Work and PhD: Finding the balance

You’re studying, working, trying to reconcile your reading, writing, work meetings, family and social obligations, do your laundry and remember to send all the birthday cards? Welcome aboard…


Many PhD students take up part-time work during their studies. Sometimes it is teaching or research work, to complement their CV, sometimes it is any work available to make your studies financially viable. I definitely belong in the second category, but I’ve never been a one-thing person, my schedule was always a colourful mess of different activities and projects, so continuing to live this way during my PhD wasn’t that big of a change for me. In fact, I’m not sure if I’m capable of working on a single project for three or more years. Even if I was full funded, I would probably look for additional opportunities and side-projects.

This arrangement is not without challenges or occasional feeling of guilt (I sense another post materialising here…), but I thought it might be useful to share the answers the answers I offer when people ask me about fund-as-you-go PhD.

Image credits: Rosie Renfew / CC BY-SA 2.0

 Time management

It’s just going to be 5, 10 or 20 hours a week, I’ll be fine. Yeah, maybe. Or maybe not. Managing your time will become the most important skill you’ll need to develop. In order to ‘find’ time for everything you need and want to do, you’ll need allocate it. It is as simple that or, if you wish, as difficult as that. Start by making a list of all the things you’re doing and prioritise them. Paper or digital, color-coding or post-it; find out what works for you and stick to it. Sometimes the list will be too long and you’ll need to cut something out, but make sure to leave time for relaxing and doing the things that make you happy.

Plan your weeks and days and stick to the plan you’ve made; if you’re doing your reading on Monday and Wednesday afternoon, then do your reading at that time. Do not plan minute details (as you might be more tempted to give up when something goes off) and make sure to leave time for breaks, commuting and similar.

Feeling lost

I have no idea what I’m doing. No one does at first, it’s ok. PhD and work are quite similar here. If you’re not one of the lucky people who are doing the exact same job they used to do before or they’re trained for, you will need to learn quite a few things when starting a new role. Majority of UK placements are preceded by training or shadowing period, which should ease the transition, but there will probably be a lot more to catch up on.

Make friends with your colleagues, most of them will be happy to offer you advice in your first days and weeks. If there is something you don’t understand or don’t know how to do, ask. It’s better to ask and get it right, than to assume and get it wrong (I’ve learnt this lesson the hard way). Finally, accept the fact that everyone makes mistakes. Yours will be public and especially embarrassing, it’s Murphy’s Law.

Let people know

I’m working/doing PhD in my free time. Inform your supervisor and manager that you are working and studying, respectively. I understand that this is not something everyone would agree on, but if found it really useful to keep both sides in the loop. My supervisor is more understanding since she is familiar with my timetable dynamics and knows which kind of work experience and skills I might draw on and use in managing my research project.

On the other hand, my managers know that my workload differs from that of an undergraduate student and are more likely to make allowances when I need to travel to a conference, attend seminars or have an important paper deadline. Saying you’re a PhD student might get you a few curios looks from co-workers in non-academic context, but I’ve never experienced anything negative related to this.

It’s ok to let go

Some people are better multitasking on a larger scale and can easily balance several things at once, drawing boundaries where necessary. Others finder it easier to focus on just one project and devote all their attention and efforts to a single goal. And that’s perfectly fine.

If you’re among the latter and find it hard to cope with the pressure, if you’re constantly feeling stressed and fatigued, if you’re not making the expected progress in your academic work, it’s probably the time to take a step back and assess the situation.

Sometimes, the best option is to reduce the number of working hours or give it up all together. If you’re not financially strained without an extra income, there are other, less demanding ways of gaining new experience, developing professional skills and networking.

In case you need to continue working, you might want to consider changing jobs and/or looking for support and advice on balancing work-study obligations. Warwick RSSP programme, Student Careers and Skills services, Warwick SU or Nightline can offer professional help, but your friends, colleagues and supervisors are the ones to talk to, too, as they probably have first or second-hand experience with such challenges. Try to remember that no degree or work should come before your physical and mental wellbeing.

Are you balancing work and studies yourself? What’s the best piece of advice you would offer to fellow students? Let us know how you make it work. 🙂

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)

One thought on “Work and PhD: Finding the balance

  1. Although this may help, it is important to realise that one of the most important things is to network. This isn’t just for socialising, but gives an indication of what the lifestyle of other PhD students is. So no matter how trivial it may seem, or how much some supervisors may frown on the process, it is essential to network, if not for any other reason.


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