If you want to work AND go back to school, that’s amazing. Jess offers tips on how she stayed clear of burnout, balanced her time and asked for support when she needed help.
Do you dream of going back to school, but you don’t want to – or can’t – give up the security of a regular paycheck? Are you working part time and itching to fill the rest of your hours with something meaningful? Perhaps you want a degree but are scared of getting into debt? Don’t worry – it’s actually totally possible to work and study at the same time and still have a life too!
Read on if you’re thinking of taking the leap…
Be realistic about what you can take on
The other week, I idly Googled “can you do a second Masters and a PhD at the same time?” (The answer, for anyone curious, is “just because you technically can does not mean that you should.”)
I am a master of taking on just a bit too much, and have to rein myself in from constantly running after fifteen shiny new projects. So believe me when I say: you need to be realistic!
You can’t, in fact, work full time AND go to university full time. Nor can you (probably) study fifty hours a week on top of your job and neglect sleeping, childcare, your partner, your friends, your hobbies or your mental health.
It’s much better to do things more slowly than to burn yourself out. Be realistic about how much time you have, if there’s anything you can cut back on (more on that in a minute,) and what else you can fit in.
Find small pockets of extra time in your day
I do so much of my PhD reading on the train to and from work. Something about the ambient noise and the rumble of the train just lulls me straight into my focus zone. Some people are at their best first thing in the morning – if this is you, get up an hour or even thirty minutes earlier to grab some studying time before anyone else is awake. If you’re more of a night owl, then what about setting aside a little bit of “study time” every evening. Perhaps after dinner? Or, if you prefer to do your studying in one long session rather than short bursts, set aside a few hours one evening or weekend to get through several hours of work in one go. Put this time in your calendar and keep it, as you would an appointment with your doctor or a meeting with a friend.
Be honest with yourself about what you can cut back on. Do you absolutely need to watch two hours of TV? Is scrolling through social media a great use of your time?
A more drastic approach, if you can afford it and your employer will let you, is to cut down on your hours at work (either permanently or just for a while.) Don’t do something like this without putting a lot of thought into it, though! An extra few hours in your week isn’t a good trade-off if you can’t study effectively because you’re worrying about money.
Things not to scrimp on include: eating, sleep, exercise, spending time with loved ones, and doing hobbies that truly nourish you.
Find a support network
There were a lot of brilliant things about doing my MSc long distance (seminars from bed, anyone!?) One of the things I did find hard, though, was the lack of regular and close connection with my classmates. After doing an Undergraduate degree full of in-person seminars, group work and critique circles, it was a shock.
If you’re doing your course at a physical location, you’re in luck! Make friends with some of your classmates, and try to support each other. This could be offering edits on each other’s work, bouncing ideas around, or even just socialising over coffee.
If you’re studying online or remotely, it can be harder. Luckily, modern technology is at hand! Use #WritingCommunity or #DistanceLearning on Twitter to find others in a similar position. Join a Facebook group – or even set one up! Connect with your classmates through email, webinars and your Virtual Learning Environment if possible. You could even set up an online critique group to share work and help each other.
Ask for help
There’s no shame in asking for help – in fact, it can be one of your greatest strengths. So don’t be afraid to ask for what you need!
Ask your partner to take care of dinner this week (or order in, if you can afford it.) Ask your mum or neighbour to watch the kids after school if you have kids or younger family that needs to be cared for. Ask your boss if you can take some short-notice time off, if you have the annual leave days left or can afford to take it unpaid. Ask your super-smart friend to give your essay a quick read and tell you what you can improve.
People who care about you want to see you succeed. They’ll most likely be happy to help, especially if you’re struggling or up against a deadline. One of the best simple things my partner has ever done for me, which still stands out in my mind years later, was leaving me to work and bringing me coffee and a stack of pancakes as I struggled through my Masters thesis, days away from crunch time. Tell your loved ones if you’re having a hard time or just need a helping hand. Ask for what you want!
Compartmentalise – put work, study and relaxing in different boxes
If at all possible, don’t work and study in the same physical place… and certainly don’t do either of these things where you relax! This means no bringing essays to the office, and no bringing work from your job home with you if you can possibly avoid it.
I find that clearly designated spaces can really help. My office, a train ride away, is where work happens. My home office is where studying and writing happen. And my living room and bedroom are where I relax. It sounds simple, but you can “trick” your brain into being ready for work just by getting it used to the idea that “when I am in this location, work happens.”
Of course, this is harder if you work from home all the time, or if you have very limited space available. If all else fails, a simple change of scene – writing in a coffee shop, or reading in the park on a sunny day – can make all the difference.
Don’t let your job suffer due to your studying… or vice versa!
It can be very tempting, when you start a new course of study, to start slacking off at work or bringing less of yourself to work. Don’t do this!
It won’t do your standing with your boss or your career any good. Try to think of “work time” and “study time” as two separate mental spaces, two different “zones” that you get into.
On the other hand, if you’re studying and working a part time job to support yourself, don’t take on so many extra shifts that you can’t fit in time to do your essays or are too tired to go to that 9am lecture.
Remember: the key is balance.
Working and studying at the same time can be incredibly rewarding and can open up opportunities that might not have been available otherwise. I would never have been able to afford to do my Masters and PhD full time (funding for Doctorates in Creative Writing isn’t abundant, funnily enough.)
Thanks to part time study, the miracle of distance learning, and some supportive managers, I’ve been able to make my work/study life function brilliantly. With a little preparation, planning and some easy tricks, you can make it work for you too!