Advice for Part-Time Ph.D. Students

In 2004, I completed a Ph.D. as a part-time student. Getting this Ph.D. was a long-standing goal of mine, and I would do it again without hesitation. It was a great experience, as it allowed me to not only explore some new areas of computing, but also to go into great depth on one of my favorite areas.

That said, here are a few things that I wish I had known at the outset. I hope that my telling you will help, but of course, your mileage may vary!

Does Your School and Committee Permit Part-Time Ph.D. Students?

It is one thing to be a pioneer, and another thing entirely to rush in where angels fear to tread. Don't even think about starting down this path unless your committee members, particularly your major professor, are supportive.

Pick Something You Are Passionate About

If you are really passionate about it, you will feel depressed or even physically ill if you are prevented from working on it. This level of motivation will give you a fighting chance of actually getting something done, despite the other demands of life. Anything less will probably result in your adding the Ph.D. to your list of unfinished projects.

Strive for Full Personal Alignment

Especially if you cannot feel the passion, you will need to make sure that your topic is aligned with your day job, so that you can kill two birds with one stone. Important safety tip: throw no stone at only one bird, unless it is a really important bird!

Strive for Full Committee Alignment

Make sure that your topic is important to your committee, especially to your major prof. Otherwise, you will have trouble keeping your committee together. This is especially true for part-time Ph.D. students, since you will need to keep your committee together for much longer than would a full-time student.

One difficulty this situation poses is that the traditional way for your topic to be important to your committee is for it to be contributing toward their funded work. Unfortunately, the duration of most funded projects is appropriate for a full-time, rather than a part-time, Ph.D. program.

Another difficulty is that you have to be the first out with your topic in order for it to qualify for a Ph.D. degree. It is hard enough to be first, even harder to remain first for the few years required of a full-time Ph.D. student, and almost impossible to remain first for a significant fraction of a decade, as is often required of part-time Ph.D. students. Remember, if someone beats you to the punch, they win and you lose.

More on resolving these issues later.

Note that I violated this dictum, but was saved from disaster by an especially tolerant committee and by the fact that I completed the major portion of the writing in one month. I would like to think that I was also helped by the fact that my dissertation topic was unusually important and timely, but the cruel fact is that, just as every parent's first child is unusually intelligent and attractive, every Ph.D. candidate's topic is unusually important and timely.

Exceptions to Alignment

The preceding sections on alignment were written with my experiences in mind, working on my degree program while holding down a full-time job and raising a family (thankfully, enormously assisted in the latter by my full-time wife). If you are single with no social life and a forty-hour-per-week leave-it-at-work type of job, you may be able to be more aggressive about seeking new challenges.

In fact, you may be able to use your doctoral program to break into an entirely new field. But of course, this would mean that you were once again fully aligned, but this time with your future career.

Be Self-Funding

If you are paying your own way, then it is not as important for your work to dovetail into your committee's currently funded projects. In fact, your work might be an opportunity for your committee to explore a new area to determine whether this area is ripe for further funded work. Besides, the reason you are a part-time student is that you are working, right? And if you are working, you should be able to pay your own way. Or perhaps you work for a generous employer who will foot the bill.

Bringing your own funding, whether out of your own pocket or that of your employer, will free you from the tyranny of customary research-project durations.

Publish as You Go

You must be the first person to cover your topic, otherwise, your work does not qualify as a Ph.D. There are more people pursuing doctorates than there have been at any time in the past, and there is some truth to the old adage that great minds think alike. I have talked to a number of people who worked hard on their dissertation, only to find that someone else beat them to the punch, sometimes by a matter of months. And they were working on it full time!

If you are doing your doctorate part time, you will take longer to get it done. Therefore, you are more likely to be beaten to the punch. But if you publish your findings in an appropriate forum as you go, you have "laid your claim" to that portion of your work before completing work on your dissertation. Once you have published part of your work in a suitable forum, no one can take that part of your work away from you.

University technical reports are one useful tool, as are the relevant conferences and journals, either print or electronic. But check with your committee before going the electronic-publication route, as not all universities recognize electronic publication. In fact, I have heard rumors of universities forbidding publication prior to completion of the dissertation. So make sure that your committee fully supports "publish as you go".

