“…it was different when I was an undergraduate.”

Caleb is twenty-five. He is grateful that from among the many students who applied to the accelerated doctoral program in engineering at his university, he was one of the few who were selected. As an undergraduate student, he worked hard, obtained good grades, and still managed to maintain a social life. Last summer, he graduated with a degree in mathematics, married his high school sweetheart, and landed a well-paying job at an engineering firm in the city, a two-hour daily commute from his home. He was quite proud of his achievements. Now that he has had some time to establish a career and start a family, he is ready to pursue the rest of his educational goals.

However, after only a few weeks into the first semester of doctoral studies, he is having second thoughts. He entered the program thinking that over the next five years, he would be completing his coursework, research, and publications required for the degree. Recently though, he has begun to realize as a part-time student it will take more than five years to complete the requirements to obtain his degree. He knows his manager is retiring in four years, and his supervisor has indicated that Caleb stands to “take over” when he is gone. But he needs to complete his Ph.D in engineering to secure this.

The third time Caleb comes to his supervisor’s office, at the end of the day, to request the following day off “to take care of things,” his supervisor knows that something is amiss. Caleb has never being absent, or late, despite the fact he has a long commute to work. Besides, his supervisor has noticed that Caleb’s work is not as accurate as it used to be. As Caleb hurries to leave, his supervisor politely inquires, “Caleb how are your studies coming along?” Caleb stops for a minute, glances at the clock, then, he dejectedly sits back in his chair. “I’m not sure.” “Not sure?” his supervisor queries. “Yeah, there is so much to do, school, family, work, friends. It never ends. I thought I had it figured out but now, I don’t know. It was different when I was an undergraduate.” Caleb voice trails off. His supervisor nods, knowingly and sympathetically. He feels he needs to help Caleb understand the problem. “Caleb,” he said, “if I were you, I would…”

Finish Caleb’s supervisor’s statement. What is Caleb’s problem and how should he proceed?

He needs to prioritize and to secure a good support system.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Caleb needs to take inventory of his priorities. Do financial or work obligations prohibit him from going to school full-time? Does his wife work? Is she willing to help (or does she) offset any financial concerns? Don’t stress over friendship commitments. Real friends will understand and support your decisions. Ask the supervisor about the company or agency’s commitment to his future its leader. To what extent will they support his educational/professional pursuits (tuition support, time away from work for school, work-site childcare programs [which would allow a stay-at-home mother to work, if necessary])? In essence, Caleb must decide which is more important, working part-time and taking more time to complete the degree, or getting on a faster track by enrolling in graduate school full-time.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

There are a couple of issues here: 1) Caleb has a family and there are some support issues that require him to maintain his full-time job. 2) Caleb is a part-time student and, for many, these students are not including in orientation protocol and workshops. This may have prevented him from making the necessary contact to navigate the process of being in graduate school. 3) Caleb has expectations associated with the degree and his current position that may not have been clearly explained and delineated. As a supervisor to Caleb, I would use the opportunity to offer my services to him as a possible mentor. In addition, I would mentioned the importance of seeking out assistance through services from the Graduate School and student organizations. If he can network or “connect” with these entities, it is possible that he can find a support system. Another aspect to his current position, it be realistic about his graduate plan. He will need to schedule an appointment with an advisor or department representative, and strategically map out his academic terms.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

I would listen and attempt to assist Caleb to articulate all the responsibilities in his life. It sounds like there might be more to do than can be accomplished.

As his supervisor, I may have some power to adjust the job if I the company needs him to get the job. As the supervisor, I might investigate the possibility of lessening job responsibilities to support the education that we as the company are requiring. I would attempt to assist Caleb to: articulate all roles and responsibilities and sketch out a timeline.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Caleb should look into financing options through the university. Sitting down with the Financial Aid department could help fund his degree program and help speed up his process. I am sure if he is doing a great job at work his boss would allow him to work part-time or on weekends to hold his position with his company. Getting a degree is something one shouldn’t delay, but if trying to enter the work force sooner, should try and get finished. I actually ran into this same situation and will be graduating with a doctoral degree in 2-3 yrs. It will allow me to enter the workforce sooner and pay off my loans quicker. Postponing or elongating my school career was not an option. I would have felt overwhelmed and probably ready to quit if I had to stay in school longer.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Caleb, if I were you I’d think about what it is you want to get out of the Ph.D. program. Is it to continue working? Is it to stay in academia and teach or do research? In terms of your work here, I do see that it has been hard for you to balance all of these commitments that you have. What can I do to help you be successful in both your work here and at school? What can you do to help yourself be successful?

– Doctoral Student, UGA

If were Caleb I’d take a good hard look at my priorities. The plight of every graduate student is that s/he is stretched too thin most of the time. Caleb’s stretched even thinner by having this hard professional job, being married, etc. As the previous poster suggested, it may be possible to lighten the load at work for a little while in order to get things done with research, etc.

Everyone’s situation is different, but it’s almost always possible to streamline things a bit and take some irons out of the fire. My personal method for this is compartmentalization … I have ‘compartments’ of my schedule for classes, research, service, teaching, exercise, and relaxing. I can’t do without that last compartment — I’d go insane, and the other areas would suffer. When I’m working on one compartment, I try not to think or worry about the others until the work is done and I can move on. Without this system, for me, it all gets disorganized and shoved into one massive, overwhelming, chaotic ball of stress and nothing gets done. Of course it’s different than when you were an undergraduate — being a good, contributing graduate student is every bit as professional and demanding as the “real” working world. It’s hard to succeed in graduate school unless you realize that it’s a lot more than just showing up for class and doing well on exams.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

I have actually been in this exact same position; an older returning student, recently married, working in a demanding engineering job and commuting about two hours to work on my Ph.D. In my case I was able to negotiate with my engineering supervisor to reduce my number of working days per week (along with my salary) but was not able to negotiate a reduction in my work load. I choose an advisor who was aware up front of my need to continue working and was able to arrange a class schedule to allow that. Most importantly I just dealt with it, sucked it up and worked 14-16 hour days 7 days a week for a couple of years until I was finished with coursework. Mainly I would tell Caleb just to hold on, to realize that it is not going to be fun, that he is going to work harder than he ever has, that at times he is going to disappoint both his supervisor and his advisor and it is going to strain his marriage but if he can make it through the first few years to finish his course work and be admitted to candidacy things will get better. He also needs to be careful in choosing his research problem, he can not have a problem which requires regular access to and long hours in a lab, the time just isn’t there.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Copyright The University of Georgia, CGS Project


This project was made possible by a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools, with generous support from Pfizer Inc., and the Ford Foundation.

Ready to apply?