Have you transitioned from working full-time to full-time student?

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From briefcase to backpack?
From briefcase to backpack?
I’ve been in my current career for almost seven years. Due to several factors, I’m thinking about going back to school to get my PhD and hopefully become a professor someday. Even though I’ve been out of school for ten years!

Due to the program I want, it’s not possible for me to continue working in my field AND go back to school.

I’m looking at making a complete switch from working full-time to full-time student, and it freaks me out a bit. Any advice out there for those who’ve made the transition? Tips, tricks, fore-warnings? –Evee

Comments on Have you transitioned from working full-time to full-time student?

  1. I did this recently! After I figured out that my career as a journalist/editor wasn’t making me happy, I moved to a different city/state/time zone and started law school. I was only out of school working full-time for two years, but it was definitely a big adjustment. I think the big thing for me was re-learning to study – I had never really had to try too hard in undergrad, and I had forgotten what I did know about studying. Grad school really is very different from undergrad- much harder, more stressful and more competitive. It took me a little while to get back into the swing of things. The main thing I really wish I had done was actually sit down and evaluate my study skills from undergrad and determine what I might need to change for law school. Such as building up endurance and attention spa – Most people can’t just start studying for several hours a night after not having to do it for years! I would suggest starting to practice studying just by reading books on your subject for a little bit of time every day – extending your time as you go. I also wish I had talked to more current law students and lawyers before I started – no one in my family had ever gone to law school before and there were some things I just wasn’t aware of (like, what, we can apply for externships second semester of first year? People use supplements to study for class?). I read some books about law school but it wasn’t enough. I’ve got the hang of things now, but I felt really overwhelmed by the huge difference in culture at first.
    It hasn’t been all bad however – the years I worked full time before law school really helped me put my priorities in order and self-evaluate. For example, I knew that I was disappointed that I was involved in so few student organizations as an undergrad because it meant that I stayed in touch with very few people after school. So I’ve gotten active with several law student groups (and was urged to run for the leadership of three!). I also know the value of the money I’m borrowing and spending so I’m less inclined to go out and party than some of my classmates.
    Law school has been the single hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Good luck to you!

  2. I went from working full time to being a full time law student 2 years ago. I think the biggest transition for me, was realizing that the work doesn’t end just because I left the building. My job didn’t involve any take home work, so when I left the office I was done for the day. That’s so not true with school!

    Making a schedule and trying to stick to it helped the most. Our academic success person had a weekly chart with an hourly break down. You write in your class times, and any other obligations, then figure out how much homework you have for each class and how long it will take (she recommended rounding up to begin with) and then schedule that in. I didn’t always stick to the hour-by-hour schedule, but it was nice to have a general plan of “I will do this homework today”.

    It’s also important to schedule time for relaxing and important life things like food shopping and family!

    • I went to a law school that offered non-traditional coursework. So while I was a full-time undergrad and then 2 weeks later became a full-time law student, my classmates came from many different walks of life.
      I noticed that time management was a big issue for many students who left careers to attend school – especially for those who were married with children. The work/life balance continues to be a struggle, it’s just that “work” is now reading, studying, and going to class.
      The other thing I noticed were older students with imposter syndrome. So buck up, be brave, and don’t feel like you are less worthy to be a student just because you worked in a career before going back to school.

  3. When I was a teenager both of my parents went back to school to get their masters’ degrees. They did correspondence video courses in the early 00’s.
    So from watching my parents go from full-time work to full-time work + grad school, I think that one thing that helps is to find a study friend.
    You’re going from “socializing” at work, being surrounded daily by your work colleagues, to struggling to make new friends while learning to be a grad student. Making a connection with a fellow student will make the transition easier.
    If you make friends with a student in your new program, feel free to get competitive about coursework – it could help motivate you to sit down and work hard on your studies, since you won’t necessarily have a “boss” who will check in with you and help you stick to your goals.

    • My mother has done this twice: She went back to school and got certified as a teacher after having her kids, and then she just recently went back and got her master’s. Each time there was a roughly ten-year gap between graduation and starting up again. Both times for her, she was able to transition from ‘work mode’ to ‘school mode’: She was a SAHM when she got certified, so even though we were in school/camps/had babysitters, that’s not *really* a job she could quit. (we all suddenly had a lot more chores to do, though!) The second time she was able to take a sabbatical and get the bulk of her schoolwork done.

