How to Juggle Work and Writing a PhD

One of my HappyPhD clients wrote me to ask whether I had any special advice for people who work part- or fulltime and consequently don’t have the whole day to work on their PhD. She wrote that she felt she always had to ‘squeeze the PhD in somehow’ and felt overwhelmed with the stress of it all.

When you’re juggling a job and a PhD we’re talking about an extra constraint you’re dealing with: time. It’s a hard constraint, a boundary, a limit, which creates extra pressure and stress.

None of us like boundaries and constraints.
We prefer to be free, and to have all the time in the world!

But do we, really, if we stop to think about it? Would it do us any good?

I have come to believe that constraints, in general, are essential.
Even when they severely limit our options and are unwelcome.
Even if they force us to into narrow uncomfortable places.

Constraints can be beautiful,
if you utilise them,
if you see the promise they hold.

If you are writing your PhD part-time, please don’t buy into the myth of the blissful, fulltime, uninterrupted PhD.

No such thing exists. 

(The exception that proves the rule: I have one PhD friend who describes his time in a full-time, mostly unstructured PhD programme as heaven uninterrupted. Lucky man.)

The fantasy of having unlimited time is overrated. Unlimited time kills productivity.
PhD students with too much time on their hands are often equally stressed, simply differently.
They may lose themselves in procrastination and self-doubt.
There is too much time to think.
Too much time to become paralysed.
Too much time to become stuck.
They have the opposite problem compared to the busy people: not enough boundaries, not enough structure, not enough momentum.

Interestingly, the solution in either situation lies in the structures you build into your life, how you use the constraints imposed on you, and how to maximise their inherent potential.

Let’s see how that could work for a time-pressured, working PhD candidate:

1. Time limits gently (or not so gently) nudge you to prioritise your research
Thank time limits for giving you an incentive to create focused time for your research. In most fields, you don’t need that much time to write a PhD. What you do need is focused time. Time in which you can give your full, undivided attention to your thesis. It’s not quantity but quality that matters. If you are writing a PhD with a job on the side, your situation is not unlike that of most academics further up the academic ladder who have to juggle teaching, managing courses, administration, supervision and research. Busy but prolific academics prioritise their research. They carve out time in their day for research only. It is incredible what you can get done in an hour or two a day. If you are struggling to juggle many tasks and demands, that would be where I suggest you start – by asking: which time in the day or week could I set aside for research only? Preferably early in the day as that is, for most of us, when our concentration is at its best. Make it a priority. That is all that is required.

2. Time limits help you get your work done
I have written a lot about how working in intervals can help you get your work done in far less time (see for example: How to write Your PhD speedily and (almost) painlessly: Strategy 3. Work in intervals). Take advantage of the time stress and pressure a job imposes by working in bursts. It’s better to work on the thesis for 2 x 45 minutes, than to attempt to work for eight hours straight. I received an email from one of the course participants (she took the HappyPhD course a year ago) with an update, and she told me that her work finally gained momentum when she started to shorten her workday, and let go of the idea that she had to work a full day to be productive. Instead she started working in 45-minute bursts, sometimes only one. That helped. Another course participant emailed me to say that the idea of working in intervals truly ‘clicked’ for him, when he realized that stress is important and useful. You need stress to perform at your best. If you already have stress because you are working part- or fulltime, so much the better! Use it to improve your thesis. Take the sprint mentality to heart. The trick to making working in intervals work, is to go full-out and dive straight into your work. Work like your life depends on it for the length of time you have decided upon. Then STOP. Don’t feel guilty for stopping after 45 minutes, or two times 45 minutes. It’s enough. Let me repeat that, because it’s important:

It is enough. 

Embracing that idea will greatly reduce any guilt you may have about ‘not working enough’.

3. Time limits allow you to simplify your life
There is beauty in clean lines and clean surfaces, and clean, simple routines. You are probably yearning for some of that if you are overwhelmed with it all: the thesis, the job, the children maybe, the social calendar, all the daily tasks and responsibilities. If you have a busy schedule you cannot do everything. I learned how to simplify the hard way. Due to my health circumstances I have learned to say no to nearly everything. It hurts, because I have to disappoint people, and because I miss out on activities I would otherwise enjoy, but I have simultaneously found it to be liberating. It is great to be able to set your own priorities, and if you do it with full conviction it is very powerful. The word ‘No’ is a liberating word. Use it often. You choose how to spend your time, and you can drop things you don’t want to do. Free yourself from the drudgery of the hamster wheel. You are not a hamster and you don’t have to live like one! Experiment with saying no. Maybe you have social ‘obligations’ that are less than fulfilling. Say no. Don’t go. Maybe you burden yourself with trying to be everything to everybody. Is that really such a good idea? Find out where true value lies, and do those things. Drop the rest. Try saying no to everything and everyone (within limits, of course. Don’t get yourself fired because you took my advice! Although the upside of that situation is you’ll have loads of time to work on your PhD.) You don’t have to do it all. Liberate yourself.

4. Time limits and stress invite you to take better care of yourself
Time stress and having a million responsibilities, AND writing a PhD on top of it all can cause you to feel depleted and run down. Take it as a cue to open up to more self-care and compassion. Be compassionate, and know that you don’t have to do it all (even if it feels that way) and you don’t have to be perfect. Writing a PhD is not an easy task, and combining a PhD and work is a challenge. It’s okay to not do it perfectly. And it’s okay if other things in your life are not done perfectly either. If you have worked on your PhD for an hour, even if you wanted to do more – celebrate! Appreciate your small achievements. Every step, no matter how small, matters. That you showed up matters. It’s so tempting to forget to take the time to actually feel that feeling of appreciation. Connecting with those feelings that are so easily rushed past is the most important thing you can do when you are feeling swamped. Be kind to yourself in how you approach yourself and your work. Give the PhD your all when you are working on it, sure, but it is equally important to nourish yourself, and cherish yourself. Don’t expect yourself to do the impossible. Remind yourself you are already doing a pretty good job. Because you are. Take a minute to see that, to feel it, and to appreciate yourself for all that you do.

What are your strategies for juggling work and the PhD? Let me know!
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