​​Balancing work and study

A guide to holding down a full-time job whilst pursuing a higher degree

I managed to navigate the course of a Master’s degree by thesis with relative ease. I met with my supervisor bimonthly, and she was grateful for my diligence and commitment. I could never quite understand, therefore, how some of my peers wouldn’t work on their theses for months, or why they actively avoided meetings with their supervisors.

If someone had told me then that I would become one of those students, I would never have believed it. Indeed, when I was awarded a scholarship to complete my doctorate, and once the initial elation of the honour passed, I was unprepared for the nagging insistence that I was tired. I was tired of researching, I was tired of being holed up in a room on my own for hours, and even days at a time, and I was tired of having to sacrifice so much for something that felt all-consuming. These realisations would only come much later, though, along with the understanding that the scholarship felt increasingly like a yoke around my neck.

I enrolled for a PhD while employed full-time as an educational publisher. I was totally unprepared for the whole gamut of strain I had inadvertently signed up for, and often wished that someone could have prepared me for what seemed an impossible juggle. I decide to write this article in the hope that I can at least spare some of you the angst I endured.

Make no mistake: this decision means an incredibly difficult journey for most people. You will feel demotivated, stressed, panicked, and absolutely desperate at times, but you will also find consolation, encouragement, and a commitment to continue in the most unlikely of places, and at the most unlikely periods of your life. Before you embark, though, and even if you’re halfway through, you need to ask yourself these five crucial questions:

1) Why am I doing this?

You need to be absolutely sure why you’ve decided to pursue your study. Are you hoping to advance your career? Do you wish to return to academe? Are you interested in research? Once you’re sure you understand your reasons, you’ll need to decide whether they’re motivation enough to see you through four or more years of study.

2) Can I afford the strain my decisions are going to take (or are taking) on my personal and collegial relationships?

There is a deep-rooted fallacy that circulates some organisations, and which has become ingrained in the minds of the middle-class: the work-life balance. As Organisational Development Practitioner, Kim Street, explains: “There is no such thing as the ‘work-life balance’ – work is part of your life, and even though you spend a lot of time there, it should not enjoy primacy over your relationships, social activities, studies, and community involvement.”

The same concept should be applied to your studies: you must have balance, and if you find the juggling act too hard, or too detrimental, you need to reassess the situation.

3) How do I find time to work and study?

This is closely linked to the point above, but, in short, you will need to make time to study or research. Do you work best in the mornings or in the evenings? Can you commit to starting your day a few hours earlier, or extending it a few hours into the evening? Will you commit your weekends to study, and if so, how many hours will you need to put in to ensure you meet your deadlines? Are your family and friends prepared to spend less time with you, and have you explained to them why you can’t attend every social engagement?

The key to managing both your time and personal relationships is communication (read more about this topic here). You need to be completely honest with those near and dear to you. If they’ve never pursued a higher (or any) degree part-time you need to explain your choices to them, and also ask for their support.

4) Are the financial, institutional, and emotional support structures I need in place?

You will need all three of these components to ensure your success, and you should invest enough time and effort in checking that each exists, and that they’re adequate.

If you’re self-funded, you will have to work out a budget for every year you plan to extend your study. You need to calculate the costs annually and stick to the budgets you’ve decided upon. You should also make provision for miscellaneous costs such as research, conferences, travel, and, very importantly, computer equipment.

Clea Schultz-Mofokeng, a PhD candidate who works as a high school teacher, cites her distance from research facilities as a major challenge. That, coupled with the demands of a teaching career, means that she has had to make alternative research arrangements. If you haven’t yet considered the impact your choice of institution has on your studies, now is the time. Figure out what you need, and determine whether you’re able to source those requirements from the institution.

Emotional support structures should not be neglected. Your supervisor should be someone you get along with, and someone who understands the challenges you face. You’ll need to be completely transparent about the difficulties you have, and ask them for assistance if you need it. The same applies to family and friends: as much as you are sacrificing a lot, so are they – you’ll need to manage these relationships in order to ensure they’re not strained or permanently damaged.

5) What happens if I decide that pursuing my degree is no longer an option?

The truth is, there is no shame in deciding that you are simply unable to continue. It is better to be honest with yourself than feel demotivated and resentful. If that is how you feel, and you simply cannot get past feeling this way, it’s best to consider a hiatus. Most institutions offer options for either deregistration or a suspension of your studies – either for a year or two, or indefinitely.

If you do decide that you would rather focus on your career or family-life, you should not feel guilty about the decision – even if no one but you understands the sacrifices you’ve had to make. Besides, you can always pursue the degree at another stage.

There are, of course, many other questions to consider. Ultimately, you must decide on whether the fire in your belly overrides the drudgery of working on something for an extended period of time. Make the time to speak to people who understand the challenges of working full-time whilst studying, and decide whether you’re willing to face them, and the others, that you’ll encounter along the way. Ultimately, no one can make the decision for you, so weigh up your options to determine what you’re (realistically) able to accomplish.