Grad School or Work? How to Balance Both

Achieving work-life balance with a full-time job can feel stressful enough. Add to that the responsibilities of grad school and it may feel downright impossible. So why bother taking the leap?

In today’s job market, the benefits of a master’s degree are clear. Not only can a degree help you gain specialized knowledge that advances your career, but it can also make it easier to transition to senior-level positions, increase your earning potential, and enhance your professional network.

Employers take notice, too. According to CareerBuilder’s report, 33 percent of organizations prefer to hire people with master’s degrees for positions typically held by those with only a bachelor’s. That’s great news for degree holders, as employment in master’s-level occupations is projected to grow at a rate of 17 percent through 2026, the fastest of any education level. Even better: Advanced degree holders will earn more than bachelor’s degree holders and face lower levels of unemployment during their careers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If you’re still on the fence about deciding to pursue a graduate degree, rest assured that with proper planning and focus, managing grad school and work will be easier than you think. Here are six tips to help you make it happen.

Grad School or Work: 6 Tips for Balancing Both

1. Pick The Right Program.

The key to striking a balance among work, grad school, and your personal life is finding a program that best suits your needs—both academically and logistically.

Find an Academic Fit 

It’s important to thoroughly research the programs you’re interested in to be sure their goals and objectives meet yours. Gather information both by reading all offered materials and by gaining some first-hand insight into the way the programs operate. You can do this by connecting with current students and faculty to ask them about their experiences in the program and what you can expect during your time in it. Keep all your research organized and review it in depth before making a decision.

Find a Logistical Fit 

Working professionals must take into account their work and personal schedules when considering grad school, as the pursuit of a degree will be a major time commitment. However, students can choose from a variety of program formats based on their availability.

For example, nighttime classes may best complement a nine-to-five job, where those who want added flexibility and minimal commute times—or simply want to explore programs further away—might find that online classes offer the schedule they need. Universities like Northeastern offer an array of full-time, part-time, online, hybrid, and on-ground graduate programs to best fit the needs of all working professionals.

“When I started looking into applying for EdD programs, the flexibility of being able to complete coursework online is what primarily drew me to Northeastern,” says Emily Lian, who earned her Doctor of Education degree at Northeastern.

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2. Manage Your Time.

People today pride themselves on their ability to multitask, but research shows that it doesn’t actually make us productive. In fact, multitasking hinders our ability to get our work done effectively. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), jumping from one task to another can actually cause a 40 percent loss in productivity. For this reason, it’s important to know how best to manage your time when balancing graduate school and work.

Avoid the “Planning Fallacy”

The most common culprit of stress for grad students is the “planning fallacy,” or overestimating the time it will take to complete short tasks and underestimating the time it takes to complete larger projects. To avoid this, the APA suggests keeping track of how you spend your time. Account for every hour in your week, whether it’s showering, working, commuting, cooking, or sleeping. When you need extra time for assignments, review your logbook and see where you can adjust your schedule.

Set Clear Boundaries 

After tracking how you spend your time, it becomes easier to establish clear boundaries and make a schedule that you can follow. If you allot 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. for coursework, for example, don’t start late at 7:30 p.m.

For Lian, outlining specific hours for various tasks helped her not only complete her coursework, but also make sure she was able to give it her strongest effort.

“I try to tackle things like discussion board posts and replies, readings, and outlining papers in the evening while saving major projects for the weekend, when I can start my day with a fresh mind instead of writing after a long day at work,” she says.

Likewise, resist the urge to burn 10 minutes by checking email or social media during your dedicated study periods, and consider researching productivity apps that can limit your access to certain features of your phone or computer for a set period of time.

Practice Risk Management

Joe Griffin, Associate Vice President of Business Development and associate teaching professor in the Master of Science in Project Management program at Northeastern, suggests that grad students can better manage their time by identifing risks, analyzing them, and planning a risk response strategy.

“This could be as simple as realizing you don’t work well at night,” he says. “Plan a coursework strategy that mitigates the risk of a lack of productivity. Set aside time in the morning for working and let people know that is ‘your’ time. Set up a process that works for you—even if it’s at 2 a.m.—and stick to it.”

Knowing how to avoid planning fallacies, establishing study boundaries, and practicing risk management can help you manage your time better and achieve that optimum work-life balance.

3. Find Ways to Apply Coursework to Your Career.

In some instances, it’s important to keep your career and school work separate: Checking work emails during class can distract you from learning, and completing homework during work hours can set you behind on work projects. In the right situations, however, combining the two can actually be beneficial.

Your professional work and your studies are likely closely related, so when you’re assigned projects in graduate school, consider how they may relate  to your current job. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to highlight a case study at work or brainstorm ways to develop new processes or workflows within your department.

“Many of the concepts overlap, and I find myself broadening my thinking in so many different ways throughout the day,” Lian says. “For example, something I picked up on in a discussion board post may remind me of a specific issue I’m facing at work, or vice versa, which is exciting for me when I make those connections.”

Putting your coursework into practice or tying your work to your assignments will allow you to better understand the parallels in what you’re learning, a practice that will come in handy post-graduation, too.

4. Make Time for Yourself.

It’s tempting to prioritize grad school responsibilities over everything else in your life—it is, after all, an expensive and important investment in your future. But when you’re planning out your schedule, it’s important to remember to plan for your own well-being, too.

This might mean spending an hour reading a book you enjoy, going for a walk, or relaxing while watching TV. No matter what taking a break looks like to you, your brain needs this time to unplug. Then, when you return to your responsibilities, you will be able to do so with a more energized and refreshed mindset.

5. Tap Your Network For Support.

Managing grad school, work, and your personal responsibilities alone won’t be easy. Be candid with your friends and family about your new schedule, and learn when to ask for help. These key people in your life—including your coworkers and supervisors—should be informed of any conflicts that may arise due to coursework or study times. Maintain an open line of communication with them to keep your relationships from becoming strained.

Your network extends beyond those people closest to you, however. Lean on classmates and faculty who can best relate to the grad school experience. Knowing you can reach out to them when you’re struggling with a concept or assignment will help ease your mind when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just remember to return the favor, and be helpful and open to others who may be experiencing the same struggles.

Real-World Example: Scott Whear, who earned his Master of Science in Project Management degree at Northeastern, was worried that pursuing a graduate degree would be difficult and stressful but quickly learned that, with the right support system in place, it didn’t have to be. “With all the resources and committed staff that Northeastern has, you’re getting the cream of the crop to help you every step of the way,” he says.

Creating and maintaining effective relationships—both personally and professionally—takes work, but doing so can have a lasting positive effect on your grad school experience and make balancing school work with your career a lot more feasible.

6. Keep Your End Goal in Mind. 

While navigating the balance between grad school and work can feel overwhelming at times, it’s important to remember to take a step back and think about why you started. Whether you enrolled to earn a promotion, get a raise, or transition careers altogether, taking the time to reflect on that can help inspire you to continue working hard in pursuit of your goals.

What’s more, if you can learn to effectively manage your time, balance your responsibilities, and enjoy this opportunity to connect with the best in the industry, you will graduate with more than just a degree—you will leave your program with skills that have value that extends beyond your time in school.

Consider all these strategies for balancing work and grad school, then take the next step in your professional journey by enrolling in one of Northeastern’s 200+ graduate programs today.

This article was originally published in August 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.