Today there are many more non-traditional students pursuing degrees than ever before, which means the typical college experience looks a little different. The estimated percentage of students who work while in school hasn’t changed much over the last several decades, but the number of hours these students are working has. A Georgetown University report shows more than 75% of graduate students and roughly 40% of undergraduates work at least 30 hours per week while attending school. One in four working learners is simultaneously attending full-time college while holding down a full-time job. And on top of that, about 19% of all working students have children.
Balancing a full-time job with a full course load – and for some, handling family obligations as well – isn’t easy. If you’re one of the many trying to balance it all, read on to get expert recommendations on how to manage school and work without losing your sanity.
Working full-time while in school certainly doesn’t make getting good grades any easier. But there are many advantages you may not have considered when it comes to full-time work and the pursuit of a college degree. Some of the biggest benefits include:
Like many other things in life, being a full-time worker and student requires balance. The trick is in figuring out how to arrange your schedule to get everything in a day done while still maintaining your sanity. The following tips can help you find this balance.
Even though you’re working full-time, financial aid such as grants and scholarships are still important and can help alleviate stress. “Several people told me before I went back for my MA not to enter a program unless the school was willing to give me funding,” explains Jenny Rush, who pursued her undergraduate and graduate degrees while working full-time and raising a daughter. “I’m glad I stuck that out – I had to fight for funding, but I don’t have any debt now.
When you’re juggling work, school and everything in between, taking time for yourself may sound impossible but it’s important to make space for “me time” every now and then. Rush says making time for yourself is a must: “Force yourself to take a day off and force yourself to be social. I started going out once a week during my MA program just to preserve my mental health. It was critical.”
Many colleges, particularly online colleges, offer flexibility for those working full-time. But there will still probably come a time when work and school conflict. Maybe you’ll want to be able to take a day off to have extra time to study for an exam. Or maybe you’ll need a modified work schedule to accommodate a required class for graduation. Either way, make sure you know before classes begin if your employer will be able to accommodate your requests.
Family buy-in is crucial. “If you’re living with your partner, and especially if you have kids, talk through how going back to school will affect them,” advises Rush. “Let them know how their lives will change, and make sure they know you’re still there for them, too, even if you’re working long hours or spending time studying. And make sure to still take time to do things that are important to them when you can.”
Looking back on her experience, Rush recalls it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of family and friends. “I got through school by really leaning on my community,” says Rush. “I was a single parent the whole time I was completing my bachelor’s, on top of working full time, so I had to rely on the people in my life to help my daughter and me through. My daughter spent time with her grandparents and her aunt, and a few of my good friends babysat her too.” Rush took the same approach when pursuing her master’s. “When I went back for my master’s, my daughter was older and my fiancée was living with us. We had a frank conversation about how our household roles would change while I was in school,” she says. As a result, Rush’s fiancée took on the responsibility of cooking dinner every night and doing all the laundry. You’ll need all the help you can get but you’ll only get it if everyone is on the same page and working together. “Managing expectations helped me stay sane, and so did the help of my friends and family,” says Rush.
If you have family obligations, such as taking care of a child, parent or other family member, be sure to discuss changes in your schedule and make arrangements for care before you apply or enroll in school. Whether it’s a babysitter, family member, paid caretaker, daycare or assisted living, start researching options before you apply and set everything up before your first day of class.
The days of simply needing a textbook, pen and paper are long gone. Today many courses require students to have a computer with high-speed internet access. There will also likely be online message boards, chat sessions or class materials that must be completed or accessed via an online education portal. To have one less thing to worry about while working or in class, review all the technological requirements early on, make sure you have everything you’ll need and familiarize yourself with all the new tools before your first day of class.
Rush swears by a solid scheduling plan. “My schedule was so full I needed to carefully manage my time. We have two calendars in my house – physical calendars where we write everyone’s schedule on – and I have a paper planner, as well as my Outlook calendar for work. I would recommend writing your schedule down in more than one place. Also, think about how your day will be structured and make sure you can juggle what you need to fit in.”
When something great happens, like a promotion at work, acing an exam or getting accepted into your chosen major, reward yourself! Stay sane by celebrating the small victories on your way toward the final goal. The anticipation of your reward can give you that extra bit of motivation to keep working or study just a few minutes more.
