How to juggle life, work and a part-time master’s degree
A little over a year ago I resigned from my full-time job in the digital marketing industry and applied to do a part-time master’s degree. It was both the scariest and the best decision I’ve ever made.
It was scary because I pretty much resigned from my job without having any kind of backup. I didn’t have another job. I didn’t have a contingency plan. I hadn’t even applied to the university yet, let alone been accepted to their MA in English programme. (I wouldn’t recommend doing things this way. At all.). But for me, it worked out. Thankfully, my parents were able to give me some work to do for their business. Almost immediately after I left my job, I got another contract and my freelance writing business just seemed to happen. Even more luckily, I was accepted onto the MA in English course at The University of Warwick and was able to get a part-time place in their 2016 cohort.
And that’s the best part of my decision. Studying again is absolutely amazing. It’s hard work, but the Warwick MA is excellent and the tutors are awesome. Leaving the full-time, corporate world was 100% the right decision for me. But I’m still working as a freelance writer alongside studying, because ya know, bills.
In the (probably) words of Lil Wayne, it ain’t easy
being Weezy studying for a master’s degree when you’re working, as well as trying to maintain some kind of social life, however pitiful.
I’m almost halfway through the first year of my degree and there are a lot of things I wish I had known when I started. There are also a few things that no one actually tells you about studying part-time. So here I am, sharing my fairly terrible advice in the hope that it might be useful for any of you postgraduate contemplators.
1. Part-time doesn’t really mean part-time
Ok, this is a bit misleading. It’s probably also worth being clear that I’m doing a taught master’s degree, so I don’t really know what a research master’s would be like. But I stand by my statement: just because you’re doing a part-time degree doesn’t mean that you’ll have loads of free time to quaff cocktails and lark around.
My first term was pretty chill. I had one class to prepare for, compared with the two classes that the full-time students had. It was easy to work virtually full-time alongside the classes and reading prep. But even as a part-time student, there are going to be one or two terms where you will be doing the exact same amount of work as a full-time student.
My second term was like this and I can tell you that it was actual death. Doing the reading prep for two seminar groups as well as working a 4-5 day week is almost impossible. You will be reading every night and for most of the weekend (at least two novels a week, with supporting essays and criticism). And you will arrive to your seminar and have forgotten everything you read because your brain has fallen out. (In my experience anyway.)
In hindsight, it wasn’t a good idea to try and do as much paid work. But because the postgraduate loans only just about cover the fees, I had to be earning. My advice would be to prepare and read as much as you can before the modules begin because when they do, it’s not easy to juggle everything (not always the easiest task when tutors change reading lists at the last minute). Other than that, stock up on coffee and let your mates know that you won’t be available for the foreseeable. If you can afford it, don’t work as much (lol).
2. Don’t be afraid to drop the ball on a few things
The juggling metaphor continues. Sometimes, it’s physically impossible to keep those balls in the air (I am sorry for how weird this sounds). When you forget things or can’t quite finish a bit of reading (because it’ll happen), don’t feel guilty. If you’re knackered and really don’t want to go to a two hour seminar straight after work, don’t. As long as it isn’t every week, it isn’t the biggest problem. When things get a bit much, prioritise the important things (even if it’s crawling into bed and having a nap).
Equally, don’t skip things just because you don’t feel 100% prepared. Even if you’re not quite with it or don’t feel like you have anything to contribute, it’s still worth going to seminars and talks. I get massive FOMO if I don’t go to them because you never know if you’re going to miss out on a lightbulb moment.
3. Get a Kindle, or at least download the app on your phone
It will save your life, or at least get you in the habit of doing reading at every available moment. I did a lot of my reading prep on trains, buses and while waiting for stuff. It isn’t great if you like to make notes while you read, but it does help you make the most of your time. It also prevents you from getting hench in one arm from carrying loads of books around with you.
It’s handy having a tablet or phone with a big screen too, because a lot of the tutors send through digital copies of essays or journals.
4. Get organised, even if you are the worst
I am super, super disorganised. It’s not that I don’t like being organised. It’s just that, most of the time, I can’t be bothered. It is very tiring. If you’re working and doing a part-time master’s, now is the time to get your act together. When you’re trying to remember the postcolonial history of India, whether you left your straighteners on, how much you’ve spent on your client’s Facebook campaign, what you need to prepare for the monthly meeting, whether you’ve fed the cat and when Father’s Day is, it really isn’t the time to be a useless human being.
My personal tutor recommended allocating chunks of time to spend on university work. I found going one step further and allocating time to literally everything worked for me. I downloaded an app that hassles me every day to get my to-do list done and that seems to help too. I have time slots for virtually everything and an alarm set for the big to-dos, just in case I forget.
5. Keep that end goal in sight, but try to enjoy what you’re doing
Needless to say, the whole master’s + work + life thing can be fairly horrific. But I do have to say that even when things have been at their most intense, I’ve never regretted doing the master’s. If it’s something that you really want to do, the hard work and hermit life is worth it. It’s easy to get demotivated when the readings or discussions aren’t really what you want to specialise in, but I found that remembering that they’re a means to an end helped. Plus, as you get into the degree, topics and theories start to link together. My dissertation idea was something I hadn’t even thought of until I took a module that wasn’t quite my first choice.