Can you combine a PhD and a full-time job? Yes, but it can be challenging

Doing a part-time doctoral degree while working full-time is rewarding, but it can be demanding, says Pat Culhane

March 4, 2018

Last September, I missed my first All-Ireland Hurling Final in 20 years. I have loved the sport and the final since I was six years old.

It’s the biggest fixture in the sports calendar and an annual gathering of most of my oldest friends. I probably won’t see some of my friends again until the 2018 final in August.

Why? Because I was under ferocious pressure to meet a submission deadline for part of my doctoral thesis.

There’s nothing that I value more than time spent with family and friends; it’s nourishment for the soul. Sometimes, I wonder why I am putting myself through five years of the torture of a doctoral degree while I have a full-time job.

After all, nobody’s forcing me to do it. Not giving into guilt and regret is a constant battle and fuelled by prolonged periods of isolation, when I am tied to my desk.

A sense of regret over not being around is one of the toughest parts of balancing a doctoral degree and work. However important the hurling match or social gathering, I simply can’t afford to take time off. When studying at this level, sacrifices in your spare time are inevitable. You need to be very protective of your spare time outside work.

This isn’t just about one-off events either. I’m normally up by 7.15am, but often I’ll wake earlier to squeeze in an hour’s study at my desk in the spare room of our small Dublin town house. It can take 20 minutes before I’m in study mode.

I’m conscious of the need to help my wife get ready for work, such as removing the ice from her windscreen, as she’s heavily pregnant with our first child.

I enjoy a brief chat with her before I head to work, listening to an audiobook or a lecture related to my studies during my commute by bike.

My office is in Croke Park, an 83,000-seat stadium with great views over the city. I really like my job. It is very important to me and I always prioritise it over my studies. I’m on my computer or phone for most of the day and there are regular meetings, but I’m generally home at about 6pm.

My wife usually gets home before me and we prepare dinner, eat and chat. This is my favourite part of the day. I clean up afterwards and, at this point ,I want to relax, but I don’t.

I drag myself upstairs to my study. Often, I feel selfish because I am not spending more time with my family and friends. However, none of them make me feel this way. They are very supportive of my studying, as they know how much it means to me. My employer is also very supportive. Without all this backing, I just wouldn’t be able to do a PhD. 

Many people would presume that the most challenging element of undertaking a doctoral degree, on top of a full-time job, is finding the motivation and time to meet the demands that it poses. These are challenging, of course. However, the most difficult part of the doctoral degree is coping with the guilt of not being around for my loved ones as much as I could be.

My parents are getting older, and as my friends begin to have children, they have less free time to meet.

There have been a few days when I have felt like throwing in the towel – especially when I’m under pressure to meet a deadline and when life throws things at you, such as the serious illness of a loved one.

By about 10pm, I’m dizzy with tiredness. I often feel like I should have done more. Then I tell myself that I’m working full-time and not to be too hard on myself.

As intense as the doctoral degree is, I wouldn’t change it for the world – it feels right. This feeling is very difficult to describe. I continually strive to be a better person and to live a fulfilling life.

I thrive on facilitating the development of others and believe that you can’t do this unless you consistently develop yourself.

Since commencing the doctoral degree, I have never been as focused on and appreciative of the most important things in life.

Every week, I engage in more meaningful activities, whether it is going for walks with my wife or sitting round the kitchen table having a chat with family or friends.

Although the amount of time that I spend with them may be smaller, I have peace of mind knowing that the quality is higher.

Pursuing a doctorate is a very serious commitment, especially alongside a full-time job. It forces you to be honest with yourself and, as a doctoral student, you need courage to live with this honesty to endure and enjoy the journey.

The closer I get to the finish line, the more I believe that, ultimately, it is others who will benefit most from all that I am learning and from the person I am becoming. That’s what keeps me going.

Pat Culhane is a third-year part-time doctoral student at Glasgow Caledonian University. He works full-time as a national development officer with the Gaelic Athletic Association, Ireland’s biggest sport and cultural organisation. He can be contacted through his blog or via @Pat_Culhane.

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