Check Your Writing Speed

Dissertations need to be roughly 100 double-spaced pages in length. If you are pursuing a doctorate part-time while working full-time and perhaps also having some social or family life, you might get one day a week to work on your dissertation. If it takes you a day to write a page, it will take you at least two years just to write your dissertation, never mind doing the actual work, much less the time required to update your dissertation based on feedback from your committee. If you can write ten pages in a day, this time shrinks to less than three months.

If you write slowly, journalism classes or other activities to increase your writing speed might be extremely wise investments.

Of course, the ability to write quickly will also make it easier for you to publish as you go. And if you publish as you go, then writing your dissertation should be much easier, since you can incorporate your publications rather than doing the whole thing from scratch. But, as always, check with your committee, as the rules do vary from institution to institution.

Corporate and Academic Communities Do Have Different Cultures

Corporate presentations tend to be informative or directive. Academic or research presentations tend to be investigative. If you put too many questions on a presentation to corporate types, you invite diversion and brainstorming. If your first slide in presentation to high-level executives is a bunch of questions, you are unlikely to get to the second slide. Executives like answers, so, when face with questions, they automatically try to answer them. And they didn't get to be executives by yielding the floor easily. So, when you put up your first slide full of questions, you very likely forfeit the ability to contribute anything more to the discussion -- unless you make it very clear that answers were forthcoming and you have the stage presence required to take the floor back from a group of high-level executives.

But questions are a critically important part of academic discourse. When in Rome...

Work with your major prof on this -- I certainly had to!!!

Lead With Your Strengths

What special skills and talents do you bring to the table? This document will not reiterate all the self-help material that is all too easy to find, but will instead cover the special advantages that you might have as a part-time Ph.D. student.

Work Experience

You are most likely doing a part-time Ph.D. program because you are working, perhaps full time. The work experience will likely be helpful, either directly in your research or in the mechanics leading up to it. In my case, ten years of experience doing kernel development for shared-memory multiprocessor systems was invaluable. Even a few years experience with a given software environment can be quite helpful in getting both research and class projects done quickly and efficiently.


When I was an undergraduate studying mechanical engineering, almost all of us were in our early twenties. One of the students was a white-haired old man in his forties or fifties. He had led a hard life in the housing construction industry, and was coming back to college to better his career. Although he was not the best student, he had the clearest picture of why he was there, and none of us worked anywhere near as hard as he did.

You do lose energy, creativity, and, well, youth, as you age. However, you gain maturity, including experience, focus, and a willingness to sacrifice for long-term gain.

Financial Freedom

If you have worked full-time in industry for a few years or even, like me, a few decades, you probably have some savings or at least a significant income.

Do not hesitate to make tradeoffs that save you time at the expense of a little money. Would a particular type of computer or software permit you to make better progress? Should you be running your reports or dissertation past a technical editor? Time is money!

Just make very sure that the work itself is your own!!!

Tolerance for Uncertainty

"Traditional" Ph.D. students may be used to traditional schoolwork structure, where there is a predetermined set of tasks to be performed or concepts to be mastered. For such students, their doctoral dissertation may be their first foray into projects with high degrees of uncertainty. In dissertation work, a number of things can go wrong:

  1. Someone might beat you to the punch.
  2. The selected approach might not work out.
  3. The selected approach might work, but might turn out to be equivalent to an approach already taken.
  4. The selected approach might work, but someone else might come out with a totally different approach that is in all ways superior.
  5. Expected funding might not be forthcoming.

In short, in contrast with traditional schoolwork, you cannot create a foolproof plan to complete your doctoral dissertation. If you have worked in industry for some time, you have probably experienced this sort of situation. This sort of experience should enable you to deal with the inevitable setbacks more gracefully and effectively than your younger colleagues.

Summary of Strengths

There can be no doubt that younger minds have more agility, creativity, and energy than do older ones. However, the advantages that come with age can be quite powerful, especially experience, maturity, and financial freedom.

Make sure you are leveraging your strengths to the utmost. If you are a middle-aged Ph.D. candidate competing with a bunch of twenty-somethings, you are going to need all the help you can get!


Getting a Ph.D. part time while working full time is more difficult, requires more focus, and is less tolerant of error than it might if you were doing it full time at the traditional age. However, I am here to tell you that, if you do your homework (both literally and figuratively), it can be a wonderful experience.

I wish you the best of everything in your course of study! You too can do it!