Wondering how to go back to graduate 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 balance and your sanity — might seem daunting. But it can be done.
Here are 10 tips for navigating the grad school process as a working professional.
1. FOCUS ON FIT
Be realistic about what kind of program will fit your educational goals and your lifestyle needs. Ask yourself:
- Do I want an online or in-person program? As a working professional, you may need to place more emphasis on location and schedule than a traditional student. Online programs mean you can consider programs outside of your geographic area and eliminate transportation time and hassles. But remember to factor in your learning style — will you get as much from an online program as you would from a classroom experience?
- When are classes held? Does the program cater to working professionals and offer classes in the evenings, on weekends or asynchronously? Or will there be daytime commitments that you’ll have to juggle with your work schedule?
Note that some programs will make exceptions, especially if they place an emphasis on student diversity. You can always ask the program’s adviser to see if it’s possible to adjust the curriculum to better fit your schedule.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH
Don’t just explore a program’s website. Before you make this big life decision, dig deeper by talking to program advisers, faculty, current students and alumni. Some questions you might look for answers to include:
- Who attends? Is the program targeted at early or mid-career professionals? How many of the students work part- or full-time?
- What will I get out of it? Find out where alumni are working and what kinds of learning outcomes are typical for the program.
- How will I pay for it? Graduate school is a significant investment. Be sure to consider all costs (including books and fees) and explore possible financial aid and scholarship opportunities.
3. PLAN AHEAD
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 then work backward. Consider:
- Do you need to schedule and prepare for entrance exams? If so, find out when the tests are offered and how long it takes to process your results.
- When are letters of recommendation due? Give your recommenders adequate time to prepare a quality letter (several months is recommended).
- How long does it take to obtain official transcripts? Plan ahead so you aren’t left rushing at the last minute to track these down.
Planning ahead also involves understanding that life goes on. Allow time for important occasions with family and friends, as well as projects at work during the application process. This discipline will come in handy during your grad school studies as well.
4. PREPARE A TOP-NOTCH APPLICATION PACKAGE
A few things to think about when assembling your application materials:
- Your statement of purpose is the perfect opportunity to show the admissions committee that you’re ready and eager for the challenge of grad school. Demonstrate that you understand the strengths of the program and how they’ll benefit you, as well as how you’re a great fit.
- Letters of recommendation can also help address this issue of fit. Pick people who know you well and can make a connection between what they know about you and the learning outcomes of the program.
- Many programs also require you to submit a resume that shows how your previous experience has prepared you for graduate school. Make sure to tailor it to address this specific question.
5. CREATE A WIN-WIN SITUATION AT WORK
Have a conversation with your employer about your grad school plans. There are two important reasons to do so:
- You can explain how the program’s curriculum will benefit you in your day-to-day job — new tools and techniques, fresh ideas and insights, and other benefits.
- Many organizations offer programs that will pay for all or part of your education. Find out what benefits might be available to you.
Once you’re in school, talk with your instructors about how you can use coursework to help in your job. Other than that, however, strive to 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.
6. COMMUNICATE OPENLY AND MAINTAIN A SUPPORT SYSTEM
Make sure the key people in your life — from your friends and family to your coworkers and supervisor — know exactly what your school commitments are. You’ll want to solicit their support whenever possible. Keep them informed about your schedule and any conflicts that might arise due to class or study time.
7. PLAN YOUR TIME WISELY
Once you enter grad school, attending class, studying and completing assignments will become key priorities — plan your schedule accordingly.
- Think about what activities you can let go of to make time for school.
- Figure out how much time you need to spend on coursework and studying each week, then block out that time in your schedule.
- Once you set that time aside, make sure people know it’s reserved for you alone. This might mean heading to the local library or asking your family or roommate to refrain from interrupting you for a couple hours.
8. TEACH YOURSELF NEW TRICKS
Going back to school is literally a learning process — you’ll be meeting new people and taking in new ideas. You’ll also need to figure out what learning methods suit you best. Some tips:
- Habits that worked for you before might not work now. For example, 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 ask classmates or friends who are now (or were recently) in school for their best suggestions.
- Test things out to see what works. Don’t be afraid of trial and error.
9. GET TECH SAVVY
There are myriad technologies designed to make your school life easier. From taking notes to keeping track of assignments, there’s bound to be an app for that. However, it’s easy to get carried away with complex 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.
10. SCHEDULE REALITY CHECKS AND REWARDS
When things get tough — and they will — keep your eyes on the prize. Remind yourself why you wanted to go back to school, and tell yourself that you can do this. Set milestones — and be sure to reward yourself when you achieve them.
Remember that grad school is going to be a pretty small portion of your life, so make the most of it. You’ll be glad you did!
For more tips and advice, check out all our articles about going back to school at any age or stage of life.