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Can You Get a PhD part-time?

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I know this has been touched on before but I'm trying to get more solid info and it's hard to Google because I get conflicting and vague answers.

Right now I'm a sophomore-year engineering physics/computer engineering double-major and I'd been planning to get a job in engineering after undergrad and work on a PhD in physics part-time (I really want to study and research a lot of advanced physics or engineering, more advanced than a BS would take me, but I don't want to work in academia). But I heard from an engineering grad student that they've never heard of that being done, so now I'm wondering if my plans have been dashed.

Are there universities that let you work on a PhD in physics part-time so you can work? I want the PhD but I don't want to make a 20k stipend while I'm doing that, I'm 28 now and don't want to be 40 when I get my first real job.

So is my plan possible? Am I limiting myself to a small number of universities?
 

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  • #2
Vanadium 50
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Possible? Yes. Practical? Not so much.

A PhD takes 6-7 years full-time. Half-time, twice as long. Quarter-time, four times as long. Worse, if you do a thesis that slowly, by the time you finish, it might no longer be interesting.
 
  • #3
ZapperZ
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I know this has been touched on before but I'm trying to get more solid info and it's hard to Google because I get conflicting and vague answers.

Right now I'm a sophomore-year engineering physics/computer engineering double-major and I'd been planning to get a job in engineering after undergrad and work on a PhD in physics part-time (I really want to study and research a lot of advanced physics or engineering, more advanced than a BS would take me, but I don't want to work in academia). But I heard from an engineering grad student that they've never heard of that being done, so now I'm wondering if my plans have been dashed.

Are there universities that let you work on a PhD in physics part-time so you can work? I want the PhD but I don't want to make a 20k stipend while I'm doing that, I'm 28 now and don't want to be 40 when I get my first real job.

So is my plan possible? Am I limiting myself to a small number of universities?
Say you want to work in an experimental area. You are given a project to work on, and typically, you are given a research stipend to do the work. Do you think someone would want to take you on as a student if you can only work on this part time? If I am the supervisor and I have a limited time that is covered by my research grant, would I want to take you on as a research assistant when you can't devote your time to do the work? I'd rather take on someone else.

In science, and certainly in physics, you can't do a Ph.D halfheartedly. It isn't easy. Just trying to pass the qualifier alone is a torture. Doing it "part time" convey the impression that you can't devote all of your effort to it. Keep in mind that in most years, you really do not have "classes" to attend. So this isn't like your undergraduate years where you have classes to take and to pass, and that's that. By your 3rd and 4th year of graduate school, you are doing nothing but taking research credits towards your dessertation.

I don't know if it is "possible" or not to try to do a physics Ph.D part time, but I certainly don't know of anyone who did, and I certainly would not recommend it.

Zz.
 
  • #4
Simfish
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Hey OP, are you TomServo from College Confidential?
 
  • #5
Possible? Yes. Practical? Not so much.

A PhD takes 6-7 years full-time. Half-time, twice as long. Quarter-time, four times as long. Worse, if you do a thesis that slowly, by the time you finish, it might no longer be interesting.
And your supervisor might retire.

Part-time PhD, never heard of it. Part-time job while working full-time on a PhD, more common.
 
  • #6
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Hoping Not To Be A Distraction --- but instead of PhD, could "Master's" be substituted and make more sense? I knew of one Physics department which accommodated part-time students, but I forgot if that was for undergraduate or for Master's programs. ... or maybe both...
 
  • #7
bcrowell
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I know this has been touched on before but I'm trying to get more solid info and it's hard to Google because I get conflicting and vague answers.
Here's an answer that isn't vague: no, you can't get a PhD part-time.


Hoping Not To Be A Distraction --- but instead of PhD, could "Master's" be substituted and make more sense? I knew of one Physics department which accommodated part-time students, but I forgot if that was for undergraduate or for Master's programs. ... or maybe both...
This is more conceivable. E.g., many K-12 teachers get a master's while working full time. However, I think most of them tend to get them in subjects that aren't very demanding.
 
  • #8
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Also note that the answer is field dependent. In some fields (educational administration or petroleum engineering), it's standard practice to get a Ph.D. part-time, but Ph.D. programs in those situations can often take more than a decade.

In physics, there are no part time programs that I'm aware of.

Also being a teaching/research assistant is a "real job"
 
  • #9
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And your supervisor might retire.
Or move to a different institution. Or subfield. Or...or...or.

Part-time PhD, never heard of it.
I know of one, in mathematics. He was teaching at a liberal arts college, but with only a masters, his career was limited. It took him about 12 years. Picking a thesis topic was quite tricky.
 
  • #10
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Yeah, I'm on CC.

