How to pursue a Ph.D. part-time and make it to the finish line
Recent UM-Dearborn grad Ahmad MK Nasser shares what it took for him to complete his doctorate in cybersecurity part-time, while working full-time and starting a family.
Statistically speaking, completing a Ph.D. is one of the toughest challenges a college student will ever face. Fewer than half of all doctoral students nationally get to the finish line — and the road to success is even narrower for those who pursue their studies part-time. But with more people who are already established in their careers looking at higher ed as a ticket to advancement in their workplaces, universities are trying to figure out ways to make it easier on part-time doctoral students. (Our new D.Eng in Automotive Systems and Mobility is a great example). Even so, students should still be aware of the challenges, says recent UM-Dearborn grad Ahmad MK Nasser. He should know: Ahmad recently finished his doctoral degree in cybersecurity while working full-time at his job in the automotive industry — and starting a family. We recently caught up with Ahmad for some real talk on what it took to pull it off and his advice for anyone who’s thinking of doing a Ph.D. part time.
The Reporter: So Ahmad, when did you decide you were going after your doctorate?
Ahmad Nasser: When I first did my bachelor’s, I had an option to do a Ph.D. But I was more interested in having an income so I put it off and got my master’s instead. I was fine having a career — I was a software engineer in the automotive industry — and things were going pretty well. My wife was actually the reason I started thinking about a Ph.D. again. She was doing her Ph.D. in cancer research and she encouraged me; I thought ‘well, ok, I could at least take a few classes and see how it goes?’ The second reason was because at my job, security was becoming much bigger in automotive, and I think I realized I needed to learn a lot about it if I wanted to keep advancing.
Reporter: So you took a few classes to test the waters — how did it feel?
Ahmad: My first class was about machine learning, and I was just blown away by how much had happened since I’d been in school. I also realized that in this later stage in my life, when I’d had maybe 12 years of experience at work, everything made more sense to me because I had practical knowledge I could attach it to. At work, I was also starting to get involved in cybersecurity, so I started reading on my own, learning to speak the security jargon and trying to catch up. My second class was a cybersecurity class and that really showed me the benefits of getting formal training. At that point, I felt convinced that I should continue with the Ph.D. program and made cybersecurity my focus.
That was the good side of it. But life also got pretty hectic. One thing I really struggled with was this feeling that I was too old for all this! I was studying on the weekends, stressing out about exams, and part of me really didn’t want to be a student again. Oh, and I should also mention that my wife was pregnant at the beginning of my Ph.D. And then a few months after the baby was born, she got pregnant again! So yes, life was completely hectic with the two kids.
Reporter: Wow. I mean, when a lot of people hear that, I think they’ll be surprised to hear you pulled it off.
Ahmad: And this wasn’t even the most difficult part. When you enter the research phase of the Ph.D., it gets a lot more challenging. With a class, there is a beginning and there is an end. With research, I had to come up with something novel, something that would be worthy of publication. On top of that, as an engineer, I discovered I was totally unprepared for academic writing. Engineers, we write very concisely, often literally in bullet points. I remember writing papers for the first time and my advisor telling me this is not suitable for academic work. To learn the writing style, I started reading lots of academic papers, and that had benefits beyond writing. You read so many papers, and suddenly you realize you’re training yourself to become a subject-matter expert, which was the whole reason I wanted to do this. On at least two occasions, I even got ideas from that reading and research that we submitted for patents at work — one of which was granted. So in some ways, things were really clicking.
Reporter: That’s amazing. But the triple load of family, work and the Ph.D. program — how did you keep it all in balance?
Ahmad: Well, one thing that helped me a lot was finding ways to make what I was doing for research count at work. So, for example, a lot of things I was reading about or researching, I’d find a way to reuse in a report I could present to my boss. In another case, I built a piece of software for the company at my job; but then I used that software as a test bed for my research ideas. So whenever I could, I tried to make things have a double purpose. Really, that would be my one major piece of advice to students considering this: You absolutely need to have overlap between your work and your research.
Reporter: And do you have any other wisdom for students who might be considering part-time studies?
Ahmad: I think for sure they should have a mentor who will listen to you when you’re having trouble and give you advice as you’re going along so you don’t feel like you’re alone. For me, that was often my wife. Because my wife had gone through it, she would give me advice or motivation when I felt like giving up. The other thing is you have to be aware that this is much different than doing a master’s. I meet people that say they want to do a Ph.D., and I know that they’re already working 50 hours a week at their jobs. That’s going to be very difficult. It’s not impossible. But you have to be honest with yourself about whether you have the time and commitment, because the closer you get to the end, the harder it gets. I’m really happy I did it, but it’s also really great to have my life back.
Reporter: So at the end of the day, do you feel like it was worth it?
Ahmad: Definitely. Particularly because I picked a subject that was very close to my job, I see how it’s given me more credibility at work, and I think that has led to more opportunities. For example, on a few occasions, I was tapped to give advice on cybersecurity matters to our executives in Japan. I was also asked to represent my company in several standardization bodies that are writing cybersecurity standards for the industry. So this has allowed me to make connections with other experts in the field. And that’s not something I would be doing without the training I received in my program.