I’m in the final stretch of a graduate program I’ve completed while working 40 hours a week.
Three years ago, I remember agonizing over whether to enroll. Would I lose my friends? Would my work performance suffer? What would I have to cut out of my life to manage the added time put towards school? Could I hack it as a grad student?
This post is for folks who might find themselves in that limbo. Were I to do it all again, here are four lessons I wish I’d learned earlier.
A Note on Privilege
This post is for anyone who wants to pursue formal education alongside work—but my ability to write it implies heaps of advantages and support. Allow me to unpack my privilege to contextualize this commentary:
- I completed undergrad without debt.
- I only need to work one full-time job to support myself.
- My employer supports a sustainable, 40-hour workweek.
- I live in a city with high-quality, accredited graduate schools in my field of interest.
- My partner shares household and financial responsibilities with me, picking up my slack during busy times.
Lesson 1: Study Your School
Once you decide to take the graduate school plunge, you have to figure out where to go. I made that decision using three variables: proximity, cost, and class schedule. These criteria winnowed my choices to two: (1) an affordable, less-convenient option and (2) a prestigious, but expensive, one.
At first, I felt pulled toward the fancier school, but attending its prospective student info session dissuaded me from enrolling. The presenters justified the steep tuition by spinning a narrative of my potential future. In this trajectory, I’d climb the corporate ladder at a coastal Fortune 10—something I don’t want to do. The value exchanged for the premium price was irrelevant to me, so I opted to save a small fortune by attending the affordable school.
The school I chose has some great qualities:
- My university is a 20-minute drive from work and home.
- I’ve satisfied tuition with a combination of savings, salary, scholarships, and support from Atomic—allowing me to stay out of debt.
- My classmates represent diverse races, ethnicities, and class backgrounds. This enriches classroom discussions about applying academic theory and broadens my understanding.
- My university is accredited (something I never even thought to consider).
- My program accommodates the needs of working adults—offering evening, weekend, and online options.
Alas, the school I chose is not perfect. Here are some other things I wish I had considered when making the decision:
- Online to in-person course balance
- The safety of the neighborhoods around the school at night
- RateMyProfessor reviews for educators teaching the courses I’d need
- Conversations with people who’d graduated with the degree I sought while working
- The financial health of the school itself
- The quality of the school’s facilities
Although knowing this information ahead of time wouldn’t have altered my choice, it would have helped me feel more in control of the decision. Doing more research would have primed my expectations and allowed me to focus on coursework—rather than stressing about whether I made the right choice.
Lesson 2: Invest in the Three Relationships You Need
If there’s one cliché I’ve heard most often about graduate school, it’s that the real value of the program is the network you develop. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but I already have a pretty deep social and professional network, and I was more interested in school for the knowledge I’d gain.
However, there are good reasons to forge relationships besides building your professional network. I learned too late that to succeed in grad school, you need to develop relationships with three people: a classmate in your program, a professor in your field, and your graduate advisor.
When I enrolled at my university, I overestimated the number of students in my program. I failed to realize that the students in my early classes would accompany me through future classes. Early on, I kept to myself in the classroom—who wants to talk to strangers after a full day of work? By my third semester, I wished I’d put a little more effort into making friends earlier.
I finally made a friend at school when I gave a woman on crutches a ride home during a snow storm. Ashleigh and I found out we had a lot in common. She was supportive in our shared classes; Ashleigh helped me out many times when I forgot a homework due date, and she was my go-to pair for group projects. We also formed a real friendship, and it was great to have someone who felt my pain and could join me in venting about assignments.
After you make your friend, keep an eye out for a professor you respect in your field of study. Sign up for as many classes with them as you can, and take advantage of their office hours. Professors love attention, just as students do. If you’re engaged in the coursework, it’s easy to create a symbiotic relationship with a professor. I’ve had two such professors offer to help me find a job, and each signed letters of support for my scholarship applications (more on that later).
Finally, the most important relationship of all is your advisor. They are your best resource for information about class selection, waiving requirements, helping you graduate on time, and finding opportunities for scholarships. These folks rarely get credit, so a little gratitude goes a long way.
Lesson 3: Apply for Scholarships (or, the only time I’ve made $500/hour)
One of the biggest stressors of balancing work and school has been the strain on my finances. It wasn’t until my second year that I started to get serious about applying for scholarships. Before then, I’d kick myself every time I looked for a scholarship, only to realize the deadline had passed. I began adding the scholarship application openings, deadlines, and award announcement dates to my calendar.
A worksheet helped me track opportunities available, the scholarships for which I qualified, and the materials required. I made sure to give my references plenty of time in advance and the materials they needed to recommend me. Around decision time, I’d call the office to see whether they were considering my submission. This might sound pushy, but this sort of follow-up once helped me find out the school had lost my application, and they awarded me a different one instead.
Over the past three years, I’ve spent about 12 hours administering, writing, requesting materials for, and following up about scholarships. I did not receive the majority of the scholarships for which I applied, but in return for my time, I received $6,402.28 towards my education. This support from the University and other benefactors motivated me to keep my grades up, helped me pay for school, and served as a reminder of the value of time spent on scholarships. Asking your employer about tuition support programs can be another high-ROI avenue way to help pay for school.
Lesson 4: Weekends Are for Catchup
Finally, I wish I’d been a little easier on myself over the last few years. Class time and homework occupied about 12 hours each week. Combining that with at least 43 hours of work and commuting time, it became hard to fit all the other things that I used to do into the course of a week. Since I’ve been in school, I’ve:
- Worked fewer hours at my job than I would have otherwise
- Been less available to my friends and family members
- Seldom cooked for myself or my family
- Seen a marked decrease in my muscle mass
- Traveled less than I would have liked
- Spent less time chasing creative pursuits
Instead, much of my time outside of sleeping, work, and school turned into household glue work. My new definition of school/work/life balance meant keeping my job, wearing clean clothes, eating something green once a day, and showing up to friends’ birthday get-togethers. Everything else had to fall by the wayside. One area where I didn’t relax my standards was my academic performance. I figured as tough as it was to sacrifice fun and dedicate myself to doing well in school, half-assing both would have been worse. To me, school wasn’t worth tackling unless I took it seriously.
For a couple of years, I struggled with this reality. I realized some of my identity was tied up in being someone who could keep all the plates spinning. Suddenly, I had to accept that something—or several things—had to give. A former colleague offered wisdom that helped me reframe this problem in a practical, calming way. She said, “Your weekends are now for catching up.” Instead of seeing the weekend as a time to travel, go out with friends, exercise, veg out in front of the TV, or cook, I use my weekends to make up for the adulting debt I accrued during the week. Luckily for me, podcasts exist, and I generally find this time to be restorative, especially when I shake off the pressure I put on myself to be having an Instagram-worthy good time.
A Valuable Slog
Though I haven’t always enjoyed the endless hoop-jumping of completing my degree while working full-time, I can say it’s been worth it. What I’ve learned in school expanded my worldview, helped me understand what the heck they’re talking about on Planet Money, and substantially decreased my imposter syndrome quotient. My degree has opened up opportunities and raised my earning potential to boot. I’m curious to hear other school-balancing-professionals’ hard-won lessons in the comments.