Ten tips on how to combine a PhD and a job

Former Scotland international rugby player Colin Gregor reflects on how he combined his PhD with his job

February 13, 2016
Colin Gregor, Heriot-Watt University
Colin Gregor began his PhD at Heriot-Watt University while competing for Scotland in the HSBC Sevens World Series

Colin Gregor combined his PhD at Heriot-Watt University with captaining Scotland’s rugby sevens team. Here are his 10 tips for balancing study and work:

Set goals
Not just any goals, but process goals. The dream goal is obvious: completing the PhD. And there are performance goals along the way. This can all be very daunting if you don’t break it into smaller process goals that you can tick off as you complete them. Assistance from your supervisor is vital. They have been there and done it. Follow their advice. And if they don’t offer it, go and ask.

Celebrate progress
My supervisor highlighted this to me. If you are going to beat yourself up until you finish your PhD, you are not going to enjoy it. Be proud of the small sections you complete. Pat yourself on the back. Then get your nose back in the books.

Facebook, Skype, email. There are countless ways to ensure that you remain in constant dialogue with your supervisor, irrespective of where you both are in the world. There were times when I was playing rugby in South Africa, Las Vegas or Tokyo and I quickly realised that maintaining dialogue was crucial to continued progress. Equally, when my supervisor was visiting the Heriot-Watt campus in Dubai or Malaysia, it was important to have open communication channels.

Plan your time
This is absolutely essential. Life as a professional rugby player competing on the HSBC Sevens World Series was a major time commitment. However, you can’t train or play 24 hours a day. It was important to realise when there would be windows of opportunity to knuckle down with some studies. It’s a shame this PhD can’t collect air miles. Along with the less than salubrious surroundings of our training base at a reformed steel works in Motherwell, this PhD has been around the world a couple of times.

Little and often
This relates to the previous point. I benefited from exploiting small periods of time to keep progressing my thesis. Ideally, these will be interspersed with more significant windows of opportunity. Nonetheless, if you have a spare hour, crack on with some work. It’s amazing how much you can get done in concentrated, short periods.

Be prepared
Just like the Scouts, it is worth being organised. This allows you to undertake work in the brief periods you may have. Take some papers with you to read wherever you go. Again, this helps to keep your work progressing in small chunks when you almost don’t realise.

Take a break
Contradicting everything I’ve said so far, it is also vitally important to take a break. This was applicable to my rugby career too. You cannot be switched on and fully focused all the time. So plan breaks and take them. Remove yourself from your work. Clear your head and when you come back you will be more focused again.

Choose wisely
A supportive and flexible professor is vitally important. My supervisor will happily admit that he has never played rugby; however, he realises the stresses and strains that it entails. He has been excellent at providing an outlet and contextualises the trials and tribulations of a rugby match or tournament.

Forward plan
This is as much for your supervisor as for you. They also have jobs. They may not be able to drop everything because you suddenly need help. Plan regular meetings. Look at what issues may arise, and if you need help, ask.

Finally, pick a topic that stimulates you. It is hard work. There will be lows along the way. If you are passionate about your topic it will help to pull you through the troubles to a happier place.

Colin Gregor is a PhD student at Heriot-Watt University, whose PhD thesis involves a longitudinal study of a high performance sports team to investigate conflict and its effects on a team. He is the former captain of Scotland’s seven-a-side rugby side. This article first appeared on Heriot-Watt’s It’s Not You, It’s Your Data blog on PhD life.

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