It is not often that you can say that you have your cake and are eating it too, but part-time postgraduate study alongside working in the industry can actually be one of those times.
The prospect of leading a dual life – employee one day and student the next – may not seem overly exciting at the outset, but I’ll tell you why it is.
I am a recent graduate from a 2 year part-time master’s course in London. Whilst studying on this course I also maintained relevant part-time employment in Birmingham. For 2 years I spent the most part of the working week with my employers. I would then spend the latter days of the week commuting to my institution in London to study. Weekends were reserved for assignments or revision. Work colleagues would remark at how little time this must leave for socialising, peer students would remark at how little time this must leave for unwinding the mind, but both were wrong. This is not to say it was easy, but it was certainly a rewarding 2 years. I learnt so much more than just the content of my master’s course, and I didn’t have to totally sacrifice my social life or ‘unwind-time’ in the process. In this article I will discuss my personal experience of studying as a part-time postgraduate student alongside employment. Whilst I’ll be focussing on postgraduate study specifically, many of the topics I will share with you may extend to other forms of part-time learning.
Reasons to study
It’s an expensive activity just to gain a few more letters after your name, so we are probably driven by a much greater desire to study. When I decided to pursue postgraduate study I was working full-time in a job I enjoyed, yet I still wished to expand my knowledge and skills. I wanted to gain a deeper analytical understanding of my own profession and practice. Although I did not realise at the time, it was the ethos of evidence-based practice (EBP) driving me to further my studies.
Selecting the course
There are so many options when it comes to postgraduate study. The good news is that if you are considering studying alongside employment then you can immediately filter your options to courses designed to suit your needs. The questions to ask yourself are:
1. Do I want to change my working pattern, or do I want to fit my studies around my full-time work schedule?
2. Do I want to attend taught sessions, or do I want to read and complete the course material by myself?
The answers to these questions will largely dictate whether a) you are looking for a part-time taught degree or b) you are looking for a distance learning course. There are also a handful of opportunities that combine these two options – courses that run predominantly via distance learning but with occasional week or weekend long workshops of taught input.
For me, I knew that I learn best when receiving regular face-to-face taught sessions. Therefore, I searched for courses in my area of interest that offered part-time study options, with modules on set days each week to facilitate part-time working agreements with employers. I found my ideal course, applied, and was accepted.
Preparing for postgraduate study
The start of the academic year involved a lot of change. I commenced the course, my part-time employment, and quickly learnt how to metaphorically juggle. Being one of only a few part-time students on the course, we soon discovered our own unique employee-student challenges, and devised the most efficient solutions to counteract them. I have summarised the challenges in the diagram below, and will go through each of my solutions in turn.
The financial cost
Managing the financial aspects of studying whilst working on a part-time basis was a challenge but manageable. When researching the tuition cost of my chosen master’s course I also budgeted for additional costs such as commuting, printing, thesis binding, and sustenance. Being aware of the full range of costs involved in studying helped to eliminate the possibility of nasty surprises along the way.
The workloads for both my course and employment competed for priority at times. This was a difficult challenge to experience, but I found the solution was to plan in advance when I predicted a surge in demands for one or the other would occur, e.g. assignment deadlines, predicted projects at work, etc. Working to a clear pre-planned schedule helped to pace both workloads.
The biggest challenge was learning how and when to find time to study. My postgraduate course required many hours of independent study, and finding suitable fixed time to complete this took practice. I found that the commuting trains became guaranteed hours to read course materials, and a couple of hours each evening with all communication devices turned off became a good time to focus on studying.
The different mind-sets
Academic study and a working life required two very different mind-sets. Whilst I found it easy to adopt the right mind-set when walking into each of the environments, the challenge came when dividing my own time. Initially it was easy to become distracted by thoughts of work errands when attempting to focus on studies, and vice versa. However, after a short while I began to learn to compartmentalize my time and this became a new way of life.
The degree transcript, letters after your name, and potential for improved future career prospects are all obvious benefits of postgraduate study. However, the advantages of the study experience do not end here. Studying whilst working in the industry enabled me to apply newly learnt material from the classroom directly to my own practice in situ. The unique position of being able to do this also allowed me to consolidate the theory and research taught in the classroom.
Whilst juggling part-time employment and postgraduate study had its challenges, I found the advantages far outweighed the tricky bits. I am graduating with a master’s degree and a newly acquired skill set that only came from the experience of studying and working in the industry simultaneously.
Work by Day, Study by Night
By: Leah Ashmore-Hills
Leah holds a BSc with honours in Psychology and an MSc in Forensic Mental Health Research. Leah works as the Network Facilitator for the Crime Linkage International Network (C-LINK, see www.crimelinkage.org) based at Birmingham City University. She has also worked as a consultant for Perpetuity Training who specialise in security training (see www.perpetuitytraining.com).