When I was a teenager, my mom, a military officer, went back to school to pursue a Marketing MBA. The cohort courses took place on Friday evenings and all day Saturday because they were tailored for working professionals which unfortunately cut into our family time. To mitigate, my mom would take us with her to class. My sister, who was 8 years old at the time, spent a lot of time coloring in the back of the room as I wrote down the notes on my mom’s laptop computer to help her bridge the language and learning curve gaps. As cohort kids, this was a very educational and eye opening experience as we got to witness our mother as a student, career woman and team leader. For my mom, having a built in babysitter and personal assistant to go get pizza and coffee during their long evenings and study group meetings was a blessing. If we hadn’t worked as a team and recruited other people into our fold to help the team succeed they would have never graduated. The sacrifices of not having mom there at certain events, due to the course load, and the few chores we picked up at home enabled our parents to concentrate on what mattered most: Having a healthy Work-Life-Study balance that would allow them to complete the degree requirements and graduate!
Almost a decade later, thanks to the insight provided by my mother’s experience, I used the benefits provided by my employer to enroll in the University of Washington’s Medical Engineering Masters program. My boyfriend, now MrEnginerd, enrolled as well to embarked on the journey together. Whenever he couldn’t attend class I’d shared my notes with him and vice versa. Having a partner in crime, an ally and motivator, made the course load lighter and more manageable. Unlike my mother, we had resources to outsource some of the housework and eliminate tasks that distracted us from completing the degree on time and from planning our wedding, so we built on what we knew worked and didn’t to establish our own Work-Life-Study Balance. Our leadership was crucial to our success since they allowed us to schedule our work hours and responsibilities according to the course load. Without their support, we wouldn’t have been successful.
Here are a few tips based on these experiences that will ensure you optimize your Work-Life-Study balance to achieve your higher educational goals:
1. Use corporate resources and tuition assistance programs.
My current employer pays for the entire degree and books. All they ask for is a 2 year committment with the company after you graduate. They also allowed us to take time off or use benefit paid time off to study, take tests or attend on site seminars. Talk to your manager and HR team to figure out if your company has programs or tools you can use to obtain a degree or certificate at no or low cost to you.
2. Build a strong network and recruit supporters.
My mom and her colleagues had their loved ones as supporters that provided real time assistance. They also recruited outside library and professional resources to proof read papers, provide feedback on presentation dry runs, and as childcare. They all had multiple people in their lives that could drop by and come to their aid, as required, to maximize their learning experience. Sometimes the professors filled these roles as they understood the level of difficulty and commitment graduating required while running a household. Many became longtime connections. Build a directory of helpers since you cannot do this entirely on your own. Collaboration is the key.
3. Have the right tools.
Are you a self-professed bad student? Do you have the books required for the course? Is your internet access readily available and of good quality? Do you need a recorder, video device or laptop to take notes? Is your calculator acceptable during tests? Pen or pencil? Having answers and solutions to all of these questions is key. Technology has come a long way but you still need to present your work in a manner that is acceptable to the professor and to your classmates. Always be prepared.
4. Have a back up plan.
When I had a volleyball game or the desire to skip babysitting duties, my mom had people on her speed dial that could sub on a moment’s notice. She made sure the University was accredited and had sister schools that would accept her credits if she needed to transfer or the consortium got cancelled. She also had savings in case of a layoff or disability, and means to repay the degree or finish it if she had to. You never know when you will need to take a break or a situation arises that won’t allow you to finish the degree. Make sure you have a plan B to get back to it as soon as possible. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.
5. Use company and the academic institution’s resources to gain an edge.
Unlike item number one, this one refers more to using your benefits as a student and employee to get the degree, and subsequent job or raise with the least amount of hassle. Use the library, counseling, services and any other offering both institutions have to help you perform and get better grades. Be it resume workshop, classes to pass the GRE/GMAT or to study better, go for it. Some places even have childcare or transportation arrangements. Negotiate that raise before you graduate. Don’t forget that a degree can open doors to better internal opportunities. Drop hints or put your name on the list ahead of time.
6. Have a family calendar or schedule visible and accessible to coordinate responsibilities, last minute changes and availability.
Have a family meeting every morning and evening to discuss who is doing what and why. Set clear expectations about where you can be and when you will be there. Many people forget to include time off for themselves or their family between the coursework and study time. Prioritize the tasks at hand, schedule time off from work as soon as possible, and block off dates that are non negotiable.
7. Take care of yourself!
With all this added stress and responsibility, you need to create a space where you can decompress and dedicate time to your needs. Running ragged, hungry or disheveled will hurt your concentration, drive, energy and self-esteem. Your support team should be more than happy and capable of carving out breaks for you. Be clear as to what your needs are and how to meet them. Don’t neglect your hobbies or grooming rituals just because you perceive you don’t have the time; make time. The rest will fall into place once you have cleared your senses and dissolved your anxiety. Do you boo!
Hopefully, these tips will help you plan ahead when considering returning to college to get a degree or certification. With a little of hard work, patience and planning you should be able to see it through with flying colors. Go for it! You’ll thank yourself later.