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How To Go Back To School While Working Full-Time Without Losing Your Mind

Juggling coursework and a full-time job can be tough, but there are ways to make it work.

How To Go Back To School While Working Full-Time Without Losing Your Mind
Photo: Redd Angelo via Unsplash

Millennials are struggling more than their parents did as young adults. A recent study by The Young Invincibles, a nonprofit that focuses on economic issues that affect those in their 20s, found that their millennial net wealth is half as much as that of baby boomers when they were young adults, and wages have also declined by 20% in comparison to what young adults made in 1989 for today’s young workers. However, the study also featured a bright spot: Education makes a difference in financial security. Millennials with college degrees have better financial outcomes and, in some cases, are even able to fend off the macroeconomic declines their peers face.

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But increasingly, jobs that used to require a bachelor’s degree are now requiring advanced degrees . A survey from CareerBuilder found that nearly one-third (32%) of employers are bumping up education requirements for new hires. More than a quarter (27%) are recruiting those who hold master’s degrees for positions that used to only require four-year degrees, and 37% are hiring college grads for positions that had been primarily held by those with high school diplomas.

But once you’re in the workforce and need your paycheck to survive—and to pay those tuition bills—it can be tough to figure out how to go back to school. How can you earn your degree, hold down a full-time job, and have a life? Here’s some from-the-trenches advice from people who have gone back for their degree or help others do so.

Look At Your Endgame

Your degree can be a “career changer” or a “career enhancer,” says Georgette Phillips, dean of Lehigh University’s College of Business and Economics. Today, students have a wider variety of options in earning their degrees. In addition to full-time programs, colleges and universities offer part-time undergraduate and graduate school options and executive programs that are designed for working professionals. Many also offer online courses or hybrid degree options that combine online and classroom coursework.

The best option for you might depend on what your goals are. If you want to opt into a completely new career, your best option is probably a full-time program that has an internship experience that will give you the hands-on experience you need for your new field. If you’re interested in enhancing your career—for example, if you’re planning on staying in your field, but advancement depends on your degree—a part-time or online program may be the right choice.

Work With Your Employer

When you’re working full-time and attending school, there are bound to be times when demands on your time collide. When Caitlyn Stafford went back to school part-time for her MBA at the University of Denver in 2014, she was working for a small, family-owned government contracting firm. She wanted more professional development than she was getting, so she approached her employer about going back to school. By getting the firm’s buy-in, she was also afforded more flexibility when school got particularly hectic during exam or project times. Her bosses also allowed her to finish up homework on company time and leave early to get to her classes.

“Otherwise, it would have been really challenging for me,” she says.

Combine Work And School Projects

Sometimes, that collision of work and school can benefit the company. With a background in nutrition, Katie Proctor felt like she needed an MBA to be taken seriously at the Fortune 500 company where she worked. She chose a part-time evening program designed for working professionals, and she says the nature of the program was sensitive to their demands. Professors even took where people lived into consideration when pairing them up for assignments.

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“I was in Denver, school was in Boulder, there were people from both places in the program and all the way in between. I felt like that they made it so that we wouldn’t have to be traveling all over the place to meet,” she says.

In addition, she immediately began to see how the program could be integrated with her job. Her statistics class infused her work-reporting responsibilities with new meaning—she understood why the reporting was important. She also began to take more courses in leadership and organizational development, which paid off in her ability to bring people together in the workplace. She says you can look for ways to integrate your school projects with real-world projects at your company to both reinforce learning and show your employer the value of your coursework for the company.

Control What You Can

The excitement about going back to school can easily lead you to be overzealous and bite off more than you can chew, says Jacob Sabatino, who has worked full-time in public relations while finishing his undergraduate degree at Arizona State University over the past two years. If you’re opting to return part-time while working full-time, limit your course load to one or two per semester, he advises.

In addition, get a sense of the professors by asking other students and checking out their rankings on RateMyProfessors, he advises. If you’re going to take a course with a professor who’s known for being demanding, perhaps opt for one course that semester or choose a different instructor for the course, he says.

“You’ve just got to remind yourself it’s not a race. You don’t want to burn out,” he says. Sabatino says he also relentlessly time-blocked his days so he could get everything done.

Make Time To Decompress

It may feel like you don’t have time to breathe, but it’s still important to spend time with family and friends to maintain your relationships and relieve stress. Stafford warned her friends that she’d have little time for weekday happy hours, but would go out of her way to plan brunch on a weekend morning.

“I made sure everybody in my life knew what was going on, knew what my time frame was, and I was not afraid to say no, but I also had those people that would say, ‘I know it’s not convenient for you to do this, so here’s another option,’” she says.

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Build Camaraderie

When you’re balancing work and school, it can be easy to cut out anything nonessential. However, the activities at the school and the contacts that you make there are also valuable components of your education, Proctor says. While you likely won’t be able to join every group or student outing, do make time for some of them. For example, pick one club or career-related student group to get involved in, she says.

You’ll make valuable contacts and get additional experience and insight. Also, get to know your classmates—chat with them during class breaks and join study groups when you can. These are the people who can help you when you’re stuck on a project or having trouble understanding a concept, and can share their notes if you have to miss a class. In addition, they’ll be graduating and moving on and may become important contacts out in the work world.

“If you do just go to class only, you’re leaving a lot on the table. Try to pick one thing that maybe you want to focus on while you’re there,” she says.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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