      I can’t agree with Cass more. It was incredibly helpful for my mother to have classmates she could schedule study sessions with, call, Skype or email when she hit a speed bump. Many of her classmates from her school are colleagues she works with, and she has friends from across the country from her master’s degree program. I’m not sure what sort of school experience or career path the OP is pursuing, but getting different viewpoints and ideas helped my mother adjust her own teaching style in a way that benefits her students.

      I also am going back to school (I had great inspiration watching my mother over the years), but I’m working full-time as well. My program is different and hasn’t yet had the emphasis on group and class projects my mother’s program did, but for me the biggest thing was time management. And honestly, that was my biggest problem the first time I was in school.

      I know everyone has their own ways to manage, but I like lists. The more the better. Get a scheduling app, or a calendar/planner, one with a month overview and a weekly breakdown — we use the Peek at the Week you can find here on OBH — and write down what you need to do that week, month, or semester, and schedule days where you have to do homework. That always makes it easier to schedule around busy weeks, and you can schedule in some time to see a movie, go to dinner, see your friends, or just take a nap. Naps are my personal preference.

      Also, since you’re looking to completely transition, look into scholarships/grants/work study/students loans. You’re taking a pay cut, you’ll need to either have enough saved up or find another way to supplement your income. Maybe you have a hobby you enjoy that could both ease your stress and make a little pocket money on the side — I like to crochet, and I’ve sold some of my stockpile of scarves at a farmer’s market around the holidays in the past. If you do end up having to go back to work, look and see if your employer offers work-study benefits. Some have programs that will reimburse you for schoolwork, and others could offer employee scholarships.

      • I love that your mom was your inspiration to go back to school. My parents told me the entire time they were working on their masters’ was that it’s easier to get all your education while you’re young, because it’s so much harder later in life.
        Their experience was part of the reason I went directly from undergrad to law school.

  4. I’m curious as to whether you’re enrolling in a more coursework based PhD or a research based PhD. I’m currently enrolled in the later and transitioned from a full time job. The amount of coursework you will take will be very dependent on both your program and your advisor and committee. I personally have a very light course load, that does not mean I don’t study (the countdown to my comprehensive exams has begun) but I do study differently than if I were taking courses. I need to be very self directed, I do not have a course outline and a looming exam that will clearly test my knowledge in what I am studying. Instead I must independently work to identify weaknesses in my knowledge base and improve in those areas. Studying with other students in your program may be possible for specific parts of this however, they will likely not be studying the exact same thing as you and the holes in their knowledge will not necessarily mirror yours. Don’t expect to depend on them to help you study. Additionally, in a research based curriculum you will very much so be expected to answer your own questions (and come up with them). Your advisor and committee are there to guide you but not to give you all of the answers, after all at the end of all of this you’re going to be an expert in your area. My best advice is be prepared to give yourself direction and accept that sometimes you will feel like you have no idea what you’re doing.

    • That’s very true that a research curriculum is SO different than a course-based curriculum. Since nobody else studies what you do, it’s almost entirely a solitary endeavor. If the person who submitted this question is used to and likes working in a team environment, it could be a rough transition. I’m an introvert, and it’s a little much some times. I can’t wait to get a real job where I work with other people!

      The other thing with a research based curriculum is TIMING. It’s tough for your family and friends to understand that you can’t control the outcome of your experiments. Depending on your subject material, you also can’t control the timing of your experiments, so you often have to work through holidays. Course-based graduate programs can be hell since there’s so much to do in a short amount of time, but at least they follow a schedule so you can pace yourself and you’ll know when you will be done.

      • So true about timing. I have a friend who works in a bacteria-culture lab and was working with bacteria with a 12-hour incubation period. She didn’t get the cultures incubating until 2pm one day, and had to be at the lab at 2 AM to fetch her cultures.

