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Thread: Modified schedule / timeframe for PhD studies

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    Modified schedule / timeframe for PhD studies

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    Are you aware of any person who has successfully negotiated for a modified or part time PhD schedule? I know most programs say they do not offer part time studies, but I wonder if there are ever exceptions to this rule. For various reasons related to family constraints and my own utility optimization function, I am brainstorming options for spreading the PhD coursework over more than 2 years or otherwise arranging for a more flexible pace over the course of the program. I see this kind of negotiation as something similar to negotiating salary and benefits with any other private sector employer--In that scenario I am aware of many employers who don't advertise part time positions but are sometimes willing to make accommodations for the right candidate.

    Has this been done before? Am I crazy to think it might work?

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    Re: Modified schedule / timeframe for PhD studies

    There is one student in my program (I think currently a 3rd year) who has some sort of less than full time status, but I am not clear on the details. They are also self-funded and previously had a senior level position at their home country's central bank's regulatory agency and I am pretty sure they still do part time work there, so it might not be generalizable to other situations.

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    Re: Modified schedule / timeframe for PhD studies

    I mean it is what it is, right? If you can't make full time work for your family, and let me be clear, there is absolutely no judgment from me who has a wife and a child, then you can't make it work. All you can do is ask and cross your fingers. Worst case scenario is that they say no and you can make your decision from there.

    For the record I have known a few people who have tried to ask about this. None of them were able to successfully get the school to let them do it. That doesn't mean it's not possible, but I do want to be honest with you that this will be a long shot. I have heard, but not from anyone personally who has done it, that at some lower ranked schools this is possible. Like schools outside of the top 80 might be more amenable to this type of thing. Again, though, I've only heard rumblings that this is possible, I've never actually seen it done. On the flipside I've also known a few people who probably would have excelled in a program if they were able to do it on a part time schedule. However because that wasn't an option they tried it full time, and when that was taking away too much time from their family, they made the wise decision to choose their family and aren't in PhD programs anymore.

    Here's my final 2 pieces of advice, if I were you, I definitely wouldn't mention this or ask about it until after you are accepted into a program. Wait until you have an offer in hand before discussing this with the department. You have some more flexibility at that point and some power. If you talk about it before an offer it might preclude you from getting an offer.

    Second and final, I know that a PhD program is very difficult. Balancing family and school sucks. Sometimes you have to choose school over family and nothing tears you up inside more than that, nothing. There are other times, though, when you have to choose family over school and that is never the wrong decision. I've never once regretted choosing to spend time with my family over getting something for school done. So my advice is this, it might seem impossible before you actually enter a program, but I suggest that you give it a shot. If you have a significant other who is willing to go through this with you and willing to take on a lot (and believe me they take on a lot), I suggest you really try to make full time work. The idea of staying for more than 6 years isn't ideal for many reasons.

    Good luck and let us know what happens.
    Til now I always got by on my own
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    Re: Modified schedule / timeframe for PhD studies

    Thank you for the very thoughtful response, advice, and encouragement. I definitely won't bring it up until I am accepted-- not a topic that I want to discuss in interviews. The whole project does feel daunting, but I think your final point, to just give it a shot, is really the only thing I can do. This is a life goal, and it will take some sacrifices. If it becomes too much, then I can always re-evaluate and iterate through alternatives that might make the situation better.

    This part really made me think:
    Quote Originally Posted by XanthusARES View Post
    I've also known a few people who probably would have excelled in a program if they were able to do it on a part time schedule. However because that wasn't an option they tried it full time, and when that was taking away too much time from their family, they made the wise decision to choose their family and aren't in PhD programs anymore.
    I think this sums the situation up pretty well--Except that I haven't tried full time yet, and I'm hoping it will actually be doable. I won't know until I start (assuming I'm admitted somewhere, of course).

