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Balancing Act: Pursuing Your Education While Working Full-TimeFeatured

When I decided to change careers from association marketing to UX research, I did a considerable amount of research to understand the skills I needed to reach my goal. There are a few paths one can choose, but the clearest path forward for me was to pursue my Master of Science in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). So, I decided to jump in.

I felt excited about the journey ahead and the possibilities that might open up to me. However, when looking through a practical lens, I felt terrified and daunted. How would I adapt to several hours a week of lectures, homework, and projects on top of a 40+ hour work week for 3 years? Would I still have time to dedicate time to my family? Would I still have time to take care of myself? Would I be able to successfully transition careers?

I graduated from my program after three years (two classes a quarter) in August 2020. Since then, I often reflect back on the journey and how I managed my professional and school work while still, somewhat, having a life.

Pursuing a degree, certification, or other educational goals while working full-time can feel daunting, but it is possible with some practical and mental preparation.

Sharing Your Journey

Historically, women have been more likely to leave school and the workforce than men because of social expectations based on gender roles and maternity setbacks.

Recently, this trend has shifted regarding education. According to a 2021 Pew Research study, women are more likely to pursue and complete four-year degrees*(1). However, the workforce still lacks gender parity.

This fact has been highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis. 63 percent of all jobs lost from February 2020 to January 2022 were held by women*(2). Women who are caretakers or women of color were impacted the most. Caretaker and domestic tasks or management are still vastly gendered, with women carrying the burden when daycares and other care facilities closed down*(3). Women of color dominate people-facing industries (retail and service) that were subject to layoffs more than other groups.

This data highlights how difficult it is for women to advance at work and economically. When pursuing an education, it is crucial to ask for more support from your VIPs (very important people), even if it feels uncomfortable.

Informing the VIPs in your life of your educational pursuits is an important step in your journey. These VIPs can include family, friends, and even your manager (if you feel safe). Sharing your goal and plan to reach your goal can help the important people in your life understand that you will be experiencing some temporary changes and challenges.

It can help you to understand and be able to articulate the kind of support you need. For example, if you have a partner or spouse, you may need to lean on them to take care of cooking, childcare, petcare, cleaning, or other household tasks when you have lectures, projects, and exams. It may mean rebalancing or trading off tasks. A great way to start this conversation is to write down all of the areas you foresee having less time for and think through what level of support you need. As a simple example, one of the items on my list was that there were going to be many nights that I would not be able to cook. My partner was able to pick up some of that slack for me.

When sharing your journey with your manager, you bring a little of yourself to work while indicating a desire for growth and new opportunities. This is especially beneficial if your degree is related to your current career or you have transition opportunities within your company. If your manager is supportive, they may be able to offer you flex time, opportunities adjacent to your degree, or other accommodations to support your goal. For example, while I was still working in the association but getting my degree, I was given the opportunity to work on membership microsites and practice some user interview techniques on the job. There are opportunities everywhere.

Regardless of the kind of support you need and ask for in the beginning, it is important that you have regular check-ins with your VIPs. This will not only help increase visibility of your progression and give you an opportunity to reassess your support needs and how your VIPs are feeling.

Managing Your Fears

While practical and relational matters may be at the forefront of your concerns, your mental health is just as important. As the popular saying says, you must put on your own oxygen mask first before you can help others.

While I performed well in school, I had many late nights completing homework and projects. I also had many anxiety-riddled nights wondering, “How is this going to work out?”. While not all women will experience this type of ruminating, women statistically have twice the lifetime rates of depression and most anxiety disorders*(4). Sometimes the stress of managing work, school, and life can inflame these feelings.

Although everyone has their own coping mechanisms, I found three mechanisms, combined with therapy, helpful for me: keeping perspective, networking, and avoiding the trap of perfectionism.

When I had long days at work followed by group projects with difficult or absent group members, I felt discouraged and maybe even a little hopeless. During these times, I had to remind myself that the pain of today was to build a greater tomorrow for myself. It sounds deceivingly simple, and in a way, it is. This makes keeping perspective an incredibly powerful tool. In my most overwhelming days, I used affirmations like “This isn’t forever.”

If you are not big on affirmations, a more active method to help manage anxiety is by participating in activities that will aid your future. Some of these activities may include networking, finding a mentor (or even mentoring), and attending events related to your field of study. The distraction alone will help with anxiety, but you will also receive invaluable advice and even open doors to your career growth.

Finally, avoid the trap of perfectionism. While it may feel really good to have everything just right, perfectionism doesn’t serve women. It holds us back*(5). When you are juggling multiple responsibilities and pursuits, it can be time-consuming and exhausting to make sure everything is right. In fact, while we are worried about getting one thing perfect, we may take our focus off of other areas, causing them to suffer. Embrace being “good enough”.