  5. You’ve probably looked into this already, but I just wanted to highlight a few things to consider. These are things that surprised me and people I know along the way, so maybe I can help you avoid some of the same surprises.
    You might not be able to be a professor, at least not right away, and probably without moving wherever the job takes you. The good news, though, is that having a PhD sets you up to do a variety of things, since it basically means that you can analyze complex issues and solve problems- this will vary slightly by field. Some PhDs are taking consulting jobs normally filled by MBAs for this reason. PhDs can also work for government agencies or nonprofit organizations. There are way more PhDs graduating than open available jobs as a full time professors. Even as college costs are rising, schools are relying heavily on “adjunct” professors to teach classes since they are paid by the class and therefore are cheaper to empl0y. So even with a full course load, at $3000 a course, an adjunct professor could make $12,000 dollars working full time. Again this varies by type of school, your field, and your willingness to move anywhere for a job.

    So, if you do decide to pursue a PhD:
    Look for schools in areas with a low cost of living.
    Look for schools that pay a stipend- they are generally better programs that are harder to get into, and money coming in makes your life easier.
    Consciously make an effort to change your routine. You will be working ALL the time. Instead of scheduling when you ARE working, it’s honestly easier to schedule a couple hours each week when you AREN’T working, and assume that you will be working the rest of the time! Self-care is important, but most graduate programs don’t recognize that.

    In my experience, people who worked in their field for a few years actually had an easier time with some aspects of grad school than those who didn’t. They weren’t the ones who got the highest grades in the classes, but they did way better at the practical and experiential side of the program.

    Good luck with the path that you choose!

  6. As a professor in a PhD granting program, I thought I’d leave some of the tips I share with my students thinking about a professor career. I’m NOT trying to discourage people, but there are a lot of factors that people often don’t consider (and that professors often don’t talk to you about). I want every student considering this career to be informed, and to make the best decision for themselves based on good information.

    1) Carefully explore the placement rates of the graduate program you choose. The program is much more important than the overall school. In my field, there are also many programs that have a very high opinion of themselves, but have a terrible placement rate (these include some Ivy League schools).

    2) Ask the programs what KIND of jobs these students get. In some fields, most people end up working in very poorly paid jobs for several years before getting a tenure track job (IF they ever get a tenure track job)

    3) Carefully explore the overall rate of placement in your chosen field. There are fields where a very low percentage of PhDs ever get professor jobs, because they are simply not available.

    4) Consider your willingness to relocate, or potentially relocate several times. Are you willing to move anywhere for a job? Is location important to you? Many have to make a choice between a job and a location that better suits their life needs. If you have a partner, they will likely have to move for your job.

    5) Consider whether you would prefer a teaching intensive or research intensive position. Because PhD programs are located at research universities, often your professors will be better at preparing you for the (hard to get) research jobs.

    If you are interested in a research position, start reading professional journals in the field NOW to help you prepare for your application. Then think about: Do I want to / can I do the kind of research that leads to these sort of publications?

    If you prefer a teaching intensive position, ask the programs you are considering if and how they prepare their students to be teachers as well as researchers.

    Look at schools you would love to teach at, and see where their younger professors have gotten their PhDs.

    6) Examine the average length of the program. This is a significant period of time when you will not be earning much and not be contributing to your retirement.

    7) Consider your overall life needs. Talk to younger professors as well as adjunct faculty about their current workloads (I emphasize younger, because they are often bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, with heavier workloads and relatively lower salaries). Are you passionate enough about your field to make it such a big part of your life? Do you need a significant amount of time in your life that is outside of work?

    Once you enter a PhD program (unless you are in a professional field or science field) you will find that many people have difficulty imagining or advising you on jobs outside of the academy. Keep your sanity and keep alternate options open for yourself.


    • Thank you for your honest advice. It looks like I’ve been counseled better than most, but I still knew none of these things before I started my PhD.
      In my field, anything other than academia is considered an “alternative career.” It’s not that surprising since the only people training us are professors! The majority of graduates in my program and field finding jobs in consulting, science/medical writing, or industry- not academia. Sometimes they do a post doc first, but not many continue on from the post doc to the faculty position. There are lots of great jobs other than being a professor, but it’s hard to let go of that dream. My strategy is to work hard and be prepared for the opportunity should it arise, but I also have several backup “alternative careers” in mind in case it doesn’t.

      • Yeah, that’s true in most fields (that any other career is considered “alternative.”) Not only are the people training you professors – but they are professors at research oriented institutions, because those are the institutions with PhD programs. Another thing that helped me keep perspective is to make lots of social connections among university people who are not faculty – our administrative staff, people offering tech support, etc.

