Some people say I’m crazy for going to school part-time while working full-time, but it’s probably the smartest financial move I’ve ever made. I graduated from a well-known engineering school in Georgia, with a degree in history and sociology, fumbling around with what I wanted to do for a “forever job.” Every summer, I had interned for a department that focused on the university’s K-12 outreach (specifically working on their summer camp programs). I planned on completing another summer internship in hopes that I could use that time to figure out a long-term plan. Fortunately, my former boss offered me a job — and it was a job that allowed me to work full-time while attending graduate school at any Georgia public university for free.
I was clear with my new boss about my intention to go back to school, and she was totally supportive (in fact, she encouraged it). I worked for a year before registering for classes, partially because there was a six-month probationary period before the education benefit kicked in, and partially because of the application timeline. This gave me plenty of time to research programs and make sure I was not rushed in finishing my application packet.
In Fall 2014, I started my first semester of graduate school, and I haven’t looked back. The last year and a half have been a learning experience in the classroom and in life. More than anything, I have become more strategic about how I spend my time. My graduate program is meant to be taken full-time, so most of my classes are during the day. Thankfully, my job is pretty flexible with hours, so I can get class and work done during the day. The real time management issues happen after 6 PM, when I’m trying to do homework, network, keep my life in order, and hang out with friends. Here are five crucial lessons I’ve learned so far:
1. Structure is key.
My work/school arrangement has truly changed me. I used to be pretty lax about making plans, never really understanding why my sorority sisters were obsessed with Google Calendar. In fact, I was always the person who bought a fancypants planner in January to FINALLY be organized, and it was always trashed by March. Now, I have my events for work, school, and fun all mapped out on a calendar to ensure I don’t double book myself as badly as I did when I first started graduate school. Transitioning from going home after work to hang out with friends, to coming home and hitting the books is definitely not easy. However, if you establish a routine or have an idea of what your week will look like ahead of time, it is much easier to digest.
2. Guard your time.
My Myers-Briggs personality type is ENFP, so I want to say “yes” every time a friend wants to hang out. I’ve tried to become better at saying “no” to after work drinks, shows, etc. Until I graduate, time is probably my most valuable asset. Basically, I have set days of the week that I dedicate to a dinner with friends or only to studying. I also try to say “no” to plans that will keep me from going to bed at 10 PM. Also, I *try* to get all my schoolwork done between Sunday and Thursday, so I can have a somewhat carefree weekend. By dedicating certain days and chunks of time to school or friends, I have definitely had more success keeping up with school deadlines.
3. Be honest with your friends.
I try to avoid being the friend who always bails, mostly because I hate being on the receiving end of it, but people will totally understand that you’re “too engrossed in a paper on sanitation issues in Texas to put pants on.” Being open with your friends and family and letting them know ahead of time when you have to go MIA and focus on work goes a long way. On the other hand, honesty doesn’t mean you’re allowed to ghost on your friends and family — you should definitely still maintain the friendships that matter! There are countless times when my friends and family have been there for me when I’ve been down on life, and they are definitely a support network you should not take for granted.
4. Have some “me” time, whatever that means.
Although structure and scheduling are important, it’s really easy to forget to leave time for yourself. If you need to pencil yourself into your schedule, do it. For me, I tend to leave one random night open and realize, “Nah, I don’t need to see people today,” pop on Netflix, and turn off my brain. Alternatively, I like to sign up for a cycling class or barre class with my favorite instructor, which forces me to set aside time to hang out with myself. Before you go too crazy, you need to learn your limits when it comes to being “on” all the time.
5. Love what you do, and reevaluate regularly.
At my job, I recently transitioned to a department that is more geared toward my long-term career goals. While I enjoyed my previous job, the longer I was there, the more I realized that it wasn’t the exact niche I wanted. I think if someone is pursuing something as rigorous as part-time studies with full-time employment, they should be fully invested in their job and program. Unhappiness or doubt in one or the other can take a serious toll on your mental health, and your performance at school or at work. Changing departments to work in my chosen field has significantly improved my quality of life — the difference is astounding.
More than anything, balancing these two commitments has helped me mature into a more organized person who is, at the very least, getting better about not overbooking herself. All in all, when people seem surprised by the fact that I work full-time while going to school, I realize how much I’ve grown accustomed to it because it now all fits comfortably (well, as comfortably as it can) into my daily life.
Marcela is a part-time urban planning student while working full-time as an energy research coordinator. She hopes to travel the world working in sustainable development and trying a new pastry everywhere she goes. She is on Instagram.
Image via Unsplash