Taking the Plunge Without the Pay Cut: Lessons Learned while Balancing a Ph.D. Program and Full Time

Kelsey Kunkle

November 27, 2017

After months of researching, mulling over pros and cons, and talking about my options with friends, family, mentors, and colleagues I took the plunge and started working towards a Ph.D. in Higher Education in the fall 2016 semester. I knew I didn't want to quit my full-time job for a number of reasons (including gaining experience, avoiding loans, and the all too important: health insurance), so one of my major concerns was whether or not I would realistically be able to manage working full-time while completing my degree. I never envisioned the possibility of being a full-time employee while working towards a Ph.D., but after almost a year and a half into this journey, I’ve found simultaneously being a new professional and graduate student to be completely possible!

Lesson One: Time Management is Key, But Not Easy

Time management is an obvious necessity that many of us discuss with our students, yet sometimes (or all the time) pull a “do as I say, not as I do” when managing our own hectic schedules in higher ed. Knowing I was guilty of this in my master’s program, I committed to diligently prioritizing time management. To my surprise, I’ve rarely had to stay up later than my normal weekday bed time (9:30 – 10:00pm) because of schoolwork. How is that possible? I live by my planner and Outlook calendar to balance my work, school, and social lives. I even include time for exercising, sleeping, meals, and relaxing. I also force myself to take lunch breaks and use them to read or write papers. While these may be obvious tactics, consistently taking the time to write things down and put them in one or two calendars takes effort, especially when you're busy and updating a calendar sounds far too tedious to worry about. This time management system, however, doesn't mean I'm adverse to changes in my schedule. I simply make a conscious effort to note changes in order to have a realistic view of how I spend time and adjust as needed.

Lesson Two: Procrastination CAN be Productive!

I've always struggled with procrastination and initially worried I'd fall into old habits, such as pulling all-nighters to finish papers, that would be especially detrimental while working full-time. Still, it’s somehow always the time I blocked off to read that I conveniently remember some errands I need to run or decide to start laundry (and subsequently reorganize my entire closet). I've found the best way to navigate through last minute schedule changes or the "I just can't do this right now" feeling is to make sure I'm practicing productive procrastination.

My personal version of making procrastination productive is simple, as it only requires switching one activity on your to-do list with another (i.e. swapping reading with making lunches for the week). As long as the item(s) on your to-do list being procrastinated have some time before the deadline (i.e. making lunches ahead of time allows for more reading time the following day), productive procrastination can maximize your time and help avoid swapping paper writing for unplanned online shopping or turning on Netflix. However, if you find yourself on Netflix, that's okay! Just make sure you're wholeheartedly relaxing and do some extra work during the time you originally planned a break.

Lesson Three: Advice is Great, but Trust Yourself

Although I started taking classes in the fall 2016 semester, I officially started the Ph.D. program in the spring of 2017. I'd been encouraged by my supervisor to take courses as a non-degree seeking student that fall to get a head start and get a feel for the dual student/staff lifestyle. Taking courses during the same semester as the application and interview process helped me gain confidence in my abilities to balance both priorities and realistically see myself finishing the program. I had very little confidence of getting into a Ph.D. program prior to that semester, but getting to know faculty and other students helped me realize my potential and be more comfortable during my interview.

Having said that, I received a lot of advice from a lot of different people. Most was extremely helpful, but sometimes the advice contradicted other things I'd read or been told. Asking for different perspectives allows you to go into or continue a doctoral program with a broad knowledge of what being a doctoral student means and how to navigate your program, but can also lead to intrapersonal conflict. The important thing to remember as you sort through all the advice and information, including this post, is to use what works for you and leave the rest. You know yourself best, so trust and listen to yourself when making decisions about your future!

Do you have thoughts on this blog post? Share them with us on Facebook @NPGSKC, on Twitter @npgs_kc, or on Instagram @npgs_kc!

Kelsey Kunkle is currently the Coordinator for the Transfer Center and a Ph.D. student at the University of North Texas. She is involved in the NPGS Region III Leadership Team, loves coffee, and wishes pumpkin season was celebrated year-round. Kelsey can be reached by email at [email protected].

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