  7. Today I am printing out the final copies of my PhD thesis! So ask me anything!

    I went straight from undergrad to master’s to PhD, so I don’t have any specific advice about your situation. But – I think that actually having worked in a job can be a huge advantage in a PhD programme.

    If you can, treat your PhD like a new job. Have set hours, and set days off. Have lots of deadlines and goals, right from the beginning. Be regular in having meetings with your supervisor. Invest time (and maybe money) in the development of your professional skills (go to training days, deliver papers at conferences, publish papers in big journals, learn a new language, network outside your department, do outreach in the local community, use blogs and twitter, etc, etc).

    It’s tough at first, because no one is *telling* you to do these things as they would at a traditional job. (“You mean I can sleep and watch Dr Who all day and then work all night eating ice cream?! Hurray!”) But all of these work-type things will help a lot – (a) they will keep you mentally healthy and on-track and (b) you will have got lots of stuff done during your PhD *beyond just writing a thesis*, which will prepare you for the academic job market.

    A PhD is not (just) a thesis. It’s an apprenticeship for academia. It’s also a time of many, many opportunities. So treat it like a job, and take as many opportunities as you can. And enjoy it!

    • Making set hours and set days off are HUGE towards the life-work balance. My husband who is working on his PhD has trouble with this (particularly due to his engineering lab culture of staying at the lab all night most nights).
      As a wife of a PhD candidate, I would love it if I didn’t have to bargain with my husband to have him home at reasonable hours.

  8. I love that you’re going back to school!!! It’s so much easier this time around. You’re used to working 40 hours a week and having to keep everything organised. It’s absolutely doable, in fact, I’d bet big money you’ll thrive.

    The other kids in your class will be nice, but they will be kids. You are going to intimidate them, there’s nothing you can do about that. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help, chances are very good that in the very close future they’ll be asking you.

    Your knowledge of all things tech is going to explode – in a good way.

    Make meals for many weeks and keep them in the freezer – it’ll save you from Burger King Belly during exams.

    I blogged a bit about my transition here: http://surrealmeds.blogspot.ca/2011/03/my-thought-process-when-i-decided-to.html

    Yay you!!

  9. Hi,

    I am in my first year of a PhD in Philosophy in the UK. Before that I was working full-time and doing a masters degree part-time. I think the entire thing is probably like having kids – there is never a right time to do it as such, it’s always life changing and harder than anything you’d imagined but the sense of achievement is amazing!

    I think the advice about assuming you’ll be working most of the time and what you will need to schedule is time off, is correct. However in my experience of doing a humanities PhD where there I make the structure myself is its not actually possible to do the intense reading I need to do Mon-Fri , 9 to 5. I have a few other projects on the go (blogs etc) so I can take a break by doing something else that is related. I am writing this now as break before I go back to the chapter I’m drafting.

    You will need to have a good support network who are sympathetic to what you are doing. I am very very lucky in that my partner has been through this already so she knows why I get so stressed. I do find that quite a few people have no sympathy for me though, I’m fully funded doing the thing I love, taking a risk they wouldn’t and they don’t want to hear me bellyache about how hard it is. So I’m careful where I do that. I am embarking into a very difficult field and it’s scary enough without over anxious non-risk taking relatives wading in, even with the best of intentions, so I try not to get into it with them frankly and if asked just confidently say I plan to lecture afterwards and change the subject! You’ll find thought that there will be people who start the study at the same time as you, you’ll go through it together and you can safely complain and worry away with them!

    Prepare for a few years of reduced living, sort out that leaky guttering that may prove very costly later on or whatever and have a good long treaty holiday before you begin, it may be the last for a while. Possibly wait a year or so and try and save. It’s probably worth having a health check up too, I’m lucky enough to live in a country where that’s not a cost implication as such, I have had one minor surgery this year due to an ongoing condition and am looking at another before the PhD is finished, it would be a different story if they were more than a time-tabling consideration.

