Earning your Master’s Degree is not about finding the “right time” to continue your education, but a purposeful decision which requires a perpetual balancing act of family, work, school and personal commitments. Graduate school is not for the faint of heart, but that’s exactly why a graduate degree sets one apart.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (access the Fast Facts here), only 8 percent of the United States population in 2014 completed a master’s or higher degree. It seems the common obstacle in achieving higher education (beyond money) is time. How often does it feel there are not enough hours in the day – and that is without adding class, homework, and online threads to a list of “to dos”.
There’s never a right time to go back to school. Our lives are continuously busy. Instead of waiting for time to magically open, make time to meet your educational goals. We asked the experts — current students and alumni enrolled in graduate work — to share with us how they fit it all in. Here are 6 tips on how you can too:
- First Step: Preparation: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. – Benjamin Franklin
Make sure to choose a program platform and schedule that works for you. Because of an increase in nontraditional students, many programs have online options which allow flexibility for adult professionals going back to school while still holding a full time job.
Before you even decide on a program, conversations with student advisers will provide insight and guidance on resources offered by the university during the application process. Make notes of these resources at this time but also be sure to circle back with student services after you’ve been accepted into the program.
Identify all the tools available to you. Are there mentor programs? A writing center? Do they have resources on study habits, time management systems or additional information that can be of help for you? Be sure to identify and utilize the technological tools available to you. Does your program offer MP3 versions of the coursework you can listen to while waiting for an appointment, on a bus commute or while you’re walking your dog. Multi-tasking is your friend.
Don’t wait until you’ve started the program to get comfortable with the program’s resources. Sadly, a lot of these resources go untapped because students forget about them after orientation is over and they are busily immersed in their program.
- Time Blocking:
To balance all of your commitments you will need a time management system in place that allows for the most productivity possible. A popular form of time management is time blocking — blocking out portions of your day to a specific focus or task, just as you would for concrete appointments or meetings.
Outline your priorities, estimate the amount of time projects and tasks will take and then schedule everything out on your calendar in blocks. Graduate students we interviewed shared the below examples of how they “time blocked”:
- Blocking out a certain amount of time each day to respond to online threads that require daily responses to ensure they never missed a day of responding
- Blocking out an entire weekend day, such as their whole Sunday, to dedicate to all the course-related tasks that needed to be done for a given week
- Blocking evenings for reading and blocking time out on weekends to complete the actual assignments
What is most important is to know thyself. Evaluate what is working and not working for you. Maybe you work better with blocks of time spread out over the week versus blocking out an entire day. That’s ok. Go with what works for you, experiment, and mix and match different time management systems.
Once you find what works for you, stick with it and create a habit (they say that takes 30 days). Choose your time management system of choice, stick with it for 30 days, and evaluate after those 30 days if necessary.
For more specifics on time blocking, Lifehacker provides some additional information here.
- Get Back in the Groove:
So, you’ve prepared, put together a time management system and you still feel like you’re drowning. First and foremost, a graduate degree sets you apart for a reason: it is not easy. Be compassionate towards yourself, especially if you have been out of school for a while. Allow yourself time to get back in the groove.
If you struggle with a specific aspect of school, such as writing academic papers, just remember you are in a program to not only strengthen your talents but also to sharpen your growth areas.
This is your opportunity to improve. Don’t be discouraged. Look at it as an opportunity to challenge yourself. Whether you have been out of college for 30+ years or just a few, graduate school will be like a new job; you will experience a learning curve. Give yourself permission to have time to adjust to a new routine and experience.
- Support Systems:
Make friends with other students. Whether you meet them through an online thread discussion or group project, study buddies will know what you’re going through and will provide connection and support.
Teaching someone else helps instill the information you have learned, learning from someone else brings new perspective on what the professor has taught. Don’t just leave relationship building to your peers, create a relationship with your professors. If they offer additional assistance or are willing to further discuss topics with you, take them up on it.
Friends and family can be an undeniably helpful resource. One student shared her husband so kindly offered to take care of the household needs while she went back to school so she could focus on late nights and weekends of nothing but homework.
- Don’t Lose Sight of Your Ultimate Goal: Hard Work Pays Off:
When students felt overwhelmed with their balancing act they shared what got them through was a mantra of “just keep pushing forward”. It also helped to shift the focus not on how hard the work was but the ability to apply what they were learning to their career and seeing the results of bettering themselves at what they do.
Making time to go back to school shows that you have a serious commitment for your professional craft and your betterment. You become better trusted by clients or employers by displaying the ability to commit to hard work, finish what you started and an ability to keep pushing forward, even when it’s tough!
- When All Else Fails: Get Creative:
Students shared a variety of creative ways they were able to push through when it got rough. Some were methods of acceptance, reminding themselves there will be times of not enough sleep or general acceptance that with all your commitments you might just not have enough time to be as organized and excellent at everything you do as you like.
Some used online discussion threads to post problems they were having in their job that could be used as case studies for other students to help solve problems in their real world job – killing two birds with one stone!
One student shared she never looked at how many courses she had left to complete – she felt it would just be too overwhelming to know. So, she just kept trucking in the dark without a countdown of how many classes were left. Whatever the time management structures you implement, support systems you create or any other creative ways you get through all the hard work, keep your goal in sight. Remember — sometimes you will just need to give yourself permission to practice self-care and take a break.