How to Earn Your Ph.D. While Teaching Full Time

"You really went to college for nine years?" - every student I've ever had. It's true. I was in college for a total of nine years, and I finished my Ph.D. in 2013. People often ask me about my decision to earn my doctorate while I was teaching (as a full-time high school teacher). I stayed in the classroom full time while I did it, and it really worked out well for me. I learned so much about the process, so today, I share how you can become Dr. Teacher.
Earning your doctorate as a teacher has so many benefits, but it can be a challenge. Consider these 7 points from a teacher who earned her Ph.D. while teaching full time.

1. Your ultimate goal

Why do you want to earn your doctorate? This is a really important question you should ask yourself before embarking on a three to five year journey into the world of academia. Sure, you'll probably get a raise and students will think it's "cool" that they have a Dr. as a teacher, but those are generally extrinsic motivators. I knew that earning the degree would give me new career opportunities, but I didn't realize just how many. Initially, I just wanted to be able to teach college. I found out later that teaching in higher ed was just the beginning. More than anything else, I like research, but I didn't really know where to begin. I had some background in research from my Master's program, but I wanted to learn more. This was the intrinsic motivation that got me through it.

2. The degree

My degree is a Ph.D. in Education. Officially, it's called Instructional Management and Leadership, which essentially is a fancy way of saying education. At first thought, I wanted to get my Ph.D. in Literary Criticism. My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and my master's degree is a Master of Education in English, so continuing my English studies seemed like the next logical step. However, when researching degrees, I quickly discovered that the Ph.D. in English wasn't going to work with my life at the time. Classes for the English degree didn't work around a full-time teaching schedule. That's when I started looking into doctorates in education. These programs are created with the assumption that students are full-time teachers or administrators, so they work around a teacher's schedule and they tailor the course study to what you already do, teach. I soon found that this degree was the right choice for me. As much as I love learning English, teaching English is my niche. I wanted to conduct research about teaching English, not English itself. Catch the difference? Here's an example: researching zoomorphism in Of Mice and Men sounds interesting, but I'd much rather research ways to make zoomorphism in Of Mice and Men accessible to high schoolers, like I did in the following digital close reading and annotation guide. With this degree, I learned how to focus my research on making teaching more effective, and the result is research-based curriculum resources that can help a whole lot of teachers and students.

You'll also need to decide if you want to take a full online program, a hybrid, or a traditional model. I like being "in" school, literally. I like being in class. I like presenting, discussing, and interacting face to face. Therefore, I chose a program that was on-campus (mostly). After an hour drive, I attended night class from 6 pm to 10 pm once a week and then once a month on a Saturday during the school year. Then, during the summer, we had class for two straight weeks from 8 am to 5 pm. It worked for me. You have to figure what is right for you. My suggestion is to look at all program possibilities and decide which one is right for you. I looked at over 20 different programs before deciding on my program.

3. Time

Let's face it, there is never enough time. Ever. It's something that I've learned to accept, and you should too. What we can do is make the most of our time, and from my experience, if something is important to you, you will find the time. Here's where I have to give you my disclaimer: I didn't have kids at the time. When I wanted to (or had to) work on my dissertation or homework, I would do it simple as that. Now that I have kids, I realize this was a luxury, and I finally understand why my mom was so insistent that I finish my doctorate before we had kids.

I was pregnant, though, beginning with my last year, and I defended my dissertation while I was six months pregnant. Awful morning sickness and fatigue was definitely a challenge for sure, but I made it work. Simply put, there is no "right time" to get it done. There were people in my program just starting their teaching careers (like me at 24 years old) and seasoned teachers and administrators with years and years of experience. People made it work with their situations.

Plus, you're a teacher, so you don't do anything over the summer, right? Ha! If only that were true! I took advantage of every break and holiday, and I made a lot of progress during the winter and summer months when I was on break from classes.

4. The writing

Do you love writing? Well, maybe love isn't the right word. Perhaps, like is better? Or better yet, tolerate? Yes, let's go with tolerate. Can you tolerate writing? Every class was writing intensive (even stats required written analyses). I am one of those crazy people that loves writing; however, you don't have to love it in order to earn your doctorate (although it helps). What I've found as an English teacher is that we tend to dislike what we don't understand or aren't good at it. Take Shakespeare as an example. I often hear kids say they hate Shakespeare, but what they really mean is that they don't understand Shakespeare. Once they understand, Macbeth, they (generally) like it. The same concept applies to writing. If you haven't had a lot of practice writing, it may be an arduous task for you; nonetheless, during the program, you'll learn to love it because you'll get better at it through practice. Speaking of writing, what about the dissertation?

5. The dissertation

Three-hundred plus pages sound like a lot right now, but let me quell your fears. You can write a dissertation, and here's why: you will write it section by section, chapter by chapter until one day you're done. No one sits down and writes 300 pages. It's a process. I worked on my dissertation while I took classes, which is how I finished in three years. (Also, I didn't have kids at the time, remember?) As far as the study goes, you're a teacher so you have about 1248357493 ideas for a study already brewing in your head. You also have access to students, teachers, and administrators, so narrowing down your topic will be a lot more challenging than conducting the study.

6. The defense

This was probably the easiest part of the dissertation journey. After spending three years studying literary theory in the secondary classroom, there weren't many people who knew more about it than me, and certainly not the professors on my committee. Despite the fact that my chair had 30 years of high school English teaching experience, I was confident they couldn't stump me because I knew that topic inside and out. And, I was right. I presented my study for about 40 minutes, and then they asked some tough questions. Still, it was nothing I couldn't handle because I knew that topic, and you will too (your topic that is...unless you're interested in literary theory, and in that case, let's get together!). There was a pretty big audience for my defense (about 40 people, maybe? half of which were my family), so that was probably what made me the most nervous.

7. The benefit

Earning my Ph.D. was the best decision I ever made for my career. It opened doors for me that I never knew existed. Since then, I've presented at national and state conferences, colleges, and schools; published journals, textbook chapters, and curriculum resources; and got two new jobs (one full-time in a new high school and one part-time at a local college).

All of that has been great, and I'm thankful for those opportunities. But, the really important part is the connections I've made with educators from all over the world. These connections have given me access to a body of knowledge that continues to grow, and it has helped me establish a research agenda that impacts many, many more students than I thought possible. Ultimately, that's why we do what we do, and for that, I am thankful that I took the plunge into academia (for the third time) and I hope you will too!


  1. So glad you wrote this post! I'm finishing up my masters and have been considering my PhD. It is great to hear that it's do-able from someone who has actually done it while teaching!

  2. I've considered my PhD. Like you, I love learning and think classes would be fun. (May I admit that on a teacher's website? lol) Thanks for the tips - they are truly practical.


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