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Surviving Graduate School

Striking a balance between family, work and education

March 6, 2011

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In today’s tight job market a graduate degree can give you a crucial edge over other applicants, improve your chances of a promotion and enhance your earning power.

Grad school can also offer a gratifying personal challenge and the opportunity to enrich your chosen discipline through research. But advanced degree programs can be expensive. Most graduate students must seek a balance between their studies, working a day job and maintaining family life.  

“Being full-time at all three — family, work and school — requires dedication, organization, perseverance, a strong support system and faith,” said Deena Slockett, a married mother of two young children, who is both an associate professor of radiology at Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences and a second-year doctoral student at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.

She is enrolled in a Global Access Program (GAP), whereby 40% of her studies are conducted online and 60% are face-to-face. Every seven or eight weeks she commutes from her Orlando, Fla., home to Pepperdines’s West Los Angeles Graduate Campus for intensive classroom work (four 12-hour-plus days).

“It’s critical to have a plan each week and to work ahead as much as possible,” said Slockett, 37. “I find time at lunch to read and organize my studies for the week. I do research in the morning before I start my workday and read the articles in the evening. Most of my reading takes place after the children are in bed, or on a treadmill at the gym. I take advantage of any opportunity to get a little bit of studying completed.”

Convenience is key

Working adults who are thinking about grad school should choose their program carefully. Commute times between home, job and campus need to be considered, as does the school’s ability to accommodate a student with a full-time work schedule.

Online or hybrid online/campus programs can help alleviate these issues. Pepperdine’s first-rate student resources have made it easy for Slockett, she explained.

“With [their] technology I can access most everyone and the necessary resources with ease. The library at Pepperdine’s West L.A. Campus is incredible — [the staff] knows the value of getting the right information for your work, and see to it that you obtain the resources needed in a timely manner,” she said. “The writing lab is also exceptional.”

Communicate and plan ahead

Most successful working grad students enjoy a solid support network bolstered by frequent and open communication. Family and friends need to know that you have off-limit periods of study each week and when these will be. It’s important to talk to your boss, making it clear that your studies will not interfere with your job (and could ultimately make you more of a workplace asset). Some employers will even contribute toward the cost of tuition.

In addition, speak with your professors at the beginning of each semester to find out when tests, papers and presentations are planned. That way, you can schedule your work responsibilities around them.

Build your support system

“First and foremost, it takes support from your family,” said Joseph Green, a doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy Program at Pepperdine, a full-time administrator with Los Angeles Unified School District’s Division of Special Education and a husband and father of two.

“If your spouse has confidence in you and believes in the value of what you’re doing, you will greatly increase your chances for success,” he said. “Another thing is to ensure that your supervisor and co-workers support your decision to pursue a graduate degree … my supervisors have all been very supportive throughout the entire process. They have allowed me to be on a flexible work schedule on days when I’ve had to attend class.”

Make time for you

Green, 37, completed the GAP requirements for his doctoral degree last month and will graduate in May. In addition to attending classes at Pepperdine one weekend a month over the past two years, he also devoted one day each week to studying, often traveling from his home in Downey to the university’s West L.A. library. “I think the weekly routine of setting aside one weekend day each week to focus on my studies has been key to balancing my time,” he said. “The night before my ‘study day’ I’d go to bed early and wake up early so I could maximize my time to ensure high productivity.”

And while careful time management and a Herculean work ethic are central to grad school success, obsessing over just work and school could damage relationships and invite diminishing academic and workplace returns. It’s important to prioritize family demands and, if a choice has to be made, to put your job before your studies (as you can neither support your family nor pay for school without it).

“Knowing when to take a break from all of it [is crucial],” said Rachel Cassel, a 41-year-old married mother of two from Redlands who is a fifth-year PhD candidate in education at UC Riverside and a full-time resource specialist for San Bernardino Unified School District. “Whether that’s a movie or dinner out or a yoga class, it’s key to my sanity: to escape all responsibilities once in a while.”

Cassel also lectures at UCR during the summer break and is president of the school’s Graduate Student Assn. While she admitted that the combined stress of these demands on her time has sometimes gotten the better of her (“I’ve sat in my advisor’s office more than once crying and telling him I’m dropping out”), she has no regrets.

“My husband and I plan everything months in advance and review the week ahead every Sunday —  who’s home for dinner, who’s taking the kids to swimming, soccer, etc. I’m done with classes, but for the first three years of my program I worked during the day and went to class at night. I spent Saturdays at UCR and Sundays with my family.”

“Invest in yourself,” said Slockett. “I have grown so much and have taken a closer look at myself, my goals and what I value. This [grad school] opportunity is a gift. Yes, you must sacrifice some things — but you will sacrifice more if you don’t take time for your education.”

Paul Rogers, Brand Publishing Writer