“You’re doing a PhD part time while working full time?! Are you insane?”

What it like working full time as a Project Manger and doing a PhD at the same time? Jemma Purandare shares her experience.

Jemma Purandare is a Project Manager at Gold Coast City Council and PhD Candidate at Griffith University’s Centre for Coastal Management. 

“You’re doing a PhD part time while working full time?! Are you insane?”… If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me, I would be able to take the next couple of years off work to finish my PhD! The reality is that after 12 years in the profession, I realised that my passion was in applied, frontline research, and in order to transition my career into the sort of roles I would like to be in, I need a PhD as a minimum requirement.

I have always been a very ambitious person. I’m also very driven, which is dangerous when combined with ambition (just ask my very tolerant mother). After leaving the UK at 18 for conservation work in the Galapagos Islands, I completed my undergraduate degree in Australia and worked there for a while in a graduate consulting role, then spent four years working in the Maldives and Middle East on various coastal and marine restoration and reconstruction project. I also ended up with two masters’ degrees; the later one completed “distance part-time” while I was working full time on one of the largest construction projects (at the time) in the Middle East.

Jemma doing coral health surveys on the Great Astrolabe Barrier Reef, Fiji

“I managed to do a masters degree by research part-time while working full-time, a PhD in the same capacity should be OK”. Unfortunately, that’s not actually true. The key difference between doing a masters and a PhD is the independence and, as such, the isolation. A PhD is a solo pursuit. Even though I did my MSc online by distance learning, I still had a community of students and tutors available to discuss assignments with, and to talk through my research and thesis. Doing a PhD only you can decide if what you’re doing is right or not. There are also few people in the same position as me. The majority of PhD candidates are full time and fresh off the back of an honours degree. Very few people tackle a PhD while in full time employment.

So here’s where I’m supposed to say “it’s manageable and anyone can do it”. Well, that would be a lie. When I started my PhD in 2015, I was in an extremely stressful consulting job that had me spending five to six months of the year travelling to remote parts of Australia and working 70 hours a week. This is clearly not conducive to successfully working on or completing a PhD. After two years of struggling to find a work/PhD balance (never mind life!) I realised that I had to reassess my priorities. I had to have a long hard look at what I was doing and decide what was more important. The present job or the future career? I knew I had to make a change, and earlier this year I moved into a job within local government that saw the travel and intense stress dramatically drop and my available time dramatically increase.

I learnt that you can’t expect to do everything in your life at full pelt. You have to prioritise. I spent hours listening to podcasts from some of the world’s most successful business people, and learned the “secret” to getting everything done. I partition my time and am regimented about it. I have specific time for working on society or board tasks and never make promises to complete tasks outside of this time frame if I know I can’t achieve it. I negotiated a 4-day work week with extended hours so that I can still afford my living expenses but have a dedicated PhD day. I set my PhD day for a Wednesday because, being mid-week, my head is in work mode, meaning that I am more efficient and less likely to treat it as a day off (Fridays off are a disaster for achieving anything on a PhD). I designate a few hours on the weekend to do quicker tasks for the societies or on my PhD, but otherwise, weekends are for relaxing and enjoying life. I spend half an hour on a Sunday evening getting myself ready for the week ahead, that way I know if I have to adjust my week to fit in something different (such as an event or a deadline).

It isn’t easy doing a PhD and working full time, but if you are dedicated to it, can make adjustments to your life, and reprioritise, it certainly is achievable.

Jemma Purandare is a Project Manager at Gold Coast City Council and a PhD Candidate at Griffith University’s Centre for Coastal Management. She has an MA(Hons) in Landscape Architecture (specialised in Ecological Restoration and Sustainable Development), and an MSc in Coastal Zone Management (Environmental Science). She is the Queensland Chair of the Australian Coastal Society, Co-Convenor of the Australian Coastal Restoration Network, and on the board of the South East Queensland Catchment Members Association. She is currently preparing numerous papers and presentations for upcoming conferences in 2018, and in addition to her PhD research, is involved in numerous collaborative research projects involving coral and mangrove restoration projects in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Find out more about Jemma here, on LinkedIn, and Twitter.