  10. Last year I decided to change fields and begin a post-bacc program to prepare for grad school. I was working full time and taking two classes at a time, while pregnant. Now I don’t work anymore, but I still take 2 classes at a time and I am an intern. I am applying for grad school this year for fall 2014. The whole process is so arduous. I made a spreadsheet for potential programs with deadlines, fees, and other application requirements, which is helping keep everything straight. My field is competitive and a 1st year grad student recommended that we “cast a wide net” when applying to make sure we get accepted somewhere the first time

  11. I went back to school for a two-year Masters degree about 5 years after I finished undergrad. I’m glad I did it. For me, the job opportunities from the degree were totally worth it, but I found the transition really hard.
    1) I moved from an area where I had an active social life to a place where I knew no one. That’s always tough.
    2) I spent more time studying and working a part time school-related job than I had at my full time job + 1 class. This left little time for fun stuff outside of school. In my 2nd year, I made more time for non-school outlets, but the first year, I was so overwhelmed by the demands of school, that I couldn’t make the time.
    3) Even though I was still in my 20s, I felt substantially older than the majority of my classmates who were straight out of undergrad. Sounds a bit silly, and many of them were great, but we were in different places, and there for different reasons. For me, grad school wasn’t a big welcoming community of people interested in the same stuff as me.
    4) Finances. Finances. Finances. I went from having an ok income to living on a grad student stipend. I was lucky to have it, and lucky not to have student loans, but it’s a big change to start thinking about whether you can afford dinner or a yoga class, etc.

  12. I actually quite regret going back for my PhD. I won’t be staying because I’ve realized I don’t enjoy academia – I find the constant criticism and competition emotionally draining, the low pay causes financial stress and I’m frankly just not willing to put off having children or settling down for multiple years as I move from city to city chasing low-paying postdoctoral positions in pursuit of a tenure track job. So two pieces of advice that will hopefully stop you from getting jaded and bitter like I am.

    If you really want to go into academia, make sure you understand what it means to pursue a tenure track position in your field, and the chances of getting one. Does it require multiple postdocs and are you in a position to commit to moving for them? Also, are you in a position to go multiple years on contract (no benefits)? What universities are actually hiring, and what are the chances of securing a position? What do you need to actually get tenure once you’re scored a position?

    Also, be prepared to make an emotional transition. I worked for several years before going back for my PhD. At work, I felt like a valuable employee, both because of the general atmosphere at the office and because the company made it a point to ensure that we were relatively well paid and had good benefits and the such. It was important for them to make sure we were happy and felt valued because there was some heavy competition in the area – there were relatively few engineers, and a fair number of companies looking to hire. The university is quite the opposite. There are too many students and PhD students are just another pain in the behind to the admin (and many times to the faculty). Realize that funding may be guaranteed for the first x number of years, and after that you’re going to be paid less. Even if the funding stays the same, realize that tuition goes up and your net take home pay will drop. Even though I realized this before I started, I was surprised how draining this can be. It feels like getting mildly demoted every year.

    Ok, hope I’m not too much of a debbie downer here. I know a number of people who find their PhD work very rewarding. It’s just important to go in with your eyes open.

    • This reminds me of something I forgot to mention above. For many, it’s really hard to maintain perspective once you enter a PhD. You get swept along in a track, and deviating from the track is often looked at as failure. It’s not a failure to change your mind and decide that a different career is a better choice for you!!! It’s not a failure if you really want a professor job and can’t find one. (And if you are in the humanities… well, most people DON’T find one.) So try to keep that perspective!

    • Hey, I’m sorry you’ve had a bad experience. You’re absolutely right you have to go into it with your eyes open, and understand what an academic career might require.

      Your experience is unfortunately all too common. But I think the feeling of PhD students being valued or not is something that really varies among different universities, different faculties, and even different groups within the same faculty. Working around people who respect you is really important. So I would advise anyone looking to do a PhD to really do their research. Talk to current grads – they should give you an idea of how the faculty works and whether it will be a good place for you.

      And Sunny is so right – changing track is not failing. It’s totally fine to go into a PhD with an attitude that you will get a lot out of the programme, and maybe pursue an academic career, while knowing that you have many other options.

  13. I would just say, “YOU CAN.”

    So many people say and do discouraging things when, really, I think they are trying to be encouraging. It’s as if by letting you know about the difficulties, they are inoculating you against them. But really it’s awful.

    Dylan Moran says, “People will kill you over time, and how they’ll kill you is with tiny, harmless phrases like, ‘be realistic.'” So my advise is to not listen to the discouraging people/stuff.

    Remember that you can, and if only because you believe you can, you will.

