Balancing act: Balancing study, work and a personal life

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the August 2011 print edition of Teacher.

Undertaking postgraduate study, particularly a doctorate, is a big commitment, but as Terry Evans explains, there are ways to make part-time study complement your work and home lives.

Undertaking a postgraduate degree is a special experience and one that few people do more than once. It is challenging, creative, emotionally and intellectually demanding and immensely productive. Many people view the process as a daunting trial that needs to be ‘survived’ if success is to be grudgingly granted – but there is a more positive and optimistic view. Studying for a doctorate is hard work, certainly, but it can be one of the most satisfying and enduring achievements of your life.

To succeed, all you need to do is take stock of your life at the commencement of becoming a postgraduate student, then do the sums and ensure that your study fits within your life in a balanced way. Sounds easy! Well, postgraduate study is rarely easy, but part-time students can make things much easier for themselves by using some of their work and life skills to plan and prepare for one of the most significant phases of their life.

Employment and postgraduate study can be made to work for each other. Undertaking study is only part of life and not life itself. Therefore, it is important and productive to spend time on other things and with other people, especially family and friends.

Planning from the outset for several years of part-time study can help to maximise the benefits of being a working person undertaking a degree. Part-time postgraduate students may well encounter problems on the way, but usually someone has experienced similar problems before and solved them. Strategies include: planning the times and spaces for study; designing research that blends with employment; identifying and planning for future needs and demands from work and home life; forming productive relationships with other students; and understanding the capacities of universities to adapt to students’ needs.

The benefits of part-time study

Part-time study has many benefits over fulltime study for the student, the university, the profession or workplace and the community. As one may expect, there is a considerable diversity reflected in the circumstances of students, but we can make some general statements. Part-time postgraduate students are typically aged between their mid-30s to mid-50s, employed full-time in a responsible position and earning a good salary. They also are usually living in their own home, often with a partner or spouse. They often have obligations or responsibilities to children or elderly parents. Typically, they undertake research that is related to their professional interests and is of direct or indirect benefit to their employer. They are well placed to ensure that their research has an impact in their professional or workplace context, or in the community. Part-time postgraduate students consume fewer university resources to support their study; they, and sometimes their employers, are more likely to provide the resources for their study. These students are often off-campus (either formally or de facto) and, therefore, provide their own office and other facilities. Typically, they finish their degrees in slightly less equivalent study to full-time students (if we assume part-time study is half-time, which is what most universities do).

If you are a part-time student or thinking of undertaking your study part-time, you should feel very positive about the postgraduate ‘community’ you are joining. About half of all doctoral candidates in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are part-time. In some disciplines, especially the professional fields such as education, the majority of postgraduate students are part-time.

By adding postgraduate study to your life you will be undertaking a very significant intellectual and temporal commitment.

In effect, a part-time doctorate occupies (partly, but persistently) your mind and your body for about six years. Your university will also be making a similar commitment to you in terms of its physical and human resources. In particular, it undertakes to provide you with appropriate supervision throughout this period. This does not mean that you will necessarily be able to have the same supervisor throughout. It is typical for university staff to spend about five or six years within a position, but they do resign or retire, so don’t be surprised if you need to have to adjust to another supervisor.

Postgraduate study is not just a matter of adding what might be seen as another part-time job to your normal working life. A study topic can get into your head in ways that sometimes seem to take over! This means that other people will be affected whether you or they like it or not. It is a good idea to talk to your family, friends and boss at the outset. They may not know it, but they are going to be affected; they may even be helping out!

Family matters

As mentioned above, most part-time postgrad students have family commitments of some kind. Typically, these are very important obligations; however, they are often mutual obligations: that is, family members also have an obligation to provide care and support to you. Because a degree is a long-term commitment it is to be expected that some of these family commitments will change, sometimes unpredictably, over the period of study. So, we can anticipate the growing needs of children over a six year period; indeed they may be of an age that during study they gradually have less demand on you as a parent. Elderly parents might be hale and hearty and of great help with their grandchildren (your children) at the start of your study, but they may experience difficulties later so that will impact on you.

Many aspirants to postgraduate study find it a good idea to talk to those closest to them about their expectations for study and what it might mean for everyone. For a doctorate, you have to find about 18 to 20 hours per week for about 46 weeks over six years to commit to your study. Or it is 18–20 hours out of 168 in the week, which sounds much easier! Some questions are: How can you manage this commitment? What do those closest to you think about this? What activities or tasks will be left undone during this time? How can they assist you to complete? What can you do in return and when?

Despite the shifts in gender relations over the past decades, there remain significant gendered differences in family relations that make the posing and answering of the previous questions different. There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that relationships can break down under the strain of postgraduate study. This is often because the partner or spouse is fed up with the extra burdens imposed on them and the lack of support and care they receive. Of course, there is also plenty of documented evidence in the acknowledgements page of theses showing that partners and spouses are of immense and invaluable support; doubtless they also share in the joy (and relief) of those satisfactory examiners’ reports.

My advice is to think carefully about what will be involved in committing to postgraduate study and why you want to do it. I recommend that you explain what this implies for your family, ask for their views, try to reach an understanding of what it means for everyone and obtain an agreement that it is fine for you to go ahead.

