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Every February, my graduate program welcomes newly admitted students to an open house event to sit in on classes, meet faculty and current students, network with other prospective students, and preview what life in the program will look like come the fall semester. This past February in particular, prospective part-time master’s and doctoral students asked me questions about balancing a full-time job on campus with graduate school.
Although I ponder this issue often as an academic adviser and doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park, my answer is never as thorough or comprehensive as I would like it to be. “How do you balance full-time work and graduate school?” is a hard question. The answer is subjective, personal and dynamic. Yet while I strongly believe that there is no one-size-fits-all, formulaic approach to succeeding at both work and grad school, I’d like to share eight strategies -- which I’ve discovered by trial and error, picked up from other students, or read about in op-ed pieces like this -- that have made my balancing act a bit steadier.
No. 1: Know the ebbs and flows of your work environment. Wherever you are working, analyze when you are busiest, both over the long haul and on a daily or weekly basis. If you don’t have a strong sense of the rhythm of your workload or are starting a new job, don’t hesitate to ask colleagues or your supervisor.
In advising, for example, my busiest times are those in the middle of the fall and spring semesters -- March through early May and October through early December. Thus, when I review the syllabus of each class, I set arbitrary deadlines for myself and carve out time to work on assignments during periods when I know I will have less hubbub at work. I have a document that maps out a yearly schedule of times when I am typically busy with tasks at work and times when I can focus more on assignments and readings.
No. 2: Work smarter, not harder. By that I mean: take advantage of the tools and resources that are available to you, approach assignments strategically, and work throughout the semester rather than a few weeks before the assignment is due.
For instance, in my Google Drive, I have a “Graduate School” folder, in which I create a subfolder for each class I take. Within those subfolders, I create a separate document titled for each forthcoming assignment I will have that semester and its due date -- for example, “Sept. 24 Policy Brief” or “Dec. 10 Literature Review” or “May 11 Research Paper.” To each document, I add the assignment’s prompt and any initial thoughts I have as to what topic I may want to explore for the assignment, and what theories, conceptual frameworks, researchers or literature could be relevant. Throughout the semester, I add quotes, sources and ideas to these assignment documents. By the time my draft deadline begins creeping up, I have a significant amount of content to work with -- sometimes even a complete draft.
Another helpful tool is a citation manager. You can upload and organize articles by class, topic area or assignment and within each one, highlight relevant quotes and take notes. In addition, my calendar and my to-do list have been my constant companions throughout graduate school. I have a Google calendar associated with my work email where I keep track of meetings and student appointments (this calendar is shared with my coworkers) and a calendar attached to my personal email, where I keep track of class deadlines and block off chunks of time to complete readings and assignments.
Similarly, Evernote is an online to-do list that allows you to create “notebooks” within which you can create notes using different templates (weekly schedule, to-do list and so forth). I have a notebook called “Work,” with reminders and training notes to be turned into training documents; one for “Travel,” with a note for each trip and vacation; and one for “Grad School,” with a note for each month of the semester with a separate section for each class. One of the most helpful functions of Evernote is that you can attach photos or files and link URLs to your notes. I like to link my Google assignment documents next to each to-do item for easier access.
No. 3: Work your classwork into your professional work, and vice versa. One of the most rewarding aspects of working full-time while completing graduate school is being able to put theory into practice and bringing real-world examples and issues to class discussions. Take advantage of your anecdotal evidence and professional experience to guide your writing and research. Use assignments to develop projects or policies you may actually be interested in addressing at work, to learn about a job you might be working toward in the future, or to explore a topic you are passionate about.
In my class on student leadership development, for example, we were asked to design a program to teach students about leadership development theories. I used the opportunity to create a class with an emphasis on building leadership skills and efficacy in underrepresented minority students. While the class itself never actually took place, I communicated several of the student development frameworks and ideas to our program’s faculty members, who then implemented them into their existing courses.
You can also incorporate themes and ideas you learn in class into your work. In every class, I try to think critically and intentionally about how class content is represented in my everyday tasks. The perspectives I gained from my class on college access and choice have made me a better adviser -- one who is more empathetic to the barriers students face when beginning or transferring to college and trying to complete it. Allow the barriers between your practice and learning to become more fluid. Your experience will not only help you in your graduate studies but also make you a more well-rounded professional.
No. 4: Reflect deeply after each class. What about this class did you enjoy? What aspects challenged you? What do you want to know more about? Such reflection can help guide your curriculum (if you have more flexibility as a doc student) as well as tell you more about what kind of worker you are and help you set goals based on what you like.
After each semester wraps up, take some time to think about what you learned and how the course content contributed to your growth as a student and as a professional. This has been especially helpful for me as I think about my intended dissertation topic and methods. At the end of each semester, once the dust has settled, I write down which aspects of the class were challenging for me or came more easily to me, which topics I found really interesting and engaging, and which topics left me somewhat uninspired. Not only has the amalgamation of these reflections helped me assess where I need to improve or where there may be holes in my coursework, it has also given me a default skeleton cover letter and teaching philosophy statement.
