How to Get a Ph.D While Working a Full-Time Job

I’m just completing my first semester in a seminary Ph.D program, which I began while keeping my full-time ministry job as Associate Pastor of my church.  It’s not an easy task at all, and has more than its share of time management challenges.  I wanted to share some of my thoughts and practices, and to invite you in the comments to do the same.

Expect life to change.

You cannot do graduate school and keep on with life as you know it.  Many things will have to be sacrificed.  After I got my acceptance letter, I began to adjust my schedule immediately so that I would be better prepared for the real shift six months later when the program began.  Some things I did right away to prepare:

I started going to bed and getting up earlier. My best thinking time is in the morning (more on this below), so I wanted to set my schedule to maximize morning time.  Besides, after 9pm, there’s nothing much to do.

I cancelled Netflix.  I figured that TV and movies were an easy way to reclaim a little money and a lot of time, so I went ahead and bit the bullet.

I started studying German.  Since I have to pass reading comprehension in German, anyway, I decided to get a head start.  But more than that, I wanted to begin to establish a morning study habit.  I started out with just an hour or so and built from there, so that when the semester started and I needed to study for much longer stretches, the adjustment would be easier.

Think about how you can adjust now to how life will have to be once you start your program.

Map your time.

I am blessed to have the kind of job that allows me to adapt my working hours. If you are going to do graduate study, whether a Th.M or a Ph.D, it will not fit in the cracks of your life.  You need to designate a set time for study every day.  This is important.  Getting a degree is just like eating an elephant: you do it one bite at a time.  The key question: when will you sit down to “eat”?  If you expect to squeeze it in around everything else, you’re setting yourself up for failure.  Block off uninterrupted block for study time, every day if possible, and limit your interruptions during that time.

Give your best thinking time to study

Graduate school takes a ton of mental energy.  If you can, make your study time when you’re most mentally sharp.  For me, that’s in the morning.  I rise early, eat, shower, walk the dog, and then hit the books by 7:30 or 8:00.  I work steadily until mid to late morning, and then go in to work in the afternoon.  If you try to do most of your study during your least intellectually productive time, you’ll wind up re-reading a paragraph four times, or trying in vain to write one paragraph for 45 minutes, just because you’re not on your game.

Also: try to schedule your time to provide for the best work flow.  I do my most productive work when I am uninterrupted, and can drop into the zone in reading and writing. Usually, that means 1-2 hours, followed by a short break, followed by another hour or hour and a half.

Some people work best late at night.  There’s no shame in that.  Put the family to bed and stay up another three hours cranking it out.  Sleeping in or an afternoon nap can compensate for the lost sleep.  Your solution will have to be crafted to the particular needs of your work and your family life, but as much as you can, give your best mental energy to school.

Utilize Every Second

I can’t emphasize this one enough: have something to read with you at all times.  The amount of reading required for many programs borders on excessive.  If you have any down time or waiting time, you can knock out some reading time while you wait.   For instance, I walk my dog every day, so I got in the habit of taking a book and a pencil with me on the walk.  I found I could walk and read with reasonable success, so I did, and it helped me keep up with reading.  Others can read while they run on a treadmill, wait for doctor’s appointments, ride the bus, or whatever.  Keep your reading with you at all times, and redeem those moments to make progress.

Read Intelligently

I have written before on how to read books with maximum efficiency, and I recommend that you give it a look.  The method is not original to me, but I have used it with great success.  My program has me reading roughly two books a week, so it pays to find ways to devour books quickly.  This strategy won’t work for every book—some will require much slower and more careful reading—but it will work with many of them.  You will save time and increase comprehension.

Each semester, start as early as you can

If you have breaks between semesters, utilize them to get a jumpstart on your work for the next term.  Professors often have their syllabuses ready before the prior semester ends; and even if not, they can probably give you a list of required books if you ask.  This is important, because you never know when something will happen to set you back.  The difficulty with doing school and work at the same time is that you have far less margin.  If you get sick, for instance, you’ll likely fall behind in work and school.  It’s wise to prepare for occasions when things come up at work that require more time and attention than usual.  If you have a head-start on the semester’s work, you’ll be in better shape if something arises to set you back.

Get the support of your employer

Make sure your boss knows what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.  Things will go much, much easier for you if you have his or her support.  I’d recommend approaching your employer before you apply and talking about what you want to do and how it could affect your work. As a matter of fact, just to apply to my program, I had to turn in a form signed by my employer which stated they understood what I was getting into. I am fortunate to have a pastor and a church who believe in me and my program of study, and are completely supportive.  So the last two weeks before final due dates, when I’m buried in finishing papers, they understand.  Without that understanding, things would be harder.

In each seminar, understand what merits your best attention.

Not everything in each seminar is as important.  You will be required to complete assignments that professors won’t even give a second glance.   In one of my seminars this term, we were required to produce several five-page book summaries based on our reading.  The purpose of that assignment is to ensure that we interact with and absorb the material in the book.  Writing those summaries is a good way to do it.  However, there is no way my professor is going to sit and read 16 different summaries of the same book.  Most likely, he’ll glance at each one to see that our approach was adequate.  So should I spend thirty minutes agonizing over how exactly to phrase that one concept?  Absolutely not.  Write it, get it done, turn it in.

