By Michael J. Szul
Today, a college education has become a necessity just to compete in a tight job market. Beyond today’s challenges, college has always had to compete with other student responsibilities, such as family obligations or financial limits. College isn’t cheap, and even for those with scholarships, there’s still the matter of buying food and other necessities, as well as splurging on the occasional movie or other entertainment to break up the monotony of lectures and study. Let’s face it. Some of us need jobs, but how do we find a successful balance between work and school? Success is achieved with discipline, tenacity, and a keen eye for structure.
Maintaining a job, even just a part time one, requires a certain amount of persistence and hard work. Adding college coursework to the mix runs the risk of making a person feel helpless and overwhelmed, but nothing will get you along further in your college studies than a sheer stubbornness to follow through.
In many ways, maintaining a job during undergraduate or graduate studies present very similar in obstacles, stress, and despair. Work in graduate study is not necessarily harder than undergraduate study, but it is most definitely more abundant (American Psychological Association [APA], 2007). Specifically, the reading and writing requirements alone are enough to frustrate most college students, especially those who are psychology majors. What does this mean for the working undergraduate? It means you should approach undergraduate study with the same determination and commitment that you would for graduate work if you want to succeed.
What ultimately will determine your success is your drive to fulfill your educational goals. Each year, a larger group of working students enter college. Some colleges that cater to working students often have very low retention rates, not because the school itself is poor, but because students find it hard to focus on studying when their jobs or other aspects of their lives interfere. The stress of balancing a job with college work may have you questioning whether or not college was a good idea. Stay diligent. Stay hungry. Higher educational pursuits are often a test of perseverance more than anything (Tartakovsky, 2011). Let your will win out.
Do you sometimes find it hard to roll out of bed in the morning for work? You do it anyway because it needs to be done. School is no different. It might seem redundant to say that pursuing a college education requires discipline, but remember, we’re talking about balancing your coursework with your job. Which one do you think you’ll let slip first if you become overwhelmed? This is why discipline is so important. Stoic discipline in the face of adversity and (let’s be honest) occasional laziness can mean the difference between success and failure. Make a plan and stick to it. Many undergraduate courses consist of ten or fourteen weeks. Mark the weeks off if you have to; just stick with it, and you’ll be happy you did once the semester closes.
Some people don’t need much structure and can just wing it. Good for them. For the other 95% of us, a disciplined approach to structuring your daily life is a must. Psychology courses can be intense, especially online courses that require overwhelming amounts of reading, essays, and research assignments. Working students who are cramming courses into their tight schedules will find large amounts of reading and writing suddenly tossed onto their to-do list.
In order to properly balance your school and work loads, consider planning out every day in your week. This may sound tedious, but it’s also necessary. Consider planning down to the hour if you can. You will normally know what days and hours you must work during a week, especially if you work a traditional 9-5 job; however, once your courses start, you should also know exactly how much school work you’ll need to do each week to stay afloat. Space out your reading. Space out your writing. Space out your studying. You’ll know when your tasks are due, so it should be easy to assign certain days and hours for reading and others for written work. Be diligent. If you’ve set aside two hours on Monday for reading, don’t stop at one and a half.
Sometimes emergencies will crop up and force you to cut things short. This is fine, as long as you stay motivated enough to stick to your schedule as much as possible. Anticipate that emergencies will happen and try to work ahead in your course readings and written work. Giving yourself a buffer will dramatically reduce your stress level and will allow for some breathing room if something pulls you away from your schedule for a few days. For example, in a recent History of Psychology course, I was a quarter of the way through the book before class even started. This benefited me a great deal, because I’m a slow reader by nature.
One final note on structure: don’t cram. The reason for creating a structured schedule and sticking to it is to avoid having to cram at the last minute. Last-minute written work always suffers. You’ll leave out points that you would have included with more time to complete the assignment. You may also fail to properly proofread your work. Last-minute cramming for tests, meanwhile, will produce poor grades, and later you’ll only be kicking yourself when you take a cognition course and read about the spacing effect (Terry, 2009).
Balancing work with college courses is a challenge. It’s also extremely rewarding. By remaining determined and staying disciplined, success can definitely be had, but it’s going to require a detailed plan of execution and a certain amount of sacrifice in order to persist.
American Psychological Association. (2007). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduation school in psychology. (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Tartakovsky, M. (2011, May 3). What I wish I knew in grad school: Current and former students share 16 tips. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2011/what-i-wish-i-knew-in-grad-school-current-and-former-students-share-16-tips/all/1/
Terry, W. S. (2009). Learning and cognition: Basic principles, processes, and procedures. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Michael Szul is an undergraduate at Capella University, having returned to college to study psychology after previously studying religion and philosophy at a different university. He’s looking forward to future graduate work in clinical psychology. In addition to his coursework, he also worka as a software engineer, designing and developing mobile applications and enterprise solutions for educational institutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.