  14. I transitioned from full-time work (6 years working) to full-time grad student, and have just graduated after 2 years of grad school. It’s been a challenging time, but I’m so glad I did it! Most of what I would say has already been covered by previous commenters, but I do have two things to add. My partner and I agreed that I would go back to school, and that he would financially support us as a couple while I was unable to work. Although we both agreed that this would be the best solution, I struggled with guilt throughout my program. I felt guilty for not bringing in an income, guilty for ‘living off someone else’, and guilty for my long vacations. I combatted the guilt by talking to my partner and remembering that school is a full-time job that would eventually pay off and benefit both of us, by remembering that I would do the same for him in a heartbeat, by taking temporary jobs during summer vacations, and by making a financial plan together. We made a budget that would give me money for essentials, as well as money for luxuries that I would have bought had I earned the money myself. That way as long as I stuck within our agreed budget, I didn’t feel guilty for spending money on ‘frivolous’ things like shoes and lunches out.
    The second challenge I faced was often a lack of understanding from working family and some friends, who didn’t quite appreciate the reality of grad school. I was often talked about as though I had oodles of free time. People would ask me to run errands for them in the day, because I was ‘not busy’, ‘didn’t have work’ and ‘only had to do reading – which you can while you are babysitting, right?’. It was very frustrating. If this is likely to be problem for you, I’d suggest being very upfront about your workload from the beginning, and don’t assume that people who haven’t been through school know what it entails.
    I’m so happy with my decision to go back to school. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and has opened so many doors for me. You can do it, good luck!

  15. I only worked full time for two years before starting my MA, and I would echo much of the advice others have already given. It’s a difficult transition, but I have found that I am so much less stressed about my work than I was a PhD-track undergrad. There is a lot more joy in my studies now, and I have a much greater ability to set aside time for fun. Working full time for those two years made me better able to manage my own time and buckle down and work for hours straight when I need to. I find that, although I still have the imposter syndrome that is rampant in academia, I feel pretty confident in conducting myself around peers and instructors – they might be smarter than me, but I don’t find that threatening anymore. And finally, I have a much more balanced perspective on the whole thing. Academia is something I love and want to pursue as a career. It’s not my life. If it doesn’t work out, I will find something else and be happy – and that is something I could not have imagined without those two years of work under my belt.

    I realize now this is more of a treatise on why a person should work before pursuing graduate degrees, not advice on how to the manage the transition.

  16. Going back for my masters after working for 4 years was one of the best decisions I ever made. I studied in a field where getting a job was pretty much off the table–for me, it was just an exploration of what I wanted to learn. I was in shape to go after what I wanted and maximize the experience because I’d matured a bit since undergrad and knew what I wanted from the experience. I was also paying for it myself and thus was unwilling to waste a second.

    Here’s what I’d advise as you get ready to go back to school: get everything you don’t care about out of your life. Grad school is super-time-consuming, as everyone else said here, not to mention expensive. I decided I’d rather have 2-3 part-time jobs at all times rather than go into debt, so I ditched television, new clothes, hyper-critical friends, and travel. Your priorities might be different but you get the idea–make the most of every second. Drop courses if you feel you’re not learning, talk to your adviser if you’re not happy with the direction of your thesis, and never lame out on doing the work if you’re learning from it. A lot of my classmates, who had come directly from undergrad (and in some cases, whose education was being funded by their parents) would skip classes, half-ass papers, and try to “get out” of readings. It seemed crazy to me to pay to be there, then not embrace it.

    I should tell you, I was childless and single when I went back to school, so how your time plays out might be different than mine. But I still had lots of friends and socializing, both with old friends and (eventually) with new grad school friends. It was great great fun–and the best part, I’m much smarter now!

  17. I had to post another comment because I just remembered this book-
    Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision To Go To Grad School


    It’s an honest depiction of the self-doubt and craziness you will experience in grad school. If you weren’t crazy before, you will be a couple years into a PhD. It’s normal. People who have had some experience with the crazy before grad school typically do better with the transition from normal person to crazy person.

    There are a lot of negative comments on this thread, but I think overall it just means that
    1) People expect different things from grad school than what it actually is. If you get there and hate it, make a graceful exit. There’s no shame in switching your life goals. But if you think you will regret not trying, then go for it.
    2) It’s hard. You will feel terrible about yourself and your abilities for most of it (currently in this stage.) But things do all come together at the end (on the verge of this stage…I think) So have a support system in place.

