Pursuing an Advanced Degree While Working Full Time

September 2021
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Many PR  professionals earn advanced degrees to develop new skills, refine their knowledge and improve their competitive advantage in the workplace. There’s good reason to continue sharpening your skills in a field projected to grow by 10 percent through 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But as graduate degree programs for professionals proliferate — whether for in-person instruction or increasingly, online — the question of where to obtain one has become more important. And striking a balance between taking classes part time and working full time can be tricky.

Online master’s degree programs weren’t as prevalent when I obtained my Master of Science in public relations and corporate communications years ago. I completed my graduate program part time, in person, while also working full time. 

Back then, I was fortunate to work in Midtown Manhattan in New York, where I could hop on a subway or speed-walk 10 blocks after work to reach my classes. But I still had to find time to complete assigned readings, homework and group projects, and to prepare for exams and presentations.

Whether you take classes after work on a local university campus, log on to a Zoom lecture from the other side of the country, or complete your work asynchronously during lunch breaks and late-night sessions, it takes stamina and determination to cross the finish line.

Here are four ways to find balance while working toward your advanced degree:

Find the right program.

Just as research begins the four-step public relations process, research is equally important when selecting a graduate program. Along with making sure that the program will help you achieve your career goals, remember to evaluate other factors that will affect your ability to manage your schedule. 

These include the number of courses required to complete your degree, synchronous vs. asynchronous classes (the former meet at scheduled times, while the latter allow students to access class materials at different hours and from different locations) and the average time that students are expected to spend on coursework. 

Once you’ve been accepted into your graduate program of choice, compare its classes to see which ones will fit your workload outside of school. For example, a course that includes a lot of group work might present a conflict during your industry’s busiest time of year.

Ask instructors for syllabuses before the semester starts. Confirm the dates when you can add or drop classes, to avoid problems if you need to switch to a different course or to drop one entirely.

You might be eligible to waive certain program requirements based on your past coursework or experience. In fact, several universities offer course waivers to practitioners who are Accredited in Public Relations (APR). As an added benefit, students who complete their degrees during the three-year renewal cycle automatically qualify for reaccreditation. 

Set realistic time-management expectations.

When pursuing a graduate degree while also working, you may need to set boundaries with your colleagues, supervisor, family and friends. Not everyone is familiar with the time commitment required for an advanced degree, so let the people in your circle know when you have classes or need time to focus on your coursework.

You can also be creative about when and how you work on your degree. Recorded lectures or short videos could become part of your commute or exercise time. Fitting everything into your day can be daunting, but it helps to break up your workload into smaller tasks throughout the week. Review the syllabus, identify your assignments and schedule time on your calendar to complete your coursework just as you would for business meetings.

On the flip side, don’t overload your schedule by enrolling in too many classes at once. You might be tempted to do so in the hope of completing your degree sooner, but it’s hard to reap the full value of what’s being taught in class if you barely have the time or energy to focus. 

Tap into your network resources.

If you haven’t been in school for years, it may be challenging at first to get back into the swing of an academic routine, especially while juggling a family or a demanding job. Connect with other classmates for study sessions or schedule office hours with your instructor to receive feedback on your assignments.

Ask your program adviser which courses will best suit your career plans. You can also take advantage of the abundant free resources available to you as a university student — from peer-to-peer mentoring and workshops that revive your study skills to writing-center programs that provide free tutoring to help you research and plan your next paper.

Give yourself a break.

Even if you follow these tips, life has a way of derailing our plans. It’s all right to step back and reboot when needed. Sometimes you’ll need a night off from homework to relax and watch a movie or go to dinner with friends. 

Requesting a personal day from work before your capstone presentation at school may be what you need to feel calm and focused. Conversely, you might take a temporary leave of absence from your graduate program to meet the demands of your personal life or work.

I took a semester off from completing my master’s degree when I was given the opportunity to lead a major client project in the months ahead. I never regretted taking time away from school to focus on my career and to give the project my undivided attention. When I returned to school the following semester, I found myself energized from the break and ready to resume where I had left off.

Finding balance between working and pursuing a graduate degree will help you embrace the journey of lifelong learning, instead of worrying over how you’ll get through it. In the end, an advanced degree can accelerate your career growth and prepare you for new opportunities, such as earning your APR. 

Above all, give yourself grace. Obtaining an advanced degree is challenging whether you pursue it part time, full time, in-person, or online. Striking a balance makes it easier to appreciate your accomplishment along the way

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