Seven tips for a thinktanker combining work and a PhD

2 December 2019
SERIES Ideas, reflections and advice from future think tank leaders 17 items

For many young researchers working in a think tank, completing a PhD is an important career step and may win you the scientific credibility of your peers. But do you need to stop working to complete your PhD? Here are seven tips on how to succeed as a thinktanker AND a PhD candidate.

1.  Sell the idea of doing a PhD to your boss

Embarking on a PhD is an exciting and rewarding venture. Of course, it has its challenges and naturally some bosses may be concerned that it will affect your work. So how do we convince our bosses that a PhD will benefit the organisation?

Well, it’s well known that a PhD will help you to learn quicker, deal with repeated failure and rapidly solve complex problems. The skills learned in a PhD can be used to challenge the status quo and look deeper into the evidence, to find new and better answers, ultimately making you a better researcher.

2.  Consider moving to part-time work

Doing a PhD and working full time is a big undertaking. It’s stressful and tiring. You may find that you get anxious about the quality of your outputs suffering.

Discuss with your boss the possibility of working part time. Perhaps you could focus on the project management aspects of a programme, rather than doing the actual research?

3.  Where possible connect your thesis and think tank work

If your PhD topic is related to the research you’re doing at work, you may find it less stressful, as you can apply lessons learned, share data and capitalise on networking opportunities.

4.  Tell your colleagues about your decision

Our think tanks are like our second family – some of us spend more time with our colleagues than with our actual families! So even if we have support from people at home, we also need the support of those at work.

By informing your colleagues of your decision to do a PhD you can raise much needed moral support, compassion, tolerance and even solidarity.

They may check in with you on progress, share relevant documents, training material or events. They may also be able to provide technical support, such as proofreading draft chapters, assisting with data processing, problem modelling or analytical framework.

If you have a researcher network in your organisation, don’t hesitate to present your work and get their support in working through challenges you’re facing.

5.  Enquire into possible funding

There is no right or wrong way to fund your PhD. But it’s pays off to be realistic and well-informed about what funding options are out there, and what you can afford.

Employer sponsorship may be an option. Make sure your funding proposal details your study plan, how long it is for, the cost, why you want to study it and how it will benefit the organisation.

Depending on your thesis topic and what country you are from, you may be able to find scholarships. And studentships are another popular form of funding for PhD students across the world.

6.  Create a work plan and follow it as best you can

Working in a think tank and doing a PhD requires some serious organisation – both to separate the professional and PhD hours, but also to plan the tasks within your PhD.

How you divide up your time is up to you and your organisation. For example, you may work in the think tank in the mornings and on your thesis in the afternoon. Or you may have set days. Or save the thesis for the weekend.

Divide your work plan into clear sections, and be realistic about what you can achieve in a week given your other responsibilities. If you’re falling behind, rework your plan or discuss your workload with your boss, so that the plan is realistic and you’re not stressed by constantly feeling like you’re struggling to keep up.

7.  Use social media to build your thesis topic network

In addition to attending events on your thesis topic, social media can be a great way to connect with people in your field, crowdsource ideas and solicit feedback. You may even be able to connect with others who are combining think tank work and a PhD for moral support!

This article is based on my reflections and experience of combining think tank work and a PhD. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

To get the discussion going, here are some questions to ponder…

First, to think tank managers: How did, or would, you react to a young researcher telling you that they want to pursue a PhD? How did, or would, you respond to the request to work part time? What sort of support can a PhD candidate expect from their think tank? What, if anything, would change for the thinktanker once they got their PhD? How did, or would, you motivate them to stay after completing their PhD?

Second, to a PhD student: What kind of support do you expect, or would you like, from your think tank, boss and colleagues? What do you think are the challenges of working part time while doing your PhD? Once you have your PhD, how will you progress your professional career in a think tank?