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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Balancing Work and Grad School? Your 4-Step Survival Guide

Going to graduate school is something that many of us aspire to, but the idea of combining classes with a full-time job can seem overwhelming. After all, most of us already work 40 (or more) hours a week—throwing classes, homework, and finals into the mix can seem like a schedule only Superwoman could juggle.

While we can’t promise that balancing work and school will ever be easy, we’ve created a few tips to help you cope—no super powers necessary. And, because your back-to-school brain is already stressed to the max, we’ve made it simple to remember. Just think G.R.A.D.: Get prepared, research financial options, add some strategy, and don’t forget yourself.

Get Prepared

If you’re thinking about going back to school, you probably know that your first move should be to research programs and find one that fits your needs. While factors like location, cost, and curriculum will definitely come into play, you should also consider applying to programs designed specifically for working professionals. These programs are more likely to offer a variety of online or night classes, provide weekend access to professors and mentors, and allow you to take a flexible class load.

Once you’ve been accepted into a program, you’ll want to break the news to your boss—especially if you think that going back to school will require any changes in your work schedule. Don’t forget to emphasize all the ways that your newly acquired knowledge will help you be a better employee. Will your classes help you brush up on industry trends or familiarize yourself with new technology? Will you have the chance to network with other up-and-comers in your field or fine-tune your management skills? The more your graduate degree benefits the company, the more flexible your boss is likely to be if you need to leave a little early to make that 5:30 PM class.

Research Financial Options

Grad school doesn’t come cheap, and the cost of tuition, books, and other expenses can take big toll on your bank account. Rather than pile up the student loans, why not see if your company will be willing to help defray the cost? Your company may have a tuition reimbursement program or give you an annual stipend for professional development—if you’re unsure, just check with your human resources office. Some companies also offer financial planning services, which can be a great tool if you’re wondering how to manage your bills and student loans without cashing in your 401(k) or living off ramen noodles.

Add Some Strategy

The most successful grad students don’t just work hard—they also work smart. For example, you may have to complete research or thesis projects as part of your classwork. Why not try to tie your school project into something you’re already working on at your 9-to-5? For example, a friend of mine is currently revamping his company’s website as part of his graphic design program. He gets to spend eight paid hours a day working on his “homework,” and his boss is just as excited about the idea as he is. Plus, the website will be reviewed by students and professors, essentially providing the company with a free focus group. It’s a win-win situation, especially considering the all-nighters and weekend homework marathons he’d need to pull if he were completing such a huge project in his free time.

And while we’re on the topic of working smarter, lets talk about vacation days. While it’s tempting to use your two weeks of PTO to unwind in Cancun after a tough semester, you may be better off using your vacation days strategically. Consider planning ahead and scheduling a day or two off to focus on school before a big midterm or project is due. This will help you keep stress to a minimum and avoid a string of all-nighters leading up to the test or due date. The key words in this scenario are “planning ahead.” Most bosses are happy to let you take a few days off for school if you request them in advance, but will be less than thrilled if you mysteriously call in sick every time you have a big test.

Don’t Forget Yourself

Early mornings at the office, followed by late nights doing homework, topped off by a few caffeine-and-pizza-fueled study sessions? Sounds like a recipe for a health disaster. We’ve all had friends who gain the “grad school 15” or seem to come down with a mean cold as soon as classes start, but that doesn’t mean you need to fall prey to the same fate. Make eating properly, getting enough sleep, and exercising a priority—even if it means taking a lighter class load or cutting back on social obligations. After all, if you’re sick in bed or too tired to focus, you won’t be any good at work or at school.

Going back to grad school isn’t easy, but our G.R.A.D. survival guide should make the next few semesters a little less painful. Hang in there—once you have that degree in your hand, all that blood, sweat, tears (and homework) will seem like a distant memory.

Photo of grad student courtesy of Shutterstock.

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