Building In Time For Yourself

Part of managing your mental health will be finding some time for yourself. There are a few ways to make sure you have your own time outside of work, school, and your relationships (or to spend more time with your loved ones).

First, the convenience of your program is very important. I joined a program that had online and in-person options. For me, flexibility was very crucial, and I felt confident in my ability to self-direct my work. That may not work for everyone or be the best. If you prefer or need in-person interaction, consider attending a program within close proximity. Time commuting, especially driving, is time you could spend doing anything else (work or fun!).

Second, make sure you consciously block time for yourself no matter what your circumstances are. This is an area in which you may require the support of a partner or friends, mentioned in the first part of this article. Use this time to do whatever you want, but preferably, make it something fun or relaxing to celebrate your hard work. It can be easy to fill blocked time with other productive activities like cleaning or running errands. However, as I mentioned a few paragraphs above, embrace “good enough”. The cleaning and errands can often wait.

Finally, avoid the trap of perfectionism. While it may feel really good to have everything just right, perfectionism doesn’t serve women. It holds us back. When you are juggling multiple responsibilities and pursuits, it can be time-consuming and exhausting to make sure everything is right. In fact, while we are worried about getting one thing perfect, we may take our focus off of other areas, causing them to suffer. Embrace being “good enough”.

I did want to acknowledge people who have disabilities, who have mental health issues, are BIPOC, are queer, are trans, and/or any other group that may experience challenges not addressed in this article. Universities and programs have many accommodations and special interest groups that can be helpful. Professors or course leaders are often good resources for students to reach out to.

Conclusion

As I mentioned in the introduction, I finished my degree in August 2020. I had no idea what I would do with all of the free time I would have. Four years later, I have adjusted and don’t feel like I have as much free time and wonder “How did I do all of that?”.

Pursuing your education while working full-time is a spectacular accomplishment that’s not for the faint of heart. You can offset some of the challenges of work and school by planning ahead. If you are considering pursuing your education while working full-time, plan to ask for support, manage negative thoughts, and carve out time for yourself.

Remember, the journey is temporary.

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*(1) Pew Research Center. (2023, December 20). Why the gap between men and women finishing college is growing | Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/11/08/whats-behind-the-growing-gap-between-men-and-women-in-college-completion/

*(2) Gonzales, M. (2023, December 21). Nearly 2 million fewer women in labor force. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/topics-tools/news/inclusion-equity-diversity/nearly-2-million-fewer-women-labor-force

*(3) Owens, J. (2018, March 2). The “Mental Load” of Running a Family Still Falls on Women. My Husband and I Changed That. Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/03/women-are-overburdened-with-their-families-mental-loads.html

*(4) Altemus, M., Sarvaiya, N., & Epperson, C. N. (n.d.). Sex differences in anxiety and depression clinical perspectives. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 35(3), 320–330. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2014.05.004

*(5) Bennett, J. (2014, April 14). It’s not you, it’s science: How perfectionism holds women back. Time. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from https://time.com/70558/its-not-you-its-science-how-perfectionism-holds-women-back/

Thanks for sharing! Advice about not being perfect and β€œeverything is not forever” resonates the most with me πŸ‘ I was wondering if you had any problems to switch from perfect to good enough because when I am trying to switch-I am somehow punished for that :( either I have a feedback from my managers or I’ll become very anxious and overwhelmed by so many errands that were piled on top of each other even though they are not urgent/important.
Hi @kateshastakova, thank you for reading. I identify with the "very anxious and overwhelmed" aspect. What has helped me most is, at work, understanding priority for projects and, at home, prioritizing or bundling my own tasks realistically. I am not sure about you, but I learned how much I was trying to control. Some of it mattered, but some of it didn't as much (i.e. I want to clean the bathroom, but I can put it off another day or two). For work, I had to work on communication with my managers about deadlines and check ins along the way. So, maybe my work wasn't perfect initially, but we had chances to catch any detrimental issues and work incrementally.
Thank you for this! I'm in the middle of entrepreneurship, running a team, pursuing a graduate degree, parenting, and caring for aging parents that live on a different continent. It's quite insane some days, but thankfully I have a supportive partner and teenagers. Letting go of perfection has been a difficult but necessary step for me, but also scheduling everything so that I'm less likely to miss something. I value the time with my parents and kids so much, and try to be present with them every moment that we have together. Just over a year until my degree program is done and I will be using the mantra, "The journey is temporary" to help me see both the light at the end of the tunnel, and the beauty and love right in front of me.
I have so much respect for caretakers that juggle so much. Choosing trade-offs seems tough. I admire your view on the beauty and love. I hope you are doing well!
Yes! Also, you feel great when you do a project a small task or an exercise (or something similar) in the new field you are targeting, that you haven't done before. This helps a lot to keep me focused and excited 😊
Me too! I tried to find little ways to do related work, and it was always inspiring.