Advice for combining study with employment

By Ephraim Radner
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I often tell my doctoral students that if they have an outside job of more than 10 to 15 hours per week, the chances are that their dissertation will be the worse for it, or that it might not get done at all. Experience seems to confirm this advice. But not always. Besides which, students have to live, provide for their families, pay back loans. That is, having a job is sometimes inevitable for a student, any student. Such is reality, and reality trumps withered faculty advice!

That being the case, how can one make the most of their studies, if they are working a job at the same time? Here are four things, which if done, can help. The first two have to do with the use of one’s time. The second two have to do with the character of that time’s use.

Rule 1: Allocate your time. This is a basic preparatory demand. Figure out how much time you have for study, realistically, each week. Add up the hours. Weekends? Evenings after dinner? All day Friday? Make a list, and then determine when during the week you will study. Do this with your spouse or family, so that there is agreement. A written covenant, to be honest, can be useful here: it holds you and others accountable for the work you need to do. And no more! Then block those hours off with merciless discipline, and stick to it. “Catch as catch can” as a way to study is a recipe for disaster.

Rule 2: Organize your time. Having, say, 15 or 20 hours carved out of your week for study is not truly helpful unless you use these hours properly. Everyone is different, but each of us has times of the day or week when we think more creatively than at others, or assimilate information more easily than at others. Study involves reading, reflection, memorizing, discussion (see below), and writing. For every course you take, figure out how much you need to do of each of these activities. Then assign these activities to the times and days when you are most able to be productive in pursuing them. For most people (not all), for instance, nights are not the best time for writing. So don’t leave writing to such periods. In all of this, make a chart for yourself as to when you will do what for each course: early Tuesday mornings for reading Plato (!); Wednesday evenings for reviewing notes for Bible quizzes; Saturday morning for writing an essay on mission. It will be different for each person and each term. But once you have a plan, stick to it ruthlessly.

“Ruthless”, by the way, is a good attitude when it comes to study in these circumstances! “Just do it” is a fine motto, and it is hardly wooden when it comes to creative study. Many – perhaps most –  professional writers, including poets, will tell you that they do their work in a measurable or quantitative fashion: so many lines or pages written every morning or day. No matter what, even if they feel they have little of quality to offer. Yes, they will then have to go back and edit, even throw things out. Nonetheless, the discipline of simple production, through regular means and at regular times, is a key to “things happening.” That goes for study of all kinds: read so many pages; write so many words; review so many notes, on this day, at this time, week after week.

True, this does seem a bit like an assembly line. So now we come to some rules concerning the character or nature of how you spend your study time.

Rule 3: Let your studies breathe personally. Reading, note-taking, remembering, writing –  these are all part of study. But they are basically inert activities without being leavened by some kind of enlivening “breath” of meaning, joy, hope, even dissatisfaction or unease, and questing. These are what put flesh on ideas and thoughts, and finally allow them to take a shape that has purpose, power, and coherence. There is no magical formula for this, but a key context in which it happens is simple: reflective solitude.

This is not an “add on,” but an essential for study. For a Christian, it begins with prayer. All study should start in the quiet, alone with God. That is where it should end as well. And in between, there needs to be time to be alone, with God, with oneself, and with the undetermined sounds of the world. Far from distracting from concentration and learning, these “alone and empty” times are essential. The most creative scholars – and there are studies of this kind of thing – take regular walks by themselves, or play music in a quiet corner of the house each evening, or simply sit for an hour in the morning alone. Yes, even an hour!

It is absolutely essential that every student, even one (and particularly one) pressed for time, has regular (not haphazard) times of reflection, away from books and papers, where ideas come and go, and thoughts press in and out, and finally, a form to the imagination emerges. This kind of time needs to be carefully woven into rules (1.) and (2.) above, otherwise their promise will go nowhere. As an arbitrary measure, build into your “study time” two hours a week of being alone and doing nothing.

But there is more to the creation of thought than solitude. Thus,

Rule 4: Let your studies breathe relationally. Any student needs regular time with other students, whether they are ones sharing a course or not. Time for what? Just plain talking! And talking about anything: family, politics, sports, and yes, matters you are studying (that’s important). This too is a necessary element of all study, since one’s ideas, thoughts, cognitive connections, illuminations and more come directly from an encounter with others. Study groups are good; a regular time at a pub with peers; a weekly lunch or dinner: your brain needs to be fed with the nourishment of other minds engaging your own and you theirs. Students – even full-time students – who disappear into the library, only to re-emerge three years later, are rarely the better for this enforced isolation and focus. Their thinking is often cramped and awkward. It’s other people and their thoughts that give our own thoughts their wings.

I am perhaps too gruff in my general advice, with which I opened these remarks. Plenty of great scholars and creative minds have done their greatest work while holding down full-time jobs doing something else – in the last century, the poets Wallace Stevens and Charles Reznikoff, the composer Charles Ives, and of course, the physicist Albert Einstein, whose breakthrough papers were produced while working as a bureaucrat in a Swiss patent office. Geniuses, to be sure. But their way of going about their work was the same way pursued by any good student: discipline with their time, regular solitude, and the energies of encounter and conversation with others. These are tried and true ways to learn for everyone.   


Ephraim Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College. During the Winter 2020 semester, he will teach two courses: History of Early Modern European Christian Thought and Human Sexuality in a Christian Perspective.