Chris Smith is a writer and blogger. Over his career he has written for a number of publications, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Huffington Post. He writes about sport and finance on his website Spend It Like Beckham.
In my personal experience, the work-life balance is at its most uneven at university. I say personal experience because as a student, I’ve always held down a part-time job while studying. Many students will have the luxury of being able to concentrate on studying (and let’s face it, partying) full-time, for a number of reasons, be it from student loans, scholarships, or coming from a wealthy background and having trust funds. Personally, the prospect of paying money back, with interest, after I started working full-time didn’t appeal, and I don’t come from a particularly wealthy background either. So before I pull out my tiny violin, I’ll simply say that I’ve had to work while studying.
I’m currently in the process of studying for my second degree at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. My first degree was in journalism, and thanks to an unexpected inheritance (the violin is away again!) I’ve been able to fund a second degree in economics and finance. Throughout my student life, I’ve held a variety of odd jobs that have paid rent and ensured a steady supply of ramen and beer. Being able to strike a balance between work and studying is a hard one to achieve, but I like to think I’ve had enough experience to know what works.
The ideal job has to meet a number of criteria if you’re looking to strike the balance of work and study. First, a full-time, 9-5, Monday-to-Friday working week is clearly out of the question. I always keep my eyes open for jobs that allow work in late nights or weekends, and those which offer a flexible shift pattern are particularly desirable. As strange as it sounds, one of my favorite jobs that I’ve had was a bouncer at a Glasgow pub. The work wasn’t mentally taxing (your average Saturday night Glaswegian reveller is unlikely to strike up a learned debate on the economic factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union), but it could be good fun to chat with different people waiting to get a drink, and the late-night shift pattern suited me well. Admittedly, it takes a certain type of person to want to be a bouncer and the work isn’t for everyone, but I enjoyed what I did. It’s worth pointing out that the bar I worked as wasn’t the liveliest or roughest place in town, so we didn’t normally get into too much trouble.
When it came into exam time I was able to swap and cover shifts quite easily. It’s important to be able to have a flexible job that you can scale back when it comes to exam season. There’s nothing more stressful than knowing you haven’t put in enough hours of study before an assessment and having to head into work to spend your night looking after drunk people. Another job that I had that worked well for me as a student was in a call center. It was hardly the most glamorous job in the world (less glamorous than a bouncer?), but, again, a flexible shift pattern suited me well and the work wasn’t particularly taxing. A great bonus of this job was that we would have downtime in between callers, and during exam time, I’d take a book or two and get some cramming done between trying to sell people insurance products.
There are a number of distinctions that can be made between my experience of working as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate. In Scotland, we enjoy free university education for our first degree as paid for by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS). This was especially useful to me as I came from a somewhat low-income background. Having graduated, I soon realized that my first degree wasn’t leading me down the road I wanted to go on.
SAAS is a particularly helpful service for Scottish students as they will pay tuition fees regardless of a student’s financial situation. Whether or not I wanted to work whilst I was studying didn’t affect my eligibility to receive support. The story, however, is different for American students as a lot of funding programmes do not allow applicants to have an external job whilst studying. I haven’t studied in the US, so might not be aware of the nuances of the further education system.
Here in the UK, and particularly in Scotland, I am grateful of the flexibility that has allowed me to work whilst studying at both an undergraduate and postgraduate level. Thanks to a student loan from the bank, I was able to raise the money I needed to go back to university a second time. Going through the search for part-time work while studying for a second time, with a degree, however was much easier. I found that employers were much more approachable in interviews when they knew I had a degree, and there were more opportunities for work.
The difference can be seen in the fact that I was a bouncer while studying for my first degree and I worked in the call center. The call center that I worked for at that time was very supportive of me whilst I studied at postgraduate level. The workforce had a couple of other students at various levels of study, and my managers appreciated that my workload became heavier as the academic year wore on. They were happy for me to take time off for exams and swap shifts if necessary. The job I had bouncing wouldn’t have offered that flexibility, but my undergraduate degree didn’t have the same workload as my postgraduate one, so this wasn’t a problem at the time.
The important thing to remember is that I found a pattern that worked for me and my circumstances. When it comes to your approach to making a spot of extra money during your studies you’ll have to look for jobs that work around your courses. Some people that I have studied with had ambitions to start their own businesses while studying. The online guides from the experts will tell you that your success is dependent on how hard you work at building your business.
Personally, I found that my commitment to achieving my degree was greater than any ambition that I had for “going entrepreneurial” while at university. Maybe this was because I didn’t have any business ideas to go on. History shows us that some of the best ideas came off the back of students developing their ideas at college. If you feel that your idea has legs, then you’ll get out of your idea what you put in.
The vast majority of us are left with getting a job to see us through the student days and hoping for career prospects following graduation. I’ve been at it as a student for six years now, and the biggest piece of parting advice I can give is to remember where your ultimate focus should lie.
Having a job while studying can be a great way to keep the money coming in. Striking the balance can be tricky, and isn’t for everyone. This is my story; please share yours in the comments!
[Image by Flickr user ibmphoto24 and used under the Creative Commons license.]
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