October 31, 2013
It is possible to work full-time, go to school part-time, squeeze in some fun and stay sane. Really, it is.
Whether you are thinking about pursuing an advanced degree but worry that you can’t do it while working, or you are in the middle of a part-time program and think it’s too hard, I have been where you are.
I’m not saying that this won’t be difficult. It will take dedication, perseverance, sacrifice and a lot of caffeine, but you can do it.
In 2010, I graduated from the University of California Irvine’s Fully Employed MBA program. For three years, I attended class after long workdays, spent weekends studying and worked on group projects during the time in between.
Based on my experience, here is some advice to successfully manage the tug-of-war between work and school:
Of course, it’s important to choose the field of study that is going to best help you achieve your career goals. If you’re embarking on a master’s program, then don’t overlook the importance of little details like when classes are held — weekends or weeknights.
While a lot of that comes down to personal preference, there are some things to consider when deciding. Do you have evening events during the week that you have to attend for work? If so, then a weekend class schedule is probably better for you so that you aren’t setting yourself up to choose between work and school on a regular basis.
Or, are you the type of person that would rather power through long days of work and class so that you can spend the weekends studying or relaxing? If so, then a weeknight program would work.
Also, be sure to select a campus that is close to your office. Time is about to become a scarce resource for you. Do not waste it in traffic.
Something has to give. The best thing that you can do is decide ahead of time what that something is going to be.
When I started my MBA program, I knew that I wanted to continue working in communications for Toshiba. That was my guiding compass. Work was a priority over school, so any paper, test or group project came second to my work commitments.
Some of my other classmates were in graduate school to network and transition to new careers. For them, school was the priority, and they made every effort to attend extra networking events.
Either way is fine, but consciously deciding what is important to you at the beginning of your program will make it easier for you to decide where to focus your maximum effort.
In case you haven’t caught on, you’re going to be strapped for time. One of the biggest challenges of a master’s program isn’t always the coursework — it’s often time management, and it’s going to require creativity.
I’ve read for classes while getting a haircut and reviewed flash cards while using elliptical machines and stationary bikes — I don’t recommend trying this on treadmills, though. And, on more than one occasion, I practiced presentations and speeches in my car. Thanks to Bluetooth, passersby didn’t think I was crazy!
Overall, you really need to become a time-management master and use all moments wisely. For me, that often meant packing my lunch and using that time for extra reading or studying. I also had a break between work and my evening class, so if I was involved in a group project, then my classmates and I tried to meet during this break to reduce or eliminate weekend meetings.
Finally, use your time wisely in the classroom. That may sound like a no-brainer, but trust me, between Facebook, Instagram and your classmates trying to convince you to ditch class during a break, there will be plenty to distract you. However, paying dutiful attention will help reduce studying time outside of class.
Most important, do not try to sneak in schoolwork during your workday (aside from your lunch break). The temptation will be there. Resist. Setting, and remembering, your priorities will help.
When appropriate, try to use class projects to help with your real-life work assignments. My elective courses focused on marketing and communications. On occasion, there were opportunities for me to use a work assignment as a class project.
This is also a great chance to gain fresh, outside perspectives for your business needs. If you do this well, then it can be like having a team of consultants helping you — for free.
It’s been three years since I graduated, and while I remember how demanding it was to get an MBA while working, I also remember how much fun it was. Despite crazy schedules, my classmates made a point to plan get-togethers. Whether it was a bowling night, a baseball game or an impromptu happy hour, we always allowed enough time to blow off steam.
I have a lot of great memories from those three years, and I met some of my closest friends in my master’s degree program. Since graduating, we continue seeing each other for regular book club gatherings, which have since turned into mommy-and-me play dates.
Alas, stories for another time.
Charlene DeBar is manager of Corporate Communications at Toshiba America Medical Systems, Inc., in Tustin, Calif. She holds a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Pepperdine University and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of California, Irvine.