Thursday, September 6, 2012

How to survive grad school while working: part 2

by ian boyd via Flickr
This is part 2 of my posts based on my experiences surviving full-time grad school while working full-time. You can find part 1 here.

In part 1, I talked more about things you can do to find the right head space for dealing with a full plate and to prevent defaulting into a ball of stress. In part 2, I'd like to focus more on actual actions I took to get all of my work completed.

Time management
As a high schooler, I was a horrible procrastinator. As a college student, I was a procrastinator. As a working grad student, I didn't have the luxury of pussyfooting around. It may have been easy to go 36+ hours without sleep as an 18 year old, but let me tell you, the older you get, the harder it is to function on less than your normal nightly dose of Zs (I'm only in my mid-twenties and feel this already).

In order to squeeze in school work, paid work, and life obligations, I took advantage of every extra second I had throughout the day. I always had my class reading assignments with me so that I could read whenever I had downtime: I read on the bus, I read at mealtimes, I read when my boss wasn't looking, I read while I was waiting for a friend to show up or a doctor to call me into his or her office. If my online class was particularly boring, I would listen while cleaning, catching up on emails, or cooking. If I managed to get my assignments completed early, I worked ahead, especially if I knew I wouldn't have time to later.

Basically, I strived for peak efficiency in everything I did throughout the day.

Technology is your friend
One of the best things I did for myself during my two years of hell was to download a PDF reader onto my iPod Touch. Most of my professors assigned online articles to read instead of reading chapters out of a book. In order to read them where ever I was, I downloaded them onto my iPod when I had a wifi connection at home and whipped it out whenever I had some extra time and I wasn't near a computer. The same can be done on a smartphone.

The second best thing I did for myself was to use Google Docs for all of my assignment drafts so that I could work on them at home, at work, or where ever and not have to worry about which version I was working on. Google Docs was also awesome for group assignments for the same reason as everyone in the group can work on the same version. While we're on the subject of Google, I put all of my due dates on my Google Calendar at the beginning of each semester and synced that baby with my phone so that I could always check to see what was on the horizon.

Work smarter, not harder, friends. There is some truly awesome technology out there that will help you get your work done in less time. Take advantage of each and everyone that works for you.

...Technology is also your enemy
While social media in all of its forms can be fun and a great way to stay in touch, it is the biggest time suck if I've ever seen one. Stay away from Facebook. Stay away from Twitter. Stay away, stay away, stay away. It helped for me to "schedule" social media time and to stick to those pockets of time to get my daily hit. If you lack self-control, download a browser plug-in like LeechBlock or StayFocused to automatically block these sites at scheduled times. It was also incredibly helpful for me to simply not sign up for sites that I knew would grab my time away from me like a greedy kid in a candy store (Instagram, Words with Friends, Pinterest) until after I finished my program.

Remaining work/life balance tips
  • If there is anything that you can take care of in one shot rather than over multiple times, do it in one shot. I did all of my errands in one trip once a week. I cooked all of my meals for the week over the course of a few hours on Sundays. All I had to do when I got home from work was pop the leftovers into the microwave before my night class started. I thanked myself each and every time for that foresight when I was concurrently short on time and a hungry, hungry hippo. 
  • If something can wait until you're on a semester break or even until the end of your program, let it wait. There's no sense in adding unnecessary pressure to get something done or to squeeze something in that isn't urgent.
  • Clear out all clutter, physical and electronic, from your life before the beginning and after the end of every semester. Unsubscribe from as many email lists as possible, opt out of receiving Facebook and Twitter notifications, read through all of your unread mail, file away your important papers, inbox zero all of your email accounts. Clean slate, free mind.
  • Make as many class projects as possible work-related, especially if you're working in the field you're getting your degree in. By basing library school projects off of needs at the library I worked for, I was able to do classwork on work time and gain valuable work experience- a huge win-win!
  • In order to comfortably get home in time for my night classes and to attend a few oddly scheduled classes, I needed to adjust my work schedule slightly. My employer was happy to work with me in order to make this happen. Don't automatically write off a class or even a whole program if the hours don't work well with your work schedule. You might be surprised at how willing your employer is to give you some leeway. Even if the degree you're earning isn't directly related to your job, advanced education is highly valued in every field and smart employers will be happy to benefit from your increased knowledge. Also, you never know unless you ask.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it- working full-time and going to grad school full-time sucked, but it was doable. It was very much like ripping off a Band Aid- it stings, but if you do it quickly, you won't have to suffer for very long. Just like anything important to you in life, the sacrifices you endure will be nothing compared to what you gain from the experience.

When you encounter naysayers (whether they be internal or external), repeat this Chinese proverb that was brought to my attention by Chris Guillebeau"The person who says something is impossible should not interrupt the person who is doing it."

Do you have any specific questions for me or have any suggestions to add? Feel free to comment below or shoot me an email!


  1. Thank you so much for these. I'm 27, I basically quit school before it started this semester because I was so frustrated. Instead of thinking "this is temporary" I thought "THE END IS NEVER COMING" and it made everyday nearly unbearable.

    Thank you, times a billion.

    1. You're welcome! I'm so glad I could help. Come back at it with a fresh angle, keep plugging away, and you'll get through it :-).