It will be necessary to ensure that on some occasions the family comes first. This might be for some normal events in family life where your support is appreciated and even necessary. However, it is also to be expected that unforeseen family commitments will occur during study. These will necessarily deflect your attention from study, but usually this is not a great problem and can be accommodated. If the problems are of a more significant kind, it is important to inform your supervisors and discuss the options. All universities have some form of intermission that enables students to suspend their study for a period while they deal with such matters.

Making work work for your degree

As most part-time postgrad students are in paid employment that occupies them during the working week, study usually has to be undertaken outside of this time. However, working around or with work will be necessary for effective postgraduate study. Sometimes a promotion or new job arises. If you think this may be a possibility, how will your study fit? Can you design your research to be open to this possibility, and maybe even benefit from it? If you drop out of a coursework degree, you may still get ‘credit’ for subjects completed, but this is not the case for research degrees, so starting again a few years later is not always easy, and some universities may not be prepared to offer you a place if you’ve dropped out before. It pays, therefore, to think carefully about the way your work and study will interrelate over several years.

It is a good idea to talk to the important people in your workplace about your intentions for postgraduate study before you commence, or early in your course. In some cases, people prefer their study to be a private matter and do not wish to involve their work at all. Others intend to relate their degree to their work or career in some way, in which case talking to people at work about the study is advisable, even necessary. Some employers will encourage employees’ further study by providing some regular study time: even half a day per month is useful, of course, more would be better. Some employers may prefer to provide blocks of time, such as one or two weeks, or even one or two months later in study. Some postgrad students make arrangements for long service leave or recreation/holiday leave at a particular time that suits their study. OK, maybe doing a doctorate is not everybody’s idea of a holiday, but for some folks it is!

A good way to approach an employer is to have in mind the potential benefits to the employer, workplace and/or profession.

In order to do this it is worth recognising that most postgraduate students have a good deal of control over their topic and approach. They will usually be allocated to a supervisor (or supervisors) on the basis of their field of study. The first part of study will involve reading, thinking and writing with the intention of selecting and refining a topic that will enable the student to produce a significant and original contribution to knowledge (in essence, that’s what a doctorate is all about). If this topic can be of intrinsic interest to the student and also of benefit to the workplace, then some really good mutual benefits and efficiencies may occur. You might like to discuss how you expect to be able to share your findings with your colleagues later in study. Or, how it may potentially change work practices, quality, services and/or productivity for the better. If your research can be of direct benefit to your work, can some of your study be done at work? Is some of your paid work useful for your degree? For example, do you have to read things for work, that also form part of the literature review for your study? Can the workplace be a site of research? Can equipment and other material resources at work be used for your research?

If your research involves studying your colleagues or other people connected with your work, you will need to be careful to ensure that both your professional ethical requirements and the research ethical requirements are met. Similarly, if your project is likely to produce intellectual property (that is, potentially commercial ideas or knowledge) then the intellectual property rights of yourself, your employer and your university will need to be discussed and formally agreed early in study. Universities will have guidelines on intellectual property and most will help on your behalf and the university’s. The important thing is to ‘think before you leap’ into postgraduate study, and then talk to those people in the workplace who are likely to be important to your study.

Get a life

For some postgrad students, their degree is an intrinsically interesting passion to which they are only too happy to devote their leisure time (and sometimes they don’t want it to end, but that’s another matter!). For most students, as has been shown above, it is more a case of how to pursue a degree that has extrinsic benefits (for example, career advancement and publications) and intrinsic interests that need to fit into an already full life.

We have considered the major areas of family and work life, but as this is likely to be a six-year journey, there is a need to retain some semblance of a social and recreational life. So, it is important not to neglect all your friends for six years, although you may tell them that they might not see you as much during this period, but there will be a big party at the end! It is also important to have the occasional holiday or break. Not only because it will be good for you, but also because this may well be important for the family, and even friends.

It is also important to keep fit and healthy. Hours of reading and computer work may mean an active mind, but the body may suffer! Any form of exercise that you can do regularly and can also be used for study-related thinking is a real bonus. So an activity such as walking, running, bikeriding which you can do from home regularly when it suits you is often better than a team sport where you have to conform to a schedule of practice and competition, and to think and communicate to win! However, it is really a case of not neglecting your body while your mind is getting a doctorate; if team sport, boot camp or pounding gym music is your thing: just do it!

Some people have community, church or other spiritual obligations or requirements. Again, these may need to be moderated or modified to ensure that postgraduate study is successful. However, if they are important to your life they should not be neglected.

Committing to postgraduate study

Well, does it all add up? After thinking about all the things you have in your life, can you make the doctorate fit properly into your life? There are so many graduates who completed their studies entirely part-time and so many current students on the way to doing the same that we can see that it can be done. Indeed, if family, work, social and community life are taken into account from the start, it is very likely that you will finish your degree well on time and still have a happy family, good friends and a life!

Keep a check on your priorities and ensure that occasionally you take stock and re-balance them if something has been neglected. If you put these things into place, you should have a very successful study and become another postgraduate graduate who is able to use their skills, knowledge and abilities to contribute to their work, family and the community.

This is an edited extract of ‘Part-time candidature – balancing candidature, work and personal life,’ in Doctorates Downunder: Keys to successful doctoral study in Australia and New Zealand, edited by Carey Denholm and Terry Evans, published by ACER Press. A second edition is forthcoming. RRP $36.95. Other titles in the series are Beyond Doctorates Downunder and Supervising Doctorates Downunder.


This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the August 2011 print edition of Teacher. The author biography details have not been changed.