my T&T peers likewise work full time in education or industry and have other obligations including children. Completing a doctoral program is difficult enough, as the terrifying statistics attest to, and at times it seems insurmountable for someone already in a career position. The following ten tips are based on my own experiences and meant to assist others full-time employees who are considering pursuing a Ph.D. in Texts and Technology or are already doing so.

  1. Know the Difficulty: Understanding what you are about to undertake is essential. It will likely take between four and six years. Many of the classes are in person and three hours a week, and the homework takes longer. In general, there is more reading and writing than in a Master’s program. I took two classes a term and still found it exhausting. In addition, most full-time workers will not be eligible for university funding. I was unable to apply for an assistantship unless I was a full-time student, which would have been impossible. However, I was able to get some support from the institution at which I work. Check out what your employing institution might offer or seek scholarships.
  2. Inform Those Closest to You: The people who are closest to you (spouses, children, good friends, parents, etc.) need to comprehend what you are undergoing, and it is likely that they will not have much of an idea of what doctoral programs entail. Tell them. A supportive partner or relative can make it so much easier. An unsupportive one can jeopardize the relationship and your likelihood of success. As hard as it is to accept, being in a doctoral program is an imposition on those close to you. Not only will your time be more limited, but those closest to you may see you at your most stressed. Try to be cognizant of how this will affect others and plan accordingly. Make sure you are still making time for those closest to you, even if that time is reduced.
  3. Connect in the Workplace: This depends on your workplace of course, but try to connect with others pursuing graduate degrees. I know more than a dozen others working on a doctorate at my college (all of us work full time), so a colleague decided to form a doctoral cohort to provide a support network. If you know people going through the same thing, talking and strategizing is worth it. Others at work may not understand why you would put yourself through the wringer, so it is worth having some people around you who get it.
  4. Accept You May Not Feel As Connected: A tough one to be sure, but most colleagues at my college working on a doctorate mentioned that they did not feel like they fit in with student or program life. Some of this is not being able to have a campus life at all including attending doctoral student organization meetings or study groups. If possible, try not to miss out on everything. Go to an event in your program each term. If these things do not work, see if you can find a way to connect with others at work or peers in the program with similar work/life balances.
  5. Know Your Limitations: If you are working full time, you should not be attending a doctoral program full time. It might seem doable at first, but it is not likely to work out without undue stress. While I did do my Master’s program full-time, I did not consider it for my doctoral program. In fact, I took two classes by themselves, as they required a heavier workload. Know the institutional and program requirements for completion. Plot out your entire plan of study so you can stay on track. Remember, there are often other expectations to earning your Ph.D. You may be expected to publish and/or attend conferences. I highly recommend finding time for at least one conference a year and looking for publications that share your research interests.
  6. Use Resources: Part-time students are also entitled to the resources of the program’s institution and should absolutely use them. Talk to your advisor and professors, go to the Writing Center, seek funding for conferences and research, use the computer labs if you are early for class, and most essentially, utilize the library. The library will be your constant companion during the research process.
  7. Employ Time Management: If you are at the doctoral level, you are probably aware that time management is essential. Use the calendar program at work, an app on your phone, or good old paper calendars to keep track of your various commitments. Doing this during your coursework is good practice because the candidacy exams and dissertation will require weekly and sometimes daily independent work. For my candidacy exams, I had a spreadsheet that listed my weekly reading, note taking, and studying requirements; I put these next to grading, work meetings, and conferences scheduled. I crossed each off as I went along. I was happy when I finished ahead of time, and I built in “cheat days” so that they would not ruin my pace. This may seem tedious or hyper-planned, but it is worth it in the high-pressure environment of graduate school.
  8. Take Time Off: I cannot emphasize this one enough! Unless you are superhuman, you simply won’t persist if you do not take time off. This can be an hour a day, a half day a week, or two weeks a year. You need brain breaks. My husband and I took a day or half day every week to relax or do something that interested us. We enjoyed a couple of vacations. While this may not be possible for you, a few hours a week should be “you time.” Whatever calms you (music, yoga, reading, going out, etc.) is what you should be doing. You will not have the same level of free time as before beginning the degree, but working 100% of your waking hours will no doubt lead to increased strain and reduced drive.
  9. Channel Your Inner Motivation: Speaking of that drive, you need it. There may be external motivations for you obtaining your degree, but these may not sustain you. The drive and motivation you need comes from within. Write a journal/creative entry that describes what drives you, what you hope to accomplish, and what holds you back. You can channel your motivation if you…
  10. Understand Your Purpose and Desire: This is important. Why are you here? What prompted you to pursue a doctoral degree? Likely you know that the job market in academia is rough and in industry, a terminal degree is not always required. Sure, a doctorate looks great on any CV, but it may not be worth it to go through years of hard work for a single CV line. There are some common reasons to get a Ph.D. including desiring to be a professor or conduct research. Maybe obtaining a terminal degree is a personal life goal. However, it should go beyond any of those reasons. More important reasons include inquisitiveness and passion for a topic. You should care about something so much that studying it can sustain you for years. Try to figure out a subject you love or that question you are burning to answer. You may still have enough motivation to get through a degree with only the external pressure or personal challenge reasons, but your time in the program will be so much more fulfilling if you actually want to learn the things you are studying.

Carissa Baker is in her third year of the Texts & Technology program at the University of Central Florida. Her BA and MA were in Literature. Her current research is on storytelling in nontraditional texts like theme parks. Carissa is a full-time faculty member at Seminole State College of Florida, where she teaches literature, composition, and selected humanities and honors courses.

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