BTW, if a part-time PhD sounds like a bad idea, what about a MS in physics? I'm not interested in the tenure track thing at all. Would I still get the same benefits class-wise from an MS that I would get from a PhD?

What do you all suggest?
 
  • #11
Choppy
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I know of people who've done it. I believe typically the way that it worked was more like the students were admitted full time and then got full time jobs at some point and finished up. This was usually discouraged, because in many of the cases the students never finished. But it certainly is possible.

I had a part-time job outside of my PhD (in addition to my teaching duties). It brought in some extra money and it was only a few hours a week, but it added months to by completion date.
 
  • #12
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BTW, if a part-time PhD sounds like a bad idea, what about a MS in physics? I'm not interested in the tenure track thing at all. Would I still get the same benefits class-wise from an MS that I would get from a PhD?
For a Masters degree, such things do exist. For example, see
http://www.phys.washington.edu/academics/emsp/

I can tell you that, at least for this example at the University of Washington, the evening Masters classes are not even close to the same level as the classes that the PhD students take.
 
  • #13
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Here's an answer that isn't vague: no, you can't get a PhD part-time.
You could if you decided to move to the UK! PhD = 3 years, part time = 6 years.
 
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  • #14
mathwonk
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Well I started to say obviously no way, like everyone else. Then I thought of an example, at least in math. There was an NFL quarterback who got a PhD in analysis while playing NFL football as I recall, Frank somebody, Ryan? But it's clear it takes a lot longer. Still, as someone once said, I would rather be 50 (or another number) with a PhD than without, since after all I'm going to be 50 someday anyway.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Ryan_(American_football [Broken])

It apparently took Ryan 7 years, since was drafted into the NFL in 1958 and got the degree in 1965. He also led the league with 24 touchdown passes in 1964, a year in which he presumably was finishing up the work, dropped off to 18 in 1965, then had an outstanding year again in 1966, with maybe 29.

Of course he and his teammates had to put up with a lot of jokes. If he got sacked or they lost, stuff like: "Frank Ryan, maybe the smartest man in the NFL couldn't think his way out of this one on Sunday".
 
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  • #15
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Well I started to say obviously no way, like everyone else. Then I thought of an example, at least in math. There was an NFL quarterback who got a PhD in analysis while playing NFL football as I recall, Frank somebody, Ryan? But it's clear it takes a lot longer. Still, as someone once said, I would rather be 50 (or another number) with a PhD than without, since after all I'm going to be 50 someday anyway.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Ryan_(American_football [Broken])

It apparently took Ryan 7 years, since was drafted into the NFL in 1958 and got the degree in 1965. He also led the league with 24 touchdown passes in 1964, a year in which he presumably was finishing up the work, dropped off to 18 in 1965, then had an outstanding year again in 1966, with maybe 29.

Of course he and his teammates had to put up with a lot of jokes. If he got sacked or they lost, stuff like: "Frank Ryan, maybe the smartest man in the NFL couldn't think his way out of this one on Sunday".
When I first started reading your post, I thought it was a joke.
 
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  • #16
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How do MS physics classes differ from those in a PhD? From what I can tell, a lot of physics MS programs (well, the ones I've looked at) have the same core grad level classes that the PhD does, only the PhD also includes more advanced research and seminar type of classes.

Is this a correct assessment? If I want to study advanced theoretical physics, do I have no choice but to get a PhD? Couldn't a person conceivably study theoretical physics at home, anyway?
 
  • #17
mathwonk
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To my chagrin, this is further argument that pure research science is easier than medicine. You might get a PhD part time, but an MD? no way at all, no kidding. And as you may have noticed, everything I say is a joke, true or not. but it is also all true.
 
  • #18
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How do MS physics classes differ from those in a PhD?
Pretty much the same, and in some cases exactly the same.

Is this a correct assessment? If I want to study advanced theoretical physics, do I have no choice but to get a PhD?
If you just want to *study* advanced theoretical physics, you can get by with a good undergraduate program. By the time you are a senior, you'll be studying some pretty advanced topics. There's a big difference between watching a movie and actually making a movie.

If you want to *invent* advanced theoretical physics, that's different. However, one important thing to remember is that you get your Ph.D. *after* you've invented something in theoretical physics. If you just want to do physics research, there's no need to do a Ph.D. Get an undergraduate degree, and then figure out how you can support yourself while being a research assistant.

Couldn't a person conceivably study theoretical physics at home, anyway?
Sure. Just like someone could watch movies at home. If you want to start producing Hollywood blockbuster movies, then you really can't do that at home.

Also, there's no law of the universe that says that part-time Ph.D.'s are impossible. They are standard in other fields like educational administration or geology. It's just that the social structures are just not there to support a part-time Ph.D. in physics. One *good* thing about taking a decade or so to get something, is that 10 to 20 years from now society will be very different than it is now.
 
