Is it worth it to drop my work in favor of school?
October 4, 2010 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Should I quit my job in order to better focus on my academics?

So I'm a university student, 26 years old, second semester as a Freshman, and back in school for the second time around. I'm doing well and I love everything about my life, except for my job.

I've been working the same job for the last two years or so, about a year longer than I've been back at school. It's a fairly lame service-sector job, but it's been relatively easy and stress-free up 'til now and I've been able to balance it against my academics to prevent it from unduly affecting my grades. Recently, things have changed a bit.

First, this semester is a little harder than the previous one. Classes are mostly still pretty smooth, but I'm taking a significantly heavier credit load (16 instead of 12) and the work is a bit more technical. It requires more of my time, and I'm starting to find that my need to study and do homework is butting up a bit against my need to pay the bills. Next semester will be significantly more serious – more on that later.

Second, work has gotten more stressful. I've recently moved into more of a managerial position and it pays a little better but not much. There's more responsibility though, and I find that I worry more about work when I'm not working. Also I'm responsible for the heaviest shifts, which means I'm there every Friday and Saturday night, usually until at least 2AM. Overall I find that this combines to make me feel tired and anxious about work, which is not something that I really need from that part of my life.

I don't think that there's a lot of wiggle room to try to create a compromise. Things at the shop are a little tight overall and in my recent conversations with my boss I've gotten the impression that there's not a lot of room for me to cut hours or rejigger my schedule. Cutting hours would mean not paying my bills, in any case. So I feel like if I can't maintain the status quo, I need to quit.

Now, I was planning on quitting fairly soon anyway. As I said above next semester is going to be significantly more serious, and I want to move from my current job to a work-study position (hopefully a non-technical position in a lab, such as washing dishes) and from there into a technical lab position in the summer after I've gotten some more lab experience under my belt. Classes will be more difficult, the credit load will be heavier again, and I just don't think that my current employment will be sustainable. So I was already planning on transitioning out of my current job in a couple of months. My question is about whether I should push that schedule up and give my two weeks notice sometime in the next week or so.

The only thing that worries me is the obvious: if I quit, how am I going to get money? I don't have a lot of savings. Between tuition, fees, rent, bills, food, gas, etc I pretty much use all the money I make in a given month. I'm not starving mind you, but I have to scrape a little occasionally. I'd say my minimum expenses are probably about $1500 a month.

I do have some money (about $8000) stashed away in a mutual fund, the remains of my college fund which my parents were kind enough to turn over to me after my first failed attempt at school, lo these many moons ago. It will be used up regardless by the end of my academic career, but I could pull from it now to cover my expenses for the next few months.

I could also apply for loans – my church offers a low-interest loan of about $2500 which I could probably get pretty quickly, and there may be other options which would be available in the short term (if you know of any, I'd love to hear about it here). I'm not crazy about the idea of going into debt, but it's something that I've come to terms with somewhat and I was fully expecting to have to do it eventually – just not for another semester or two.

In the longer term I intend to get more agressive about applying for grants and scholarships (I currently get a pell grant of a couple of grand which helps a lot with tuition, and I have some AmeriCorps money available as well, again about a couple grand) as well as the aforementioned work study and eventual lab work. So I don't intend to be living entirely off of loan money, except for these next few months in the event that I quit my job right away.

I must confess, the idea of being able to focus 100% on school is very attractive. I love my classes and the work that I'm doing in them, and I'd like to be able to have time to properly devote myself, which I don't think I'm fully doing right now. I'd like to be able to have a steady sleep schedule instead of having to stay up until two or three in the morning every weekend and spend the first part of my school week feeling tired and hungover, recovering only in time to begin the next work week. I'd like to be free of the stress and anxiety about a job which is essentially irrelevant to my long-term success.

So, should I take the plunge? If so, what's the best way to go about managing the next few months and transitioning into the next semester? If not, what might I do instead to make the next few months more bearable? I don't think I'm headed for a major breakdown or anything, but I think that I could be doing better than I am.

Thank you all for your time and for the considerate and thoughtful answers that this community is so famous for. I look forward to reading your replies.
posted by Scientist to Work & Money (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hello; I'm a graduate student in mