Wondering how to go back to school and keep your day job? If you’ve been out of college for a while, heading back to school — while maintaining your work life, your home life and your sanity — might seem daunting. But it can be done.
Here are 10 tips for navigating grad school as a working professional.
Do your research
Find out what programs offer the learning outcomes and possible career opportunities you want. Check into the costs and financial aid possibilities. As a working professional, you may need to place more of an emphasis on location and schedule than a traditional student. Programs with evening or weekend classes might fit more readily into your schedule. Or you may find that an online program would work best for you.
Just remember, dig deeper than a grad school’s website before you make a commitment. Talk to people. Ask alumni about how they balanced school commitments with their personal and professional ones. Talk with faculty about what the time commitment outside of class usually looks like. Program faculty, advisers, current students and alumni are all valuable sources of information.
Focus on fit
Be realistic about what programs will fit your educational goals and your lifestyle needs. If the graduate program of your dreams is only offered full time, and you need to work full time, that program may not be the best fit. Some programs place enough of an emphasis on diversity, however, that they make exceptions to the norm. Contact the program’s adviser to see if it's possible to adjust the curriculum to better fit your schedule. There are also part-time programs designed with working professionals in mind. These often look for candidates with work experience and are usually more attuned to the needs of working professionals.
Keep in mind that fit is a two-way street. Not only are you looking for the right program, the program is also looking for the right students. Consider these questions: Will you benefit from the experience and the faculty? Will you offer a unique perspective to your classmates? What will you bring to the learning experience?
Plan ahead to make it possible
Figure out the key milestones you need to hit in your application process, and put together a calendar with what needs to happen when. Start with the application deadline and work backward. Do you need to schedule and prepare for entrance exams? If so, be sure to find out how long it takes to process your results. Factor in time for any dependencies you may have on others. It takes time to for people to prepare letters of recommendation for you and for the registrar’s office to process your transcripts, so plan ahead.
Planning ahead also involves understanding that life goes on. Be sure to allow time for important occasions with family and friends, as well as projects at work. This discipline will come in handy during grad school as well.
Prepare a motivating application package
Your statement of purpose is the perfect opportunity to show the admissions committee that you understand what you’re getting into and why. Demonstrate that you grasp the scope of the program and how it will benefit you, as well as how you will be a good fit with program faculty and your chosen concentration.
Letters of recommendation can help to answer the question of fit. Anyone can recommend you, but will that person positively influence the admissions committee? They will if they can make a connection between what they know about you and the learning outcomes of the program. Ask your recommenders to convey what can be expected from you, both during the program and after.
Make going back to school a win-win situation
An employee’s continued education often benefits their employer. With this in mind, many organizations offer education benefits. Find out what’s available to you. Talk openly with your employer about how you could use your studies to add value at work. And talk with your instructors about how you can use coursework to address your employer’s needs. But, other than that, keep work and school separate. Avoid spending time on the job finishing homework, and don’t spend class time answering work emails. Both work and school deserve your undivided attention.
Communicate openly and maintain a support system
Make sure key people in your life, from your friends and family to your coworkers and supervisor, know what your commitments are. You’ll want to solicit support wherever possible. Keep these people informed about your schedule and any possible conflicts that might arise due to class or study time. And remind them of your ongoing dedication to your commitments to them by following through. Your support system is invaluable. Continue to care for those relationships.
Plan your time wisely
Know what your priorities are, and then plan accordingly. Once you enter grad school, attending class, studying and completing assignments will rise in importance. Think about what you can let go of to make time for these things.
Figure out how much time you’ll need to spend on coursework and studying, then block out that time. It’s different for everyone. Some people need to devote a small amount of time each night, while others prefer less frequent, larger chunks of time. Once you set that time aside, make sure people know it’s for you alone. This might mean heading off to the local library or kicking your significant other out of the house for a couple hours.
Teach yourself new tricks
Going back to school is literally a learning process. You’ll be attending classes and taking in new ideas. And, beyond this, you’ll need to figure out what learning methods suit you best. Habits that worked for you before might not work now. Taking notes by hand may help you concentrate, but using a laptop or digital recording device in class might make studying more effective. Explore new tools and tricks. Test things out. Don’t be afraid of trial and error.
Get app happy and tech savvy
There are a seemingly endless number of technologies out there designed to make your life easier. From taking notes to keeping track of assignments, there’s bound to be an app for that. But you may find it easy to get carried away with tools you don’t need. Find the technology that’s right for your needs and leave the rest behind.
A few practical ideas? Keep separate email accounts for work, school and your personal life. Use social media tools to create a dedicated place to connect with classmates about assignments and projects. Access course materials electronically, when possible; this can save you time – and paper, too.
Schedule reality checks and rewards
When things get tough, and they will, keep your eye on the prize. Remind yourself why you wanted to go back to school, and keep in mind that you can do this. Set milestones — and remember to reward yourself.
Setting goals and celebrating your achievements is not only fun, it’s also a great way to stay motivated. Plan a post-exam happy hour with friends or a date night with your significant other. And remember, grad school is a priority in your life while you’re in it, and you’re only in it for a pretty small portion of your life. So make the most of it.