  • #19
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To my chagrin, this is further argument that pure research science is easier than medicine. You might get a PhD part time, but an MD?
It's not easier, it's different.

Medicine is very mistake intolerant. You make a mistake and kill someone, this is considered a very bad thing, so med school is all about making sure the student doesn't make a mistake.

In physics research, you are *encouraged* to make mistakes. If it means giving an academic qualification to someone that is incompetent so that someone that is a super-genius gets one, there's no problem. In medicine, it's the opposite. You don't want any incompetent doctors, so that you tend to err on the side of withholding degrees to someone that might be a super-genius.

The other thing is that it's pretty easy for someone who is a physicist to evaluate the competence of someone else who is a physicist. If you let me talk to someone for an hour, I can tell you their level of physics competence (and if I'm wrong, no one dies). Conversely, it's hard for even a trained doctor to talk to another doctor and know if they are likely to kill someone.
 
  • #20
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The level of understanding in medicine is not difficult. Doctors don't beat their heads when learning courses in physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, and so forth. The material presented in medical school is not difficult at all. It's just a lot of information. Nothing deep, and the only reason I know is because I was allowed to take medical school courses while I was doing research in a renal physiology lab (luckily, I saw the light and turned to physics) through a program as an undergraduate. Matter of fact, the level of difficulty between medical school and the undergraduate counter parts in molecular biology & biochemistry were not noticiable different. I recieved A's in both.

When I took physiology, bicohemistry, molecular biology, and endocrinology... it was just MOSTLY memorization. Yes, there was some thought process but no where at the level that physics or chemistry require.
 
  • #21
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Interesting replies! This has been something I've really been struggling with as I approach completion of my B.S. in Physics. I'm a non-traditional student (52 years old) with a well-paying job doing software development. The work can be mind-numbingly boring. So I'm at a crossroads: I could quit and complete a PhD full-time by time I'm 60... at which point I'll have mimimal savings for retirement. So the 'smart' decision seems to be to look for alternatives that allow me to continue making a good living. It's very frustrating.
 
  • #22
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Interesting replies! This has been something I've really been struggling with as I approach completion of my B.S. in Physics. I'm a non-traditional student (52 years old) with a well-paying job doing software development. The work can be mind-numbingly boring. So I'm at a crossroads: I could quit and complete a PhD full-time by time I'm 60... at which point I'll have mimimal savings for retirement. So the 'smart' decision seems to be to look for alternatives that allow me to continue making a good living. It's very frustrating.
Reality has to intrude at some point. For me, it was in my late 40's when I managed to finish an MS in physics as a non-traditional student. I realized that becoming a physicist just wasn't a realistic possibility and I was probably stuck doing software development until I retire.

However, what *was* a realistic possibility was becoming a software developer for a group of physicists. It's not *quite* what I want to be doing, but it's better than what I was doing in industry. The pay is still good, although you should expect a substantial paycut from what you are probably making now.

It's a middle path that you might want to consider.
 
  • #23
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It is very difficult to recommend to someone who is 52 years old and has minimal savings for retirement to do anything but focus on that. Experts say that you need 25x your desired income in savings, and you have roughly 13 years to do it. This will not be easy.

If you already had enough to retire on, things would be different; I know someone not much younger than you who started a PhD program and was quite successful. But he was already financially secure before starting down that road.
 
  • #24
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Reality has to intrude at some point. For me, it was in my late 40's when I managed to finish an MS in physics as a non-traditional student. I realized that becoming a physicist just wasn't a realistic possibility and I was probably stuck doing software development until I retire.

However, what *was* a realistic possibility was becoming a software developer for a group of physicists. It's not *quite* what I want to be doing, but it's better than what I was doing in industry. The pay is still good, although you should expect a substantial paycut from what you are probably making now.

It's a middle path that you might want to consider.
Thank you for this... yes, this is a very good recommendation!
I've also considered looking into an MS in Mathematical Finance, largely because of what I've read by physicists/quantitative analysts like Emanuel Derman about the intersections between Physics and Finance. It'd allow me to leverage my training in multiple disciplines and possibly make a decent income.
 
  • #25
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It is very difficult to recommend to someone who is 52 years old and has minimal savings for retirement to do anything but focus on that. Experts say that you need 25x your desired income in savings, and you have roughly 13 years to do it. This will not be easy.

If you already had enough to retire on, things would be different; I know someone not much younger than you who started a PhD program and was quite successful. But he was already financially secure before starting down that road.
Thank you for your reply, Vanadium 50! Yes, the financial meltdown hit my finances pretty hard. I suspect that it put a number of people in my age bracket (and older) in similar positions. It's recoverable, but will definitely take some smart planning.

Thanks again!
 

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