Going to school while working full-time is a huge commitment—one that many college students today make. Luckily, participating in online classes can make it a lot easier to handle. But while class time is more manageable, reading and studying, writing papers, and doing research still take up time. And with all your other responsibilities—especially if you happen to have kids—your spare time is at a premium.
I spoke to three remarkable people, all of whom are currently working full-time while enrolled in programs at Western Governors University, about their experiences. Here's the advice they offered.
1. Set a Schedule for Success
Heather Ben-Judah worked as the office manager at an elementary school for several years handling schedules, budgets, parent communications, and "everything else that came up!" She had plenty to do at work, and with three kids at home, she had plenty to do in her "spare" time too. But in the back of her head was the desire to teach. "The principal I worked for really inspired and encouraged me," she said. "I wanted to do more to directly help kids."
Further reading: Is Going Back to School for Teaching Right for You?
Heather enrolled in WGU's BA in Interdisciplinary Studies program. She studied at night after her kids went to bed and set aside four hours every Saturday morning for schoolwork. Her online courses allowed her to set her own schedule, which she said was critical to her success. "I was essentially a single parent for the first six months of my degree," she said. "My husband worked nights, so I didn't have any help with the kids."
Because of Heather's experience and prior studies, she was able to complete her coursework in 14 months. "You can find time to study if you make it a habit," she said. "Even if it's just an hour a night, make it part of your day. And if something's wrong, breathe. The program is flexible, so if something isn't working, you have the support through WGU to fix it." She credits weekly phone calls with her WGU advisor for helping her get through it all, and even brought up how supportive she found the WGU mentors during her speech at the 2016 WGU Washington commencement.
2. Seek Support and Find Your Rhythm
John Finn is a fourth-grade math and science teacher in the Greater Houston area. As a result of Hurricane Harvey, John's school district was closed for two weeks—just one week after opening! John said the district essentially "rebooted," starting school all over again when the waters receded.
Besides taking classes to complete his MS in Educational Leadership, which he hopes to complete within a year, John is also doing his practicum. This involves shadowing meetings and other administrative activities, and it often keeps him at school until early evening. His wife is also working and studying for her undergraduate degree at WGU, so they're both pretty busy. "We just had to come to an understanding that we aren't going to be as present for one another as we want to be while working on school," he said. Still, they try to block out time on weekends for one another and for doing things with friends.
Diagnosed with ADHD years ago, John said that it's sometimes difficult to maintain focus on coursework late in the evening. But he finds that coping strategies he learned years ago, like eating healthy and carving out time for exercise, have been really helpful. "You have to learn to pace yourself and familiarize yourself with your tasks well ahead of time," he said. "Make time for family and friends, but have a plan and try your best to stick with it."
Despite all the work and effort that goes into maintaining the right work-life balance, John believes this degree will be worth it by making other options available for him in the future.
3. Give Your Actions Intention and Purpose
Jayson Mitchell is a busy man. He is an associate athletic director, head football coach, a girls' sports team coach on Sundays, and a mentor to several young men. He's also married with four children, ranging in age from 4 to 18, all of whom participate in extracurricular activities. And if that weren't enough, he's a year into WGU's educational leadership master's program, with a plan to graduate in December 2018.
According to Jayson, finding the time to complete his coursework isn't the most challenging part of working on his master's. "The hardest part," he said, "is clearing my mind to actually do the work." As such, Jayson tries to be "intentional" in his work habits. "I'm trying to focus on one task at a time and then I move on to the next instead of working on three things at once," he said. Leaning on his family for support—particularly his wife, who just completed her own master's while working—has been integral in helping him stay focused.
Formerly a middle school history and physical education teacher, Jayson said he loves being part of the educational system. Administration is now the "next logical choice" for his career. He's particularly interested in mentoring young people and hopes to one day establish a mentoring program.
Further reading: Changing Careers
If you're considering pursuing a degree while working full-time, learn from these three students. Their advice: It may be hard, but with the right support and a solid plan, you'll meet your goal in no time.