“It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela
When I first started graduate school, it had been five years since I got my Bachelor’s degree. I’ll be honest – going back to school was like brushing up on a foreign language. You see, my writing and reading skills were more than just a bit… rusty. As the semester started, I was overwhelmed by the amount of readings and assignments. I was frustrated by how dense the materials were (Why can’t the authors get to the point? Why can’t they say this in two pages as opposed to 20?) On top of school, I was working against a series of tight deadlines at work. I seriously felt like I was a juggler on a bullet train. But hey you are not alone. According to survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, 4.1 million students attended graduate school and 46% of them worked full-time, year-round! Without further ado, here are some tips and strategies to help you conquer grad school and work at the same time.
Map out due dates at the start of the semester. As soon as you receive the syllabus from the professor, read through it carefully and create a master calendar for all of your assignments’ major due dates. I rely on Google Calendar because it automatically generates a reminder via e-mail and/or phone depending on your preferences. Once you’ve entered all of your deadlines, go back in and add additional milestones or even inchstones! If a research paper is due in a month for example, plan out in advance when you would like to see a first draft completed or when you’d like to have it reviewed, edited, or proofread. This way you will always be on top of things, understand your progress, and not risk missing any deadlines.
Create a daily action items list. Trust me on this one – lists will become your best friend and keep you organized. Once you’ve completed tip #1, the following exercise will make your life a whole lot easier.
Step 1: Plan your day out. The first thing I do every single morning is write down everything that I need to do that day, no matter how big or small the task is (even if it’s just reading one article that day, emailing a professor, or researching one scholarly journal for your paper). You’d be surprised how quickly small tasks add up (See tip #1 above)
Step 2: Rank your list based on priority. What is the most pressing task that needs to get done first? What tasks can wait? Keep in mind those priorities may change as your day goes on and that’s okay. Adjust and adapt as needed because you are in charge of your time.
Step 3: Allot a time for each task. Think of this as time budgeting. Now that you’ve created your list and ranked your tasks based on priority, how much time is required to complete each task? How much time are you willing to spend on that task among other things on your list? Cross out each action item as you complete them. After all, there is nothing more satisfying than crossing off that list at the end of the day and knowing that you made progress.
Create a writing template. Depending your program, you will likely have to follow a particular citation format when it comes to writing research papers. I suggest creating a writing template with a standard title page and headers/footers. This will save you time in the long run. The international education program I’m in for example follows APA guidelines. For a sample APA Formatting and Style Guide, visit the link here.
Create a routine. Are you a morning or night person? When are you more productive? As a working professional, you already have a limited amount of time to read, study, and write so carving out time wisely is crucial to your sanity – even if that means waking up a few hours earlier or going to bed later to maximize your efficiency/productivity. (Use that knowledge to your benefit!). Personally, I am a night owl and tend to get a whole lot more done in the late evenings. Do whatever that works best for you!
Learn to skim. Expect lots of dense readings from class during graduate school. Although readings from certain weeks are heavier than others, I spend on average 10 hours on a weekly basis per class (but that’s also because I’m a very slow reader with English being my quasi-first language). If you are running low on time (which, let’s be honest, who isn’t?), read the abstract, introduction, and conclusion first. Take notes as you read and summarize the key points for reference later.
Talk it out with other classmates. Chances are you are not struggling alone. Reaching out to other classmates is a great way to connect with your potential colleagues and understand your peers’ perspectives. This is beneficial because they may interpret your questions in a completely different light and offer helpful insight! Having open dialogue and asking questions will create a deeper understanding on the discussion topic. So initiate a google group hangout, start a forum on Blackboard, or set up a time to meet outside of class!
Consider an online class. Although not for everyone, taking online classes can be a huge time saver, especially if school is far away from work. Think about all the commute time saved and what you can do with that time instead! Some online classes even let you watch modules or turn in assignments on your own schedule, which is great when you’re trying to schedule classes around a full-time job.
Understand your assignment’s requirements. If you want to be on your professor’s good side, follow his/her instructions on the syllabus because those are important clues to their preferences. Following instructions shows that you are detail oriented and respectful of what they are asking for. It also makes their grading significantly easier when they can pinpoint exactly where and how you’ve addressed their requirements. Before you start writing for example, include the professor’s instructions at the top of the page for easier reference.
Take regular breaks. I know what it’s like to be on a roll and crank out long hours on an assignment. You might even think that putting in more hours means getting more work done. But are you spending quality time working productively? Studies suggest that taking breaks can improve focus and productivity. Give yourself permission to step away and come back with a fresh pair of eyes! You will be surprised how differently you see things once you give yourself a mental break. Use that time to take a run around the block, stretch, or step out for another cup of coffee.
Think big picture. I lost count how many times I’ve asked myself: why did I get myself into this? But think big picture. What is the goal of your degree? Are you looking for career advancement, career transition, or continuing education? If you are still in the process of discovering your purpose or unsure what to do with life, try creating a vision board/mind mapping. Understanding your purpose is crucial to keeping you grounded and focused. Remember to keep your eyes on the prize!
Find your support system. Seriously you have a lot on your plate! I can’t stress the importance of finding people who are willing to hear you out and share your burden from time to time. Sometimes it’s the encouragement from your family and friends that will keep you motivated and get you through the semester. I usually call my mom on my bus ride going into work in the mornings and she completely understands that is the best time to talk.
Be aware of your resources. Reality hits home every time I get a billing statement. I literally cringe. How can tuition possibly cost THIS much? Well, since you pay a lot of money anyway, you might as well take advantage of your college’s resources, right? The library is a great place to start. Other helpful resources include your school’s Career Center, Writing Center, and Student Life Services. I also like reading through my grad program’s weekly newsletter, which provides information about upcoming conferences, film screenings, research, volunteer, and scholarship opportunities. Once you join your program, you are now part of a larger network, which means you also have access to your school’s alumni! In addition, don’t hesitate to seek out help from your professors, who usually have office hours available to answer your questions and concerns.
Avoid excessive social media. People love sharing these days. In fact, I would argue that we’ve entered an era of oversharing. But there are two distinct problems with social media. One is the fact it’s a time vortex. Sure you get to see what your friends are up to, but does it help with getting any of your tasks done? Two is social comparison theory. Don’t you get that sinking feeling sometimes that everyone’s lives are “better” than your’s? Why am I stuck writing a paper when others are traveling the world? I must be missing out! According to social comparison theory, individuals base their self-worth by comparing themselves to others. So take a moment to unplug from technology. Instead, focus on your goals, focus on honing in on your skills, and make time for family and friends. Your interaction with them is far more valuable and real than what you see on social media. (See tip #10 and tip #11)
Do your best. Try your best. Be present with what you are learning even when you are struggling. One lesson I’ve learned from grad school is that perseverance prevails. It’s part of the test. Accept that doing your best is always good enough.
Take care of yourself. Last but not least, we are human beings, not human doings. Recognize that combining school and work is a tough balance, so find ways to reward your hard work! For me, things like taking a hot bath, listening to music, and practicing yoga are helpful to finding inner peace during a hectic day. Make sure to recharge not only your body with enough sleep, but also your mind and spirit.
What are some of your tips to balance both grad school and work? How do you budget your time and maximize productivity? Please share and comment below!
Joy Zhou is a first-year student at the George Washington University currently pursuing her Master’s in International Education and working full-time as a Senior Proposal Coordinator. If you are interested in talking to Joy about her graduate school experiences at GWU and learning about the International Education Program (IEP), please feel free to reach out to her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/joyzhou.