Our big term paper, however, was another matter.  In many seminars, you’ll produce one lengthy paper that is the lion’s share of the grade and the expectation for that class.  It will be closely scrutinized by both your professor and your classmates. That’s where you should devote your best efforts.

Expect your first semester to be hard

The first semester in your program, you’ll have the steep learning curve of a newcomer.  I was uneasy about what the standards would be, and how my thinking and writing would compare to others in the program.  As it turned out, I was comfortably in the middle of the pack, but I didn’t really know that until the end of the semester.  There are also skills to learn or relearn.  How, for instance, do you do library research?  I started my program after having been out of school for ten years.  To understate it: library research changed a little bit while I was gone.  The digital revolution made things easier in many ways, but I still had to learn how to navigate it.  It’s also been ten years since I had to properly format a paper (margins, footnotes, etc.). After spending six hours properly formatting my first paper, however, I’ve learned the style, and future papers will be much easier. You’ll also be learning your own study habits: how long does it take to read a book?  What are the really difficult parts of writing?  For me, it’s formulating my topic.  Once I have that, the rest comes more easily.  Others struggle with drafting or editing.  You’ll need to (re)discover your own strengths and weaknesses, and the first semester will be filled with these kinds of challenges.

Make Friends

Sit down in your seminars, and look around.  Seated around you are some of the best and brightest people in your field.  Many of them will be your colleagues for the rest of your life.  Be friendly.  Get to know them now.  They can be an invaluable resource.  Their reading and intelligence can make up for weaknesses in yours, and they can help you shape and refine your own ideas. Most importantly, they will understand the value of what you are doing in a way that many people in your life will not.  Most people in my church have no idea why someone would get a Ph.D in Christian Philosophy, but fellow students do.  They get it. You’ll need the support of friends like that when you’re enduring sleepless nights studying for comps, or wrestling your way through your dissertation.

These are just a few thoughts.  What would you add?

Start the Semester Off Smart

The first week of seminary is over, and looming ahead are due dates for reading, papers and tests. You know this because you should have a syllabus for each class, which contains all the assignments you’ll need to complete this semester and their due dates.

This is awesome. It’s a time management bonanza. If you take a few moments to plan well, it can make the semester much easier for you. Carpe Diem!

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Get your calendar. You should have only one calendar, because you have only one life. (Be sure you coordinate well with your spouse and kids.)

2. Note all the dates of your papers and exams.

3. To the best of your ability keep your schedule clear in the week before each exam, and two weeks before each paper due date

4. Schedule recovery time. Be sure to schedule some down time right after mid-terms, and after big assignments are due. Plan to relax a bit. If you schedule a day trip, a date, or some fun activity just after the crunch, it will give you something to look forward to after the big project.

5. Make a note of when the worst crunch times are. Then, if your job allows for any scheduling leeway, let your boss know early. If you’re a valuable employee, she just might work with you.

Following these suggestions should only take an hour or two, and should save you time and frustration all semester long.

(From the archives.)

Survival Skill # 1: Triage

Triage (`tree-ozh), from French, “to sort.”

1. A process for sorting injured people into groups based on their need for or likely benefit from immediate medical treatment. Triage is used in hospital emergency rooms, on battlefields, and at disaster sites when limited medical resources must be allocated.

2. A system used to allocate a scarce commodity, such as food, only to those capable of deriving the greatest benefit from it.

3. A process in which things are ranked in terms of importance or priority. (From The American Heritage Dictionary)

Here’s our first piece of wisdom. You might want to write this down and put it on your bathroom mirror:

You can’t do everything.

There’s no way for you to work all the hours to get all the money you need, AND make straight “A”s in school, AND maintain an intimate walk with God, AND pour yourself out in fruitful ministry, AND develop an impressive resume, AND see to the needs of your spouse and family, AND develop a network of friendships to support you AND get the rest, exercise and proper nutrition you need.

It’s just not possible. The time and energy demands for each of these endeavors is much too great for one person. So please give up on this now. It is a pipe dream. If you are a perfectionist, read the last paragraph again.

What we must decide is what to say no to. Since you can’t do everything, there are some things that simply will not get the attention they need. The earlier you reconcile yourself to that raw fact, the better off you’ll be.

Learning to Say Yes, No, and Wait.
Ever been to an emergency room on a Friday night? The waiting area is often crammed with injured, sometimes bleeding, people. Why are they there? Can’t they get any service?

If you are injured and go to an emergency room, your first stop will be to see the triage nurse. He or she will quickly evaluate you and decide how urgent your condition is. This will determine when you receive treatment. If you are about to die, you’ll probably be seen immediately. If your injuries are not life-threatening, however, be prepared to wait. It’s not unusual for some people to wait in the emergency room for 8 hours to be seen, while others are whisked back and are seen in minutes. It’s not a fair system at all.

