Working During the PhD

In an ideal world, you would be able to focus solely on your PhD and knock it out of the park in three years and move on with your life. But as we’ve already highlighted in this blog life rarely works in the ‘ideal’ way. Some PhD students need to take an extra year (or five..) to write-up. Some need to take time out for health or life reasons. Some need to be part-time for life or financial reasons. Many PhD students need to work to support themselves (or even their families) during their studies, funded and unfunded students alike.

I am unfunded, and while the loan I’ve taken out to make it possible for me to continue my studies covers my tuition and most of my living expenses, I know it will not last forever and only covers three years of study when it’s looking very much like I will need four. I, along with many PhD students, am hyper-aware of the financial reality of taking on a PhD, and have therefore had to work alongside my studies. I am only one of many PhD students in this position, so I thought in solidarity I would offer some advice on what I’ve learned about balancing work/studies during the course of my PhD.

When I started my PhD, I was working part-time at a chain coffee shop about 20 hours a week. This didn’t seem so bad at the start, there were actually quite a few pros to this:

Coffee-shop Barista Pros:

  • Early-morning starts = early finishes.
  • I was already up and out of the flat before noon and could then use the rest of my day to work on PhD things.
  • Free coffee!

Despite the pros, there were, of course, some downsides to working as a barista during my PhD.


Coffee-shop Barista Cons:

  • It didn’t add anything to my PhD or CV for my career trajectory.
  • I was exhausted by early afternoon.
  • My schedule varied week to week, making it difficult to schedule my PhD writing time or any consistency in my life.
  • I spent a lot of my day traveling between home, the coffee shop, and the University, which wasted a lot of would-be writing time.

As much as I loved the free coffee and my amazing coworkers, it soon became apparent I could not work my coffee-shop job and do my PhD at the same time…especially when my health issues started also getting in the way of my PhD. It was one too many things and since it added nothing to my PhD, I could not justify keeping it going. Especially when job opportunity #2 came along: graduate teaching assistant.

I was offered the role I desperately wanted since becoming a PhD student at the end of my first-year. The timing was perfect- I was ready to move-on from my coffee-shop job but needed an income to supplement the loss. I had done some teaching during my undergraduate degree (my University had a programme called Peer Facilitators where upperclassmen were nominated to teach first-year students) so I wasn’t too worried about the teaching side, but more about the content of the course as there was a lot of material I’d be teaching I didn’t specialise in. I was told to expect to do a lot of work outside of my paid hours, but I didn’t really mind as I figured once I got past this year, I’d be better at it for the following year and have less work to do. I vastly underestimated the time commitment of GTAing though…which brings us to my little pros and cons list:

Graduate Teaching Assistant Pros:

  • Getting to enhance my CV with something applicable to the career path I wanted.
  • Working at the University where my office was also located = no wasted time on running all over town!
  • Deepening my knowledge within my subject- there were so many topics I don’t engage with in my PhD that were great to revisit in tutorial prep.

Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 16.06.51

Graduate Teaching Assistant Cons:

  • Working many more hours than I was paid for.
  • Having to spend a good portion of my office time preparing for tutorials or marking essays rather than working on my PhD.

For me personally, I was so thankful to have a GTA position and knew there would be a learning curve that I would need to get through the first year. I didn’t mind overly much as this was a job I really, really, wanted and was willing to overlook the cons for the pros, but I understand not everyone will be in the same boat/have the ability to spend many unpaid hours working on something that isn’t their PhD.

Finally, this past year in addition to my GTA position I was offered this role as the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities Blog Intern. As with GTAing, this was a position I really wanted, and knew it would benefit my PhD experience overall rather than just being a ‘job’. When deciding to take this position, a few of the pros and cons on my list were:

SGSAH Blog Pros:

  • Adding another job to my CV that enhanced my experience in the career path I am looking to go down.
  • Gaining new skills in a media field that I hadn’t engaged with in a long time.
  • Making connections with other PhD students across Scotland.
  • Using my experience and voice to help other PhD students like myself.

SGSAH Blog Cons:

  • Taking time out of my PhD writing to write for the blog.
  • Thinking up new/relevant content on a regular basis.
  • Putting my personal triumphs and failures on display to my colleagues.

Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 16.05.19

This past semester I worked both the SGSAH Blogger post and as a GTA, and while both were jobs I was super keen on and added positively to my CV, it has been a very challenging time balancing both and still keeping my PhD in mind. However, even as difficult as it was trying to juggle these jobs and my studies, I still prefer having jobs that enhance my PhD experience versus jobs that just get me by financially. Not everyone is in the position to be able to choose, but I will always seek out jobs that can even slightly correlate with my PhD if I can. If I can impart one final word of advice it would be this: decide if the job is one you would need to schedule your PhD around your work, or your work around your PhD…and how that answer matches up with what you need. Some people have jobs that they are happy in and are using the PhD to advance in that job, but some are using the PhD as a tool to find a job, which means not everyone has the same motives when it comes to working during the PhD. Sort out where your priorities fall before blindly jumping into a job, make a list, have a plan, and do what is best for your individual circumstances.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Brittnee via email or connect with the blog on Twitter


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