Working during a masters – how to balance work with postgrad study

Can you manage your work-study-life balance?

That’s the big question for thousands of postgraduate students in Ireland who take on the challenge of studying while working every year.

There is a way to find a balance, according to Dr Fergal O’Brien, Assistant Dean of Graduate and Professional Studies at the University of Limerick. Here he sets out eight top tips for nailing the balancing act between working and studying for your postgrad.

1.     Should I study full-time, part-time or flexible?

One of the first things to consider when thinking about working and studying is whether you want to do your course full-time or part-time and the pros and cons of each.

If you’re already in a full-time job and looking to upskill or even change career and balance all other aspects of your life, then a part-time or flexible option may be the most suitable pathway for you.

Part-time course options may be held on a physical campus, be fully online or a blend of both. Studying on a part-time basis doesn’t require the workload of a full-time programme so that should allow you more easily to adapt your life to fit in study.

Online study options can offer a lot of advantages to study without it having as much of an impact on your work productivity. When you’re doing a programme online there really is no timetable except your own. There might be occasional times when you have to be online for an assessment or whatever, but (outside of that) it’s very much up to you to work around your own personal schedule.

2.     Can you get support for your postgrad from your employer?

If your postgrad is related to your work, have a conversation with your boss or human resources department to see if the company will support it with study leave or financial help. While you may not be entitled to leave, getting the support of your employer for your course is important. They may give you greater flexibility in terms of a different start time to accommodate your course.

3.     Be clear on your availability

For students on a full-time masters, the clue is in the name and your course should take priority. It’s important to really examine your timetable at the beginning of the year and know how much time you’ll have available for your part-time job. You’ll also want to factor in required work outside of  your classes such as reading your course materials, assignments and any exams.

Once you get a clear handle on what your workload is looking like, be open with your employer from the start about what your availability is. The timetable at the university should inform your availability to work as opposed to being available to come to college depending on the hours your employer allocates. It’s a question of communicating with your employer to let them know you are available for work in the evenings and weekends for example.  

4.     Organise your time in a master calendar

Now that you’ve got your university timetable and your work hours, it may be useful to make a separate timetable showing both. You should also slot in your library time, social, extra-curricular or sports activities so that any one time you can easily see how your day or week is panning out.

There is nothing like having a lot on to really focus the mind and making out this timetable and sticking to it as far as possible will help balance your work and study demands.

5.     Study in comfort and eliminate distractions

Discipline is key to balancing both work and study. Find a place you know you can work in effectively, be that the library or at home. But make sure it is somewhere you can sit comfortably where you aren’t likely to be interrupted or distracted by others.

If you’re prone to checking your phone, put it on flight mode and out of reach in your bag. If you find yourself googling unrelated course material or checking your social media while on your laptop, use apps such as Self-Control to blacklist all those site distractions for whatever length of time you are studying.

6.     Join a study group

While this may seem like yet one more thing to add to your timetable, joining a study group may actually prove very beneficial to balancing work and study. Many students find they will develop naturally into small study groups or sometimes may be forced into them as part of their group assignment. The group should use itself to its full strengths, are there people in the group who are strong on areas you struggle with?

7.     Ask for help if you need it

Third level institutions are well aware that students often need to work while studying. If you find yourself struggling, or need extra time for an assignment, go and talk to your course leader and ask for it.

I’m a course leader and what I say to my class during orientation and at our induction process is, if you’re struggling come see me. That’s what course directors are for, they are there to try to address problems students are experiencing. They are there to listen to those problems and provide solutions where appropriate. Also, keep in mind the many other student supports that are available to you from counselling and medical support to financial and technological support.

8.     Staying healthy and well

Being healthy and feeling well will really help you to keep on top of this busy time. Eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising may seem like things that will just drain more of your time but if you’re tired, hungry and run-down, everything will just take longer. Batch cook healthy meals, take time for physical exercise and get proper sleep. It will all pay off when trying to juggle the many demands on your time.

Next steps to doing a postgrad?

If you want to take the next step to your postgrad qualification check out the Taught Programmes,  Flexible / Professional programmes and Research programmes, at the University of Limerick now.