Compare this to a customer service call center. While you’re on hold, the recorded message tells you that “your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.” Or, compare it to the customer service counter in a department store. There’s a line. The next person in line gets served. It’s fair. Everyone gets treated equally.

The triage nurse is generally not a popular person with people in the waiting room. But it is her job to attend to the most important things first. She is responsible to see that the hospital’s resources are managed so that lives are saved. If emergency rooms were like customer service centers—first-come, first-served—then people would be dying of heart attacks in the waiting room as the doctors give their attention to cuts and scrapes. Triage is an unpopular, but critically important task.

You need to manage your life like an emergency room, not a customer service center. You need to learn to tell people to sit and wait. You need to learn to practice triage with time, tasks and relationships.This will take some toughness and determination. If you are a wuss about this, and say yes to everything, you might as well give up now. You are a sure candidate for burning out. Better to quit while you still have your soul intact.

But if you’re serious about ministry, it’s important that you learn triage early. Because once you’re out of seminary, life in ministry is the same. There are always more people to see and tasks to perform than you have time for. You will practice triage or you will burn out.

Try This
Try this idea, borrowed from Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week. For two days, say no to every request you receive, no matter how large or small. (Exceptions for God, spouse and boss permitted…although even the boss needs to be told no occasionally.)

“Can you help me bring in this box?” No.
“Do you have a second?” No.
“We’re having a party and…” No.

What is this, cruelty? No. Saying no is a good habit to develop, because it requires guts.If you’re gutless, start telling people no. Remember: you’re not doing it to be a jerk, you’re doing it so you can say yes to the important things.

Try it. Let me know how it goes.

(Reprinted from the archives)

Seminary Syllabus Strategy #4: A Study Plan for Each Major Exam

Similar to creating a writing plan for papers, you should block out dedicated study time for major exams.

If you do this now, at the beginning of the semester (and stick to your schedule), then you won’t be pinched to find time to study.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Reserve study blocks beginning about a week before the exam.
  • Plan for multiple, short study times rather than longer blocks. Four blocks of 20 minutes each will probably make for better retention than a single two-hour marathon review.
  • Reserve this time now, and plan around it.

If you have multiple exams in a single week, like around mid-terms or finals:

  • Start a bit earlier.
  • Schedule breaks in your study time. You can schedule shorter blocks of study time around other activities, or simply build a ten minute break into each hour of studying.

The point? Be proactive. (This is Habit #1 in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.) If you anticipate your needs ahead of time and provide for them, you won’t have to be reactive and frustrated at exam time.

Also consider these study ideas:

  • Swap class notes with someone and read over your friend’s notes. This will help refresh your memory of lectures and pick up things you might have missed.
  • If you’ve underlined and/or highlighted your class reading well, it should be relatively easy to review what you’ve read.
  • Get a friend to quiz you on points you’ll be tested on. Iron sharpens iron, and it’s a good excuse to get coffee.

Seminary Syllabus Strategy #3: A Writing Plan for Every Major Paper

Seminary will give you plenty of practice writing papers. By the time I graduated with my M.Div, I could easily write ten pages about nothing. (Some would allege that my sermons are exactly that…but I digress.)

Writing papers on the scale that seminary requires can be daunting if you haven’t done it before. Ten page and fifteen page papers are pretty common; even twenty-five page papers aren’t unheard of. Most undergraduate work doesn’t require the level of writing that seminary requires.

I highly recommend creating a writing plan for each major paper you’ll write this semester. Here’s how.

First, Break It Down.

To create a writing plan, begin by breaking down the project into manageable tasks. Make a list of everything you’ll need to do:

  • Assess topic choices
  • Choose a topic
  • Get topic approved by your professor
  • Find sources
  • Research your sources and take notes on them
  • Formulate a thesis
  • Create an outline
  • Write first draft
  • Revise, and write final draft
  • Format and print the paper
  • Proofread
  • Reprint if necessary and submit

The level of detail you choose is partly a function of how you think about the project, and how big the assignment is.

Second, Estimate the Time

Second, estimate how much actual clock time will be needed for each task in the breakdown, and write it down. For instance,

  • Assess topic choices (15 minutes)
  • Choose a topic (5 minutes)
  • Get topic approved by your professor (5 minutes)
  • Find sources (3 hours)
  • Research your sources and take notes on them. (6 hours)
  • Formulate a thesis (20 minutes)
  • Create an outline (20 minutes)
  • Write first draft (4 hours)
  • Revise, and write final draft. (3 hours)
  • Proofread. (30 minutes)

Your time estimates will vary depending on the size of each project and the pace at which you work. Watch yourself as you make your first estimates about how long each task will take. Very often, our estimates prove to be way off, in either direction. As you make note of how long these tasks actually take, you’ll be able to make more precise plans for future writing projects.

Third, Reserve the Time Now

Finally-this is important-reserve a block of time in your calendar for each task of the paper. You’ll want to begin anywhere from one to four weeks before the due date. I’d suggest that you plan to finish at least a couple of days before the due date. This will give some leeway if you fall behind schedule.

If possible, start the paper early. In some classes, you have to cover a certain amount of material before you’re prepared to write some papers, but not always.