    And an unrelated note: I’m doing an experiment today with only 3 minutes of downtime at a time for long stretches of my day, so I keep finding myself on OffBeat empire- for 3 minutes at a time!

  18. Thanks for all the advice everyone! I’m the poster with the question, and I’m loving all the advice and advanced warning. I’m in the sciences, and I’d be getting my PhD in Animal Behavior or Welfare. I’m willing to move, having done so once already for my job. My biggest worry is finances; we’re not that well off even with a full-time job, and I don’t know how we can handle grad school. Any advice for funding?

    • As far as finances, you either make the lifestyle adjustments needed to be able to afford not to work, find part time work that will fit your schedule, qualify for financial aide that will help with living expenses, or (and I don’t say this to be mean, just honest) realize that this might not be the time to go back to school.

      I don’t know what your family situation is, but your comment makes me thinks you have some sort of partner. Your partner needs to be on board with what you’re doing, or it will just breed resentment. If you have joint finances, it might not be a bad idea to see either a counselor at the school, or a financial planner together to work out what your new budget will realistically be. My husband bought a business and went back to school at the same time, and it was crazy stressful for awhile. For me, since I was the spouse not in school, it took some adjusting to his new schedule and study habits. What was most important to me was that I was kept in the loop so to speak. So long as nothing was sprung on me last minute, I was ok adapting to his needs as a student. I just never wanted to feel like I was on the outside looking into this new life he was building for himself (and our family).

      • Unfortunately, some graduate programs don’t allow you to have any outside work. You have to literally sign a contract saying that 100% of your time and effort goes into your work and not any other.

      • I agree with this as a partner of a full-time student. My fiance has just gone back to uni to do a 4 year degree. We looked at our budget and decided that we can cover most things (even with a wedding coming up at the end of the year) but have to be really tight about our budget. He said he would get a part-time job, but 6 months in, this still hasn’t occurred and he’s just had 5 weeks of holiday. I know it’s different because he’s only in first year, not grad school, but I would say make sure your partner knows that it’s appreciated, and do everything you can within your study means to help out with housework/cooking meals/earning extra cash whenever you can.

        My fiance has been super helpful around the house which makes me feel much better about working full-time and funding stuff.

    • I personally would advise you to hold out for a programme that will fully fund you and offer a reasonable stipend for living costs. These can be more competitive, and you may have to apply for a couple of years to find one… but I don’t think anyone should get into debt to do a PhD.

      Some places will fund you for nothing in return (esp in the UK). My understanding is that in the US, you may be required to do teaching or TA work in return for your living costs being funded. So work out what you are comfortable with.

      Again, this is just a personal opinion. But academic jobs are uncertain – to me, it just makes sense for the PhD to be a paying job, not a source of debt. There’s also a weird thing where people who have been funded through their PhD seem to be *more* likely to get a job afterwards (because they are seen as a good investment etc).

      You can take or leave this advice, obviously, depending on what will work for you. If you want to read some stories/advice about doing a PhD without funding, have a look at the site “Brains, Time, Money”:

      • I 100% agree. Our university talks about grad students being a “valuable resource” that contribute to the research profile of the university. In general, undergrads require funds, but grad students being in funds through grants (indirectly mostly, through their advisors). In many cases, you are only taking a few courses before starting research and pumping out the papers. You are a net gain to the system and should be paid. Now, granted, it’s not going to be much and that’s something you have to accept up front. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’re a student you’re not worth the money.

        In practical terms, there are a few things to check out. 1) Can you get an internal or external scholarship? 2) Does the university have a minimum stipend and how much is it? 3) Does the university have any benefits through the students association (dental etc.) ? 4) How are scholarships and stipends taxed, and what type of tax refund do you get from tuition?

        Lastly, I’m not sure what your particular situation is, but having an external scholarship is a major advantage in getting accepted. I walked in with a three year government scholarship (that’s the longest they will give those for), and it basically guaranteed my acceptance. It is a MAJOR leg up because you can find an advisor and tell them that not only will you not cost them anything, but your proposal has already been peer reviewed. Plus it’s prestigious for the university – it jacks up their stats.

