Happy new year everyone! I previously wrote “15 Tips to Survive Graduate School While Working Full-Time” as a reflection on my first semester trying to balance school and work. This post continues the rhythm from Part I and is based on the mistakes I made and all the strategies I’ve learned along the way to successfully balance the demands of school and work. Without further ado, here are six more tips to get you ready for the spring semester.
1. Select Your Classes Strategically
Plan your classes in advance.
One thing I wish I paid more attention to was that certain classes aren’t offered every semester (some may be offered only in the spring, fall, or every other year, etc), but programs often know what courses they plan to offer in advance. Consult your advisor, professors, alumni, and classmates for course suggestions and tips on course scheduling.
Be intentional with your class selection.
This may sound like a no brainer, but your classes should align with your career interests and research focus. Looking back, I should have spent more time talking with alumni to discover what my true research interests are and I would have made smarter decisions about what classes to take. Ask yourself: Why are you choosing this class? What can you get out of it?
Do your research.
Consider reaching out to classmates who have already taken the course you’re interested in for an inside scoop, requesting a course syllabus from the instructor, and/or talking to the instructor directly to make informed decisions. Before I enroll in any class, I do a Google search on the instructor to look for their credentials, previous work experiences, and research interests. I also look for testimonials from fellow classmates as reference. The key is to identify common ground and consider whether their research interests and career path align with yours. Remember, taking classes is not only an excellent way to network with classmates, but also a terrific opportunity to connect with your instructor (who is currently in the field and has a wealth of contacts that he/she may direct you to). I know this sounds like a lot of work, but if you want to make connections strategically and make informed decisions, then this is one way to accomplish that. It will pay off in the long run!
2. Find Balance in the Combination of Classes
It’s one thing to select your classes strategically, but it’s another to find the right pairing that goes well with your schedule. This past semester I made the mistake of selecting two classes that both had a lot of competing deadlines, which really stressed me out because I always had something due. Taking from my experience, you may want to find out what the course load and course structure is before committing to a class. Does the combination of your classes involve a lot of group work, research, and/or writing? Personally, if I know that I’m expecting a lot of group work for a project in one class, then I will likely choose a second course that has more individual work. Or I might pair a research methods class with a theory class rather than overload myself with two theory classes or two research intensive classes. You get the idea. Asking for the syllabus in advance will show you what the demands for that course will be.
3. Balance School and Work Through Your Class Schedule
If the idea of taking an evening class after a long day of work sounds dreadful, I completely hear you. Depending on your preferences and what your program offers, you could consider taking a class over the weekend. You could also pace your schedule by electing a summer class as a way to “catch up”. During my second semester of the program, I took two classes – one was an intensive Saturday course that met five times from 9AM-3PM and another was a regular course that lasted throughout the semester. The Saturday course was a life saver! By the time five weeks rolled around the corner, I only had one class left to devote my full attention to. This freed up more time to balance school, work, and other life happenings such as volunteering, networking, and spending time with family/friends. Be aware of your options and find what works best for you.
4. Shift Your Attitude
At any one point in time during your graduate school career, you will likely find yourself wondering, “Am I there yet? I just want grad school to be OVER.” (Check. Guilty). But consider the following.
- Having a negative attitude is the problem because let’s be real – how is that going to motivate you?
- Finishing your degree is not a competition – would you rather invest time in your learning experiences or in a race to get your diploma? Earning your degree is much more than a means to an end.
As much as I hate to admit, going to graduate school is about the learning process and struggling is a part of it. To change my attitude, I’ve shifted my focus toward learning in class, turning a class project into a portfolio sample, and applying the knowledge I’ve learned from school at work. Even though I could have completed my degree within two years, I decided to spread my classes out to three years rather than rushing through the program.
5. Communicate Expectations with Your Employer
If you’re like me and your job requires support outside of regular work hours and conflicts with your class, let your manager and team know in advance so that they may plan accordingly. Share your class schedules and how will that impact work schedule (if at all). Are there any time constraints you have to work around? Do you know what your manager and/or team expect from you? Because my line of work is unpredictable, my manager appreciated the transparency and open communication I’ve established with her.
6. Say No
My previous post talked about taking advantage of opportunities and campus resources, but how you spend your time is an equally important choice. You see, I’m the kind of person who is guilty for putting too much on my plate. That special lecture that’s happening on Tuesday night? Yes I’m going! That application to become a board member for a local organization? Yes that sounds great! That research paper your professor really wanted you to work on and publish on the side? Yes let’s do this! It’ll look great on my resume.
I was determined to make everything fit into my schedule and somehow it all worked out in my head. But in reality, some of these yeses compromised my personal well-being and destroyed my balance between work, school, and life. I became exhausted. I stopped seeing some of my friends. The reason I “couldn’t” say no was because I didn’t want to let anyone down (or rather let myself down). I finally had to admit that I am not superhuman. I had to reassess all of my existing commitments and start saying no. My biggest advice to you is don’t over-commit. Be intentional about how you spend your time and who you spend your time with. Be honest about whether or not something aligns with your academic, professional, and personal values. Contrary to what I believed before, saying no is okay because saying no is about creating boundaries and respecting yourself.
Good luck with preparing for your semester and please share any tips and strategies that have worked for you in the comments below!
About the Author
Joy Zhou is a second-year student at the George Washington University currently pursuing her Master of Arts in International Education. Please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn if you have any questions about her experiences.