It may not always seem like it, but there is more time during the day to get things done than you might think. The trick is to make use of all of the available blocks of time as efficiently as possible. For example, let’s say you need to memorize vocabulary words for a foreign language class. Make flashcards and place them in your pocket. That way, even three minutes waiting in line for coffee gives you an opportunity to get in a little bit of studying.
Not enough time? You might not be using your time efficiently. If you drive to work, think about taking the bus or train instead to give yourself time to study during your commute. If you spend an hour cleaning up the house each evening, consider cutting back and getting a bi-weekly or monthly housekeeping service if you can afford it. If your child is in a daycare that’s not easily on the way to/from work and home, try to find one that’s more convenient to cut down on the amount of time you’re on the road. You may have to get creative to squeeze everything in but shaving off even just five minutes here and there and reallocating that time to something like studying, work, yourself or spending time with family can make a big difference.
Once you’ve got a good rhythm in place, it can be easy to go full-tilt all the time, but be careful; serious burnout can tank your entire college endeavor. “Manage your expectations,” Rush advises. “Your life will change if you add school to your normal responsibilities. It’s okay to let the laundry pile up. It’s okay to stock up on frozen meals from Trader Joe’s. Remind yourself it’s not forever. I think most people can get through hard things by taking them one step at a time.”
For many students, studying can be made more effective with routine. This routine helps prepare the mind to absorb and learn information. One part of this routine is to find a consistent study location. It might be a particular study cubicle at the library, table at a coffee shop, corner of the dinner table or an office small office space at home. Whatever it is, consider finding or creating a designated learning area for whenever you need to watch lectures, review course materials, get homework done, study for a test or chat with classmates.
Even if you’ll be home, consider hiring a babysitting service or having someone come over to keep an eye on your child while you get your school work done. It’s a lot easier to concentrate without the distraction of a little one constantly asking for mommy or daddy every 10 minutes.
If you’ll need to take a vacation day to study for an exam or miss a day of class because of an important meeting at work, figure when these conflicts will take place as far in advance as possible and make necessary arrangements. A boss is likely to be a lot more understanding when an employee asks for a day off months in advance compared to the day before. And if you know you’ll miss class far in advance, you can take steps to compensate for what you’ll be missing.
With the advancement in computer and networking technology, distance learning has become economical and widespread. Today, getting a degree online is not just possible, but quite common. And the best part is that online learning has opened doors to education for those who simply don’t have the time to sit in a traditional classroom – such as those non-traditional students who work full time. Here’s why online courses are a great option for full-time workers:
The flexibility provided by online learning will probably be the biggest reason for you to consider an online program while working full-time. Not being tied to a set class time in a specific location allows you to work full-time and still complete your coursework when your professional, personal and family commitments allow. For many online students, “classroom time” may be very early in the morning before work, late at night after the kids are asleep or during weekends.
Depending on the program, the level of flexibility may vary. For some classes, you may have to attend class at a specific time, but you’ll have the freedom to do so from anywhere you want. On the other end of the online flexibility spectrum, you can watch or listen to class lectures and turn in assignments any time you want and at your own pace. Most classes and programs fall somewhere in the middle, with students being able to “attend” class and complete assignments whenever they want within a certain time frame and final exams offered over the course of a few weeks, allowing you to choose which time is best for your schedule.
As long as there is an internet connection and your electronic device for learning (such as a laptop), you can access the course material. You can complete the class assignments anywhere that works for you. This means you can watch or listen to the class lecture during the work commute, while on vacation or even late at night in your pajamas. Not only is this convenient, but it allows you to most efficiently make use of your downtime.
Some online programs allow students to knock out some credits if they already have relevant work experience, which means students will have fewer graduation requirements and can earn their degree a little faster. This is often the case for online nursing programs, but other online programs also offer credit for work experience and/or accelerated options for qualifying students.
One might think being outside a physical classroom means a more isolated learning experience. But many professors and online programs take specific steps to get students actively involved in learning and collaborating with their fellow classmates. From live chats to projects involving virtual group meetings among students, online coursework can sometimes provide more opportunities for you to learn with your classmates and achieve a richer, more diverse academic experience.
With physical classrooms in a conventional program, you may be unable to attend a class of your choosing because it’s already filled to capacity. Or maybe you can’t relocate but still want to attend the top college for your program and it’s across the country. With online colleges, these things are less of an issue because there are usually no physical limitations. If you live and work full-time in Colorado and want to attend a top program in California, you can do so without having to move and give up your job.