    • Hi again! In most academic programs in the US (there are a few exceptions), you will not be accepted for a PhD unless you have full funding (which generally means a tuition waiver and a 1/2 time research or teaching assistantship – at a fairly low wage -, but may also include fellowships). I took a peek at the two programs I happen to know of with PhDs in animal science (Colorado State and University of Minnesota), and this was also the case there. In your case, you would be more likely to get a research assistantship. If you intend to become a professor, I would definitely say do NOT enter a program without full funding. You really won’t get a professor job afterwards if you don’t have funding while in the program.

    • I strongly advise talking with current students about the ways they are getting funded, particularly those who are close to finishing. Advertised funding isn’t always accurate (my Masters program advertises a certain amount of scholarship money, except 70% of that is minority scholarships, which didn’t help my white butt) and professors aren’t always in the loop about who has what money coming in.

      Other students can give you a more accurate idea of how easy it is to get TAing positions or teach a summer class or supervise a lab or if there’s a easy to get work done job to look for (best job I had in grad school was working late evening in the department office, I generally just did homework and maybe answered the phone and unjammed the copier once a month).

  19. Finances – if you are already used to serious budgeting you’ll do well. If you don’t already know EXACTLY what you (and partner) spend on rent/mortgage, food, utilities, medical, clothes, toiletries, and fun start writing it all down now and review after about 2 or 3 months, one month is too short and can be unrepresentative. Me and my partner did this before I started (and I hated it) but it was invaluable for accurate budgeting.

    I am fully funded (fees and stipend which is a lot less than average income for may age) but the kind of work I did before was so badly paid I’m actually marginally better off now. It’s the people who were on properly paid jobs with outgoings that depend on those such as kids or mortgages and are ball park about most of their spending after rent and utilities, that find the transition really hard. Your stipend may come in big lumps so will need different budgeting to when you have a monthly wage, knowing what you spend exactly helps here.

    You (and your partner) will need to be prepared to have several years in which your income may not stretch to saving or building up an emergency fund if you don’t have one already. I can just save a tiny amount each month but it’s blown if there is an emergency but me and my partner worked out a plan were we don’t rely on my tiny tiny savings. If your partners income is not enough to cover emergencies on its own or your long term shared plans (saving for a house etc) will be seriously affected by you not contributing to the family pot for a few years, then to get the most out of your PhD you may need to re-think timing here. You could decide to live on a reduced budget for a year on your current income to a) prepare and b)to save ahead.

    In order to do well at a PhD you’d ideally be free to throw almost everything at it, which is really hard if you are not rich and/or single and commitment free. As a mere human you’ll just have to work out how you can prioritse it which inevitably involves negotiating with your partner about these years in which they will have to bear the brunt because you are out of action financially and possibly emotionally. It’s like a very long pregnancy..

    However like having kids there is no right time and people make these things work in the most unlikely circumstances, desire to do it often wins out over perfect timing. The main thing that will get you through is passion and drive and it’s amazing what those can overcome, just take some time now to do your best to minimise obstacles that really don’t need to be there, even if it means waiting a little. You are playing a winnable but long game here.

    Good luck!

  20. I did this…went back to school after working for a long time.

    And what was toughest was the power dynamic. I was used to being an adult and working among professional peers. Even bosses or supervisors in the places I worked in a team approach. So getting into the power dynamics of student-professor was kinda jarring.

    I also was used to being an authority in my field. So I had a tough time having my ideas questioned.

  21. My best advice is instead of thinking of it as a change from being a full-time worker to a full-time student, think of full-time learning AS your job. I went back to school after 3 years of full-time work (with only a HSD) and I found the transition easy because I thought of it as a job opportunity. I found that my teachers appreciated me a lot more because of my real world experience. Most of their other students were right out of high school, or had been continuous students with no work experience. It may feel obvious to you that your attendance to every class in important and valuable, or that using your cell phone during class is rude and a waste of everyone’s time, but not to those who haven’t held a serious job. I thought that transitioning from work to school was MUCH easier than transitional from school to work.
    If you are worried about your income, I found that with a more flexible schedule that going back to school provided, I was able to save a lot of money by driving less, shopping sales, and shopping when there are less people in the store (I hate being in crowded areas, so shopping when no one is around made me feel less rushed so I had more time to make sure I was getting the best deal.)
    I hope your back to school experience is as positive as mine was.

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