Field Notes: Balancing work while earning a doctorate

May 23, 2019
  • Competencies
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • Professional Well-Being
Female dressed in active wear as she sits with her eyes closed in a meditative pose. "Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

by Tiffani Robertson, MBA, Associate Director of Admissions, Governors State University

Over the years, I have met several AACRAO members who are either in, finished, or thinking about embarking on the journey to earn a doctorate degree.  After working in admissions and transfer roles since 2005 and being an adjunct since 2012, I realized that, ultimately, I want to become a full time professor. One of the steps I needed to take in order to achieve this goal was to pursue a doctorate degree. 

In August 2016, I began my journey in the Educational Administration Foundations – Higher Education PhD program at Illinois State University. I also began a new role (Associate Director, Enrollment Services) and started teaching at my institution. I felt a bit overwhelmed but looked at it as a challenge to my time management skills and ability to keep my sanity.

As I near the end of my coursework, I thought providing some tips on how to balance being a higher education professional while pursuing a doctorate degree (among other things) could be of some help to my fellow AACRAO members. While I do not have the answers for every situation or circumstance, I hope this helps.

"Should I do it?"
My response to those who ask me for advice about starting a doctoral program varies depending on that person’s goals and their reason for considering enrolling in a doctoral program. For example, if you want to advance in your career or transition into another career and a doctorate degree may increase your chances, you are ready! If you want to transition from the administrative side to the faculty side, you are ready!

On the other hand, if you are indecisive about starting a doctorate program, you are not ready. If you feel that getting a PhD is just the next step in the educational journey and that is why you want to start one, you are not ready. Just like many life-altering decisions, there is no perfect time for anything. Your drive and passion must steer you to your goals and your dedication will allow you to complete those goals.  

I’m in, now what? 
Yay!  You have decided to apply to a doctoral program and now you are accepted into one. You are probably feeling excited, anxious, and petrified all at once. Excited because you are about to embark on a journey that will set you a part from everyone else and will help you transcend onto bigger and brighter things. Anxious because you are about to step into a new world with new expectations while still focusing on your career. Petrified because you are not sure you are cut out for what is ahead.

That is O.K. – you are feeling like myself and others as we began our doctoral journey.  You will continue to have these feelings as you continue the journey and until completion. To help me through the times when I question myself on my decision, I remind myself constantly that if I was good enough to get into the program, I am good enough to finish. You would not be in the program if you did not believe in yourself and the institution did not believe in you. Keep that momentum going! This takes self-motivation, support systems, and great time management skills. 

How do I balance it all?
No matter if you are on the admissions, registrar, or another piece of the puzzle, being in higher education is a life that is non-stop with continuous changes and challenges. And now you have decided to pursue your doctorate degree?! “You must be nuts” is what I tell myself from time to time and you will too. Not only are you constantly trying to master balancing career and personal life, now you must add being a doctoral student to that list. 

To make this process a little smoother, here are some quick tips:

1. Make time for you
. Not with friends or family, you time. This can be accomplished in so many ways. Whether you take time for the gym, to meditate, or going to listen to some live music, you must make time for this throughout the week. It helps you to center yourself and to re-energize. Of course there will be weeks that this will be off balance but you must put in the effort to make this time for you.

2. Have multiple support systems. Support systems serve different functions, which is why you must have more than one. It is important to keep current, effective support systems you have and develop new ones. One of the new systems should include those going through the doctoral journey with you and those who have already completed the journey. Both will be able to provide you with encouragement, motivation, and a shoulder to lean on as you pursue your degree.

3. Master time management skills. If you are not already a master at this, the time is now! In order to not go completely insane during this process, you have to come up with a plan to still complete your work and personal/family responsibilities and your new responsibilities as a doctoral student. It will not be easy, however, planning ahead is necessary. Work and school responsibilities will collide, which is why it is important for you to plan ahead and communicate with your supervisor often regarding your needs, especially if they involve time off at the office.

To help me stay on track with my program workload, I make a calendar each semester of the assignments and readings for each class. This way, I have one place to check and see what all I have to do that week for school. If I know that I will be going out of town for work or for pleasure, I can move things around on the calendar to ensure I can do those things without falling behind with my work.

4. Vacation! Yes! If you follow #3, you will have time to vacation! I have actually begun traveling more since I enrolled in my doctoral program.  It is necessary not to only make time for yourself throughout this process, but to also getaway.  Even if the getaway does not involve a beach, it is necessary!  It gives you time to spend with family and friends, see new things, and just…relax!  I have to turn my time management skills up to the highest notch, however, it is well worth it to have the time to relax and unplug for a few days. I come back more refreshed and recharged to jump back into work and school obligations, so it is definitely worth it.

5. Say NO! Prior to starting this program, I think I was pretty good at saying “no” to things when it was necessary. Over the past few years, I have become a master at it!  If I have to make adjustments to any of my schedules or obligations that would involve me impeding on my ‘me time’ that I am not willing to give up, I gladly say no! Be comfortable with this and do not feel bad about it – it is a must.  If you need further help with this, please reach out – I can help!

The decision to start a doctoral program while working full time is life changing to say the least.  I hope this brief column provides you with some encouragement to not only take the leap if you are ready to but to make it through this rewarding journey.


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