Working while pursuing a PhD? Count the costs!

By Tiffany M. Montgomery | 02/03/2016

The author chose time over money.

The costs of obtaining a PhD are numerous. There are financial costs associated with tuition and fees, conference attendance, and research expenses. There may be physical costs, such as times of exhaustion, nights of insomnia, and physiological responses to stress. And, there are emotional costs, such as questioning one’s purpose, dealing with impostor syndrome, and deciding to maintain or dissolve certain relationships. Most people are probably well aware of the financial toll of a graduate degree. But, I’ve found that many are unaware of the costs of working while obtaining a PhD.
Tiffany MontgomeryIn the five years I’ve been in my PhD program, I’ve sat on several new-student orientation panels, and I’ve had plenty of private conversations with men and women who want to earn a PhD. Whenever I talk with potential PhD students, I always try to focus on the costs of working as an employee while working toward your PhD. No matter whom I talk to, my advice remains the same: Work as little as possible.
What do you mean, don’t work?
The typical response to this advice is a look of surprise (“What do you mean? I have to work!”), or defeat (“Oh no, she said it, too. I guess it’s true.”). Almost any PhD student will tell you that you shouldn’t work unless it’s absolutely necessary. The fact of the matter is, the more you work, the less time you have to devote to your studies. There is no gray area here. It is completely black and white.
For most people, quitting a job to obtain a PhD is out of the question. They view working as a necessary evil. There may be children, a spouse, or other relative to consider. There may be bills and other finances that are non-negotiable. Employment may be used to subsidize medical benefits. And, for some, their current position may be a steppingstone to a first job after graduation.
As someone who has been funded by scholarships and fellowships since my time as an undergraduate student, even I understand the need to work. While I am grateful that my PhD fellowships covered the cost of my tuition, fees, and health care, they did not cover all of my living expenses. After paying my mortgage and utility bills, buying gas for my car and other auto expenses, and purchasing groceries and toiletries, I still needed money for clothing, grooming, and entertainment. I mean, really, being a PhD student doesn’t mean you should sit at home naked, unkempt, and bored out of your mind, but I digress. No matter what your situation may be, you should work only as needed.
Before I ever enrolled at UCLA, I realized that being a working PhD student meant I’d have less time than my non-working colleagues to read, less time to complete assignments, less time for meetings with professors, less time to attend campus seminars and workshops, and less time for pretty much anything school-related. So, I decided to decrease my work status from full time to per diem. This meant I was only required to work eight days every 12 weeks. I could break up my schedule how I wanted, and I didn’t need permission to stay away from work for weeks at a time. I can’t overemphasize the need for flexibility while going through a PhD program. For me, working per diem was the answer.
Once I actually became a PhD student, it was clear that working as a teaching assistant (a requirement for the second and third years of my fellowship) and working per diem meant less time to reflect on my research questions and research design. It also meant less time to write my dissertation proposal or to apply for research grants. There were times when I worked at the hospital one day per week, and there were times when I worked at the hospital once every other week. I did what I had to do to stay afloat in school. I also wanted to ensure I had the time to maintain relationships with family and friends—and time to myself. So, I chose to sacrifice money for time.
When I advanced to candidacy, I made a huge mistake: I started working more. Because I was no longer writing every day, I assumed I had more time on my hands. And I desperately wanted to get rid of the debt I had acquired during my PhD program. So, I began working two days per week in labor and delivery and one day per week in the OB-GYN clinic. I did this for a few months before I realized something had to give.
I had underestimated the difficulty of mentally jumping back and forth between school mode and work mode. After working a 12-hour shift in the hospital, going home to do schoolwork was the last thing on my mind. Just thinking about writing was difficult after a full day of vaginal deliveries and crash caesarean sections. And, it was just as difficult to be in the middle of a fabulous writing groove, only to have to stop writing and start winding down for bed because I had to be up for work at 5 a.m. So, I decided to transfer from labor and delivery to the OB-GYN clinic. I needed to be in a less stressful work environment, and I needed to work fewer than 12 hours per day.

Flexibility is good!
Going back to the OB-GYN clinic was one of the best work decisions I ever made! My new manager allowed me a level of flexibility I had never experienced. To accommodate my need to be at home making phone calls, sending emails, and doing other study-related tasks in the morning, she agreed to let me come in to work from 12 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Consequently, even on the days I had to work, I was still able to devote time to my schoolwork.
However, after working in the clinic two days per week for most of the final year of my PhD program and conducting a larger-than-anticipated dissertation study, I decided to stop working altogether until I finished writing my dissertation. (I recruited literally twice the number of participants I had originally planned for. What a great problem to have!) While it was not an easy decision to make, working during this phase of my PhD journey means less time for data analysis, less time to write up my findings, and, ultimately, less time to complete my dissertation.
Even with the option of working in the afternoon, I almost always have the dilemma of quenching my writing momentum or stopping study-related tasks so that I can leave for work on time. (Plenty of times, my writing gets the best of me, and I show up to work late. I’m thankful that my manager is very understanding.) With graduation less than four months away, I can’t continue to jeopardize my writing. My decision may seem extreme, but in talking to recent PhD graduates, professors, and others familiar with the process of writing a dissertation, I realize it’s common for PhD candidates to take a leave of absence at work in order to complete their dissertations. Good to know! Now, I don’t have to feel so bad.
We all have the same 24 hours in each day. The question each of us must answer is, “What do you want to do with your 24?” The more time you spend working (or with friends and family, watching TV, or playing around on Facebook), the less time you have to dedicate to your studies. You can sacrifice sleep to get your schoolwork done, but I don’t recommend this because, at some point, you will crash from exhaustion.
Making work or financial sacrifices while in school isn’t for naught. Living on a smaller budget may mean moving to a less expensive apartment, using public transportation instead of driving, eating out less, or refraining from retail therapy, but those sacrifices will pay off in the end. I guarantee it! Just know that there are costs associated with every decision we make. This includes the decision to work while going through a PhD program. My advice is to count the costs, and be sure not to overspend yourself.
Tiffany M. Montgomery, MSN, RNC-OB, C-EFM, a women’s health nurse since 2005, initially worked as a labor and delivery nurse before broadening her focus to obstetrics and gynecology. She is now pursuing a PhD in nursing at UCLA.

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