    This whole concept brings to mind so many thoughts about work / life culture in the US generally. It seems that many of the interesting, high achieving jobs (think consulting, law, tech, academia, executives in any business, etc.) have an expectation that if people like their job and are good at it, then they will WANT to spend 60-80 hours per week doing it. And anyone unwilling to put in that time is perceived as just not serious, not ambitious, not talented, or they just are not passionate enough about their work. I think this is a totally ridiculous attitude, though it is pervasive. I think people should be allowed to be excellent, professional, innovative, and 100% dedicated to their job during a reasonable work week, and not penalized for being 100% engaged in their personal life (family, leisure, or otherwise) outside of work hours. It irks me that our professional culture is such that the best and brightest have to choose between their professional goals and their family / personal goals. I feel a lot of sadness, and also guilt, about the concept of sacrificing either my family to my job, or my personal learning and professional growth because of family. I just don't think they need to be mutually exclusive, though in practice they often turn out to be.

    In any case, I will update the thread in a few months if/when I get accepted and have a chance to think about my actual options as opposed to hypothetical options.

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    Re: Modified schedule / timeframe for PhD studies

    Quote Originally Posted by ProspectivePhD View Post
    I think this is a totally ridiculous attitude, though it is pervasive. I think people should be allowed to be excellent, professional, innovative, and 100% dedicated to their job during a reasonable work week, and not penalized for being 100% engaged in their personal life (family, leisure, or otherwise) outside of work hours. It irks me that our professional culture is such that the best and brightest have to choose between their professional goals and their family / personal goals. I feel a lot of sadness, and also guilt, about the concept of sacrificing either my family to my job, or my personal learning and professional growth because of family. I just don't think they need to be mutually exclusive, though in practice they often turn out to be.
    I just would like to say that this isn't the attitude I found here. At least here, professors are usually very aware of the need for life outside the PhD. We have a budget so we can meet outside the university, go to a restaurant, things like that. My advisor asks about things not related to work or classes, what I like to do for leisure, if I'm doing exercises to be in shape, etc. People from the department are usually very supportive, very understanding. I really don't feel like I'm being forced to make the sacrifices that you mentioned, or in fear of being penalized. Professors also work extremely hard, and they also don't want to sacrifice everything else.

    However, no matter how nice people are, that doesn't change the fact that doing a PhD is a lot of work, we have a lot of things to do, often with tight deadlines. Even if they let you spread the coursework, oftentimes the coursework is not the most demanding part of doing a PhD. A lot of work can't wait. If you are not able to do the work as expected, that probably means that other PhD students will have to take that load. Grading exams, cleaning datasets, analyzing data, conducting experiments, organizing events, among other tasks. I don't know what your restrictions are, but if you will not be able to even do 3 courses a semester, it sounds really bad. And the longer you take to do the coursework, the longer it will take for you to develop the skills and knowledge needed to help the department and yourself.

    So, I agree that wanting to work 60-80 hours a week, sacrificing everything else, is ridiculous. But that's not my experience. On the other hand, limiting yourself to just one or two courses a semester doesn't seem reasonable either. Doing the coursework is not something that should take so many hours of your time, it's like the bare minimum. One student here took 4 courses instead of 3, for example. I don't think asking a student to do 3 courses a semester is really asking too much, it's pretty reasonable.

    What we are expected to do here is to work hard, get results, help the department, AND still be able to have a life. Of course a few sacrifices will be made, but that is true for any kind of work where you are expected to achieve great results.

    I don't know how other universities, or departments are. But asking to spread the coursework wouldn't make much sense here.

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    Re: Modified schedule / timeframe for PhD studies

    Adding to what BrazilianPhD said, a lot depends on the culture in your department. There are some departments and schools which have reputations for assuming that their students have no personal lives and others that are much more supportive of students with families. The program I am now attending knew before they accepted me that I am married and have children and after I was accepted both the department chair and the department PhD coordinator made sure to emphasize to me that they were supportive of students with families. While I am only one semester in, so far they have been extremely supportive, and I have been able to find plenty of time to spend with my family while keeping up with my coursework and research.

    On the other hand, I was recently talking with a close relative of mine who currently applying to PhD programs (in a soft social science field) whose MA thesis advisor told him not to attend a certain program unless he got fellowship (no TA requirement) funding because the faculty at that program have a reputation for giving absurd workloads students funded via TAships, and it prevents you from having any sort of personal life.

    Either way, taking three courses a semester while maintaining a family life is far from impossible as long as the department is supportive.

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