Obtaining an online degree, certificate or other credential is often cheaper than attending school as a traditional student. These cost savings can come in several ways. For example, online tuition rates may be lower for online students, there will be little to no commuting cost and you won’t have to pay for campus housing. In fact, according to U.S. News and World Report, almost 20 percent of freshman college students do not live on campus and commute to each class, with the primary reason being to save money. For online students these savings are even greater, since there’s no need to drive or take public transportation to/from class.
Jenny Rush earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and a master’s degree in professional writing while working full-time and raising a young daughter. Find out what her experience was like and how she juggled it all.
A. I’m guessing everyone has the same answer to this – because I had to! I couldn’t afford not to. There was no way I could take out enough loans to cover living expenses for me and my daughter. I think if people have the chance to get an education without having to work, they should absolutely take advantage of that – it just wasn’t an option for me.
A. One step at a time! It helped that I was really fascinated by what I was learning. A big part of what motivated me to do well in school was my daughter. I wanted to set an example for her and show her that it is possible to take control of your own situation. Plus, I wanted to build a better life for both of us. Keeping the end goals in mind got me through my bachelor’s degree. I didn’t love my job, so I told myself that getting a degree would be a way to improve my situation. I didn’t get a good job out of my degree in neuroscience – I hated working in a lab, so I stayed at the job I worked while I was earning my degree. That was disheartening, but I got good at it, and the pay was okay.
When I went back for my masters, the only way I got through was by being able to see the end in sight. I knew it was only going to take two years, and that got me through. Now I have a job doing marketing at a biotech company, which combines my love for science and my Master’s in Professional Writing. Having a stable job that supports my daughter and I made the whole journey worth it.
A. It varied a lot. When I was in undergrad, I would wake up around 6 am to get dressed, wake my daughter up, get her fed and ready for school and drop her off around 7:30 am. Then, if I had classes, I would head to campus and stay there for the day. If I was lucky, I could leave in time to pick her up and then go to work second shift – usually 3 pm to 11 pm. Then, I’d go to bed and do it all over again. On days when I didn’t have classes, I usually worked earlier or spent the day working on school work. I worked weekends, too, so some weekdays I could just go to school, then come home and focus on my daughter.
During grad school, my schedule was more clear-cut. I still woke up around 6 am to get my daughter ready and take her to school. Then, I would usually work from home for one job from about 7:30 am to noon. After that, I would head to campus for my on-campus job and work there until 5 pm when I had classes. Luckily, in grad school, most classes were evening classes, so I could work during the day. I had weekends “free” – I didn’t usually work, so I could catch up on school work then.
A. In grad school, I would say as much as 12 hours some weeks, and as little as 3 hours other weeks. I always tried to get my work done over the weekend so I didn’t have to worry during the week, which was busier for me. This didn’t always work out, though, and often times I would end up staying up late Monday or Tuesday to finish an assignment. Some weeks were easy, but towards the end of the semester, work could start piling up. Coffee was my best friend.
A. I missed some important moments – I couldn’t be at my daughter’s open house. And there were times I was so exhausted. It was sometimes difficult to take my schoolwork seriously because I was already working two other jobs, but I really did want to learn.
The most rewarding moments have been hearing other women say I have inspired them to follow their dreams and demand more for themselves. My daughter is a teenager, so I don’t think she would admit that she is proud of me – I don’t think she realizes the extent to which I struggled to get my undergraduate degree as a young single mother. But the confidence with which she talks about her own plans for college tells me that I gave her the right example.
A. One thing I always tried to keep in mind was that school was a choice I was making. I chose to go to school, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go. Many people face significant barriers to their education – bigger than the ones I faced – so I tried to remind myself that even when it was awful, it was still an amazing chance that so many people don’t get. I also tried to remind myself that college was supposed to be teaching me something, so I would look for the lessons. Not just academic lessons, but also life skills. I would also remind myself how soon it was until the end of the semester. And when all else failed, strong coffee and loud music always hits my “reset” button, reminding me that I am strong and I can get through anything.
A. My final semester of my MA, I made myself a paper chain counting down the individual class sessions I had left – it was the only way I got through! Sometimes, it’s those little things that give you the extra motivation. It’s so hard to decide to go back to school, but if you do your research and have a community to support you, you can do it.