As you reflect on course content, think also about the research methods in the articles you read throughout the semester. I read an article in my Leadership in Higher Education course and was so struck by the textual analysis the researchers conducted that I decided to take a class on the topic the following semester.
No. 5: Create small wins or achievements to help motivate you. Midsemester is prime time for a slump in motivation. I usually hit a wall around week nine, and one of the best ways to motivate myself to keep going has been to plan things to look forward to or to reward myself after small achievements. Organizational theory tells us that small goals or achievements are effective tools for motivating employees, and the same goes for overscheduled students.
For instance, I might plan an “out of office” day, or arrange a weekend getaway to a nearby city, or make reservations at a restaurant with actual metal cutlery and a friendly, calming ambience. It can be incredibly difficult to balance work, grad school and time with family and friends, but using planned downtime or outings with loved ones as a way to motivate myself has been extremely helpful for completing assignments when I’m feeling overwhelmed or burned out. I also have weekly reserved time for relaxing. Every Friday evening after I’ve finished work for the day, I stay away from my computer and assignments and take time to recuperate.
No. 6: Collaborate with different people. In your professional life and on future research projects, you will have to work in concert with a multitude of people. The best place to start adapting to different work styles and learning to collaborate efficiently with others -- while the stakes are low and mistakes are encouraged -- is in graduate school.
For both class and work projects, try not to select the same co-worker or friend in your cohort for every project. Instead, branch out! You are cheating yourself if you work with the same people project after project. While it is important to build rapport with other students who may share similar research interests, and a strong support system is vital for surviving graduate school, you can learn so much from working with different colleagues. As an added benefit, others in your classes and cohort are probably working in multiple departments on the campus, giving you the opportunity to expand your network for future work-related needs.
No. 7: Be strategic about what and how you read. It took me years to accept that it simply would not be possible to read all the weekly required readings for my classes and work 40-plus hours a week. The advice I’ll share here is the same I give to the freshman students I teach in a one-credit “introduction to the university” course: read selectively and strategically. When reading for understanding or to participate in class discussions, the most informative pieces of a research study are usually the abstract, the first paragraph of the introduction, the first paragraph of the literature review, the first sentences of the methodology section, the discussion section and the conclusion. For crafting a discussion post, I read those same sections but pay particular attention to the introduction, discussion and conclusion, and I note several quotes that either boil down the main points of the study or contribute distinctly to the topic at hand. When taking down quotes, I always add an in-text citation in my notes to save time later when I post a discussion thread or write a paper.
For an annotated bibliography or a literature review, I typically spend more time reading and taking notes from an article than I do when reading for understanding alone. This is where tools like Google documents and citation managers are helpful. You can highlight and take notes within citation managers, and start adding to your future assignments in Google documents as you read, giving you a jumping-off point when you sit down to complete the presentation or paper.
No. 8: Ask your coworkers and professors about their grad school experiences. Many of the tips I’ve picked up and the strategies I’ve learned have originated from conversations with my professors and co-workers. Not only have I learned good ways to balance graduate school and work life, but I’ve also heard stories of tactics to avoid. For example, a co-worker told me that to finish their dissertation, they lived off protein bars for several months, writing from noon to midnight and sleeping from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. -- a schedule I’m not sure I would ever recover from.
In my experience, professors and co-workers are happy to share their wisdom and to reminisce about their graduate school days. In addition to breaking the ice, if you are in a new position or program, or creating an opportunity for bonding, discussing grad school is also an opportunity to share some context about your professional development and continuing education. That may open opportunities to get involved in new creative projects at work.
In conclusion, what does balancing work and grad school look like to you? Does it mean completing all stipulated tasks and assignments, earning a 4.0 GPA, conducting original research, publishing at regular intervals in top periodicals, and being promoted within your organization during your time in your graduate program? My goal each semester has been (as advisery as this may sound) to do my best. Sometimes that has meant that I didn’t get the grade I had hoped for or didn’t attend the University Senate meeting I had wanted to attend. Other times, it has meant earning a promotion at work, serving as a teaching assistant for a favorite former class and presenting at conferences. I have tried to give myself grace throughout my graduate program to alleviate some of the pressure that comes with trying to do it all. Do not compare yourself to other graduate students -- this is your journey.
As you prepare to enter a graduate program this fall or to continue your graduate studies, start thinking about what strategies you will adapt from your undergraduate experience or the office to graduate school. Of all the tips listed above, the key to balancing academics and work has been planning ahead and staying organized. But always be sure to keep a pulse on your mental and physical health. Even the most effective strategies will not be successful if you don’t take care of yourself first.