24 credits under my belt. 68 to go.

There’s still a lot more to go to complete my PhD in Education.

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I knew getting a PhD was going to be hard. But, honestly, I thought it was going to be Master’s hard. I didn’t expect or realize how difficult it would be to teach 9 year olds by day (which is an exhausting activity itself) and then hit the books as a doctoral student at night.

This summer, I took a quarter off from my PhD coursework for a much need break, which has given me some clarity about my experience and desire to reflect on what it’s like teaching full-time while in a PhD program. This blog post is all about the trials and travails that one should expect to encounter as a teacher-turned-PhD-candidate. I hope you enjoy!

– Zach Groshell, @MrZachG


Prepare to be exhausted

In the words of one of my friends who just completed his PhD, “For a while you are just going to have to accept that your life is going to suck.”

PhD-level courses are challenging for a number of reasons, but what I find makes them most difficult is that you can’t relax when you get home from work. Frank McCourt, who only published his first book “Angela’s Ashes” after he retired from teaching, wrote about how teaching deprived him of the ability to write; The “buzz” of the classroom sapped him of his energy and mental strength. I completely relate to this…. Teaching is hard.

One of the ways that I fend off exhaustion is by planning my learning activities into manageable chunks. When I get home and want to sink into the couch, I do so but with my course materials on my lap. When I get tired of reading about learning theories, I transfer some of what I read into either a Quizlet flashcard set for future review, or into a Word document that I can use for a future discussion posting. When I’m tired of that, I might switch to studying for a different class, or do my required replies to other students’ postings. By doing a little bit at a time in small chunks, I end up getting a whole lot done.

I also drink a lot of coffee.

Understand that there aren’t that many people to depend on

Not many people end up getting a PhD in Education, and there aren’t many of us candidates working in elementary schools. While I’ve had some great advice from the few colleagues that I know who have earned a PhD in Education, it’s an experience that you kind of have to go through on your own. Like I mentioned before, my experience is that the rigor and expectation for performance in PhD-level coursework is much higher than Bachelor’s and Master’s-level coursework.

In addition, online learning (which is what I’m doing for my PhD) can feel pretty isolating. The delayed response from your teachers and peers can mean that you don’t end up asking as many questions or getting as many answers as you would in a face-to-face environment. Because you don’t really know any of the people that are taking courses with you, you can’t depend on the students in your program to provide shoulders to lean on. End-of-quarter celebrations of completion have to be done with your real friends who, again, aren’t in your program and don’t know what you’re doing.

You’ll have much less time to do things that you like

Since I’ve started this PhD, it’s become my life. No longer can I just idle the hours away playing video games or watching TV. Social events have to be missed, and long walks (my favorite pastime) have to be shortened or canceled. My engagement in social media has certainly decreased, and I just can’t post on this blog as often. Until my program is complete, that’s just how things have to be.

However, I’ve found that the simplest things are now much more enjoyable. Just sitting and talking with Stephanie (wife and co-writer on this blog, @SGroshell) after a day’s worth of work is even more fun than it was before because it signifies peace and a chance to relax. It feels like such a treat to plan and watch one whole episode of my favorite show right before I go to bed. And teaching and working with kids is even more of a joy because it reminds me why I am doing this PhD in the first place.

You’ll end up learning a lot

Even though this PhD has been hard, the learning has been spectacular. I can truly say that I learn something new everyday. I often go to bed with a mind that is swirling with newly learned vocabulary and concepts. The nature of learning is much clearer to me than it was before I started this program.

One area in particular that I have really improved is my academic writing, especially in my ability to write for long periods of time. Looking at my assignments, I would say that I can confidently write 20 pages in a day of writing without feeling too much strain. Also, I have learned to organize myself much better by seeking out the best online tools for anywhere, anytime learning. If you’re considering starting a master’s or doctorate, take a look at this list of tools that Tom Johnson has compiled for on-the-go learning here.


Even though the journey towards a PhD is a tough one, I think that it is ultimately going to be worth it. I didn’t know what to expect when I began my program, and there was definitely a learning curve. All and all, I am proud of the effort that I have put into getting my PhD in Education, and I look forward learning more and sharing it with you on this blog.

Are you in a program or thinking of starting one while teaching K-12? You’re welcome to comment and share your experience below, and ask any questions. If you haven’t already, feel free to request to join educationrickshaw’s Facebook group, Over-Posting Educators!

13 thoughts on “How Hard is it to Earn a PhD While Teaching?

  1. Haha… You are still in the easy part. Wait until your Comps and then your dissertation and research! You don’t know nothing yet 😂. But seriously, everything you wrote is so true. The knowledge gained is immeasurable. Keep it up and never lose the faith, Zach. (And Stephanie, always be kind and forgiving to Zach until he finishes, and then you can get your revenge 😊)

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  2. I would second Bradley Arnold’s response. ONLY after completing my doctorate, i understood fully the concept that the purpose of doctoral studies is to be able to first master what is known about a topic, toidentify a gap in that knowledge, and then to conduct studies to create new knowledge that fills in that very small gap. Again, in hindsight, the most meaningful work i have ever donre came in the dissertation stage of my work. All the rest prepared me for that task.

    To that, i would add that finding an advisor who knows how to mentor their dissertating doc students is a topic that deserves far more attention than is usually given. Good luck!

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  3. Teaching is a full-time job. It allows little head and heart space for anything else. Good on you for fitting in PhD work as well. I understand how isolated you must feel. Not many return to the classroom once a PhD is earned. I wish you success.

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  4. You mentioned that your course was online. Where can I find out more about a similar online PhD and what made you choose the one you are doing?

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  5. After working under a principal doing his PhD this year, I do have reservations. All the staff and the school overall have suffered. It sounds like you are better at managing the stress and ensuring it doesn’t negatively affect your students or colleagues. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a pretty good point… I don’t know what I would do if the program got to the point of affecting the kids. It’s already affected everyone else, but definitely not my colleagues or the students. Thanks for the comment.
      -Zach

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  6. It’s definitely no picnic. But you will be happy once it’s done. And definitely, there is no “easy way” to do the PhD. F2F, hybrid, asynchronous, synchronous, it’s ALL tough. And even when you’re sitting in a classroom with others, you’re still isolated because your research area is not the same research area as the one sitting next to you. It’s the research that’s isolating. Not the platform of delivery of learning.

    In reading your intro, you said, “teacher-turned-PhD candidate”. Have you already finished your coursework and done your comps? If so, yay!! The end is near. Well. Sorta. Pretty soon you’ll be joining the “Not THAT kind of Doctor” Club!

    And curious: what area of education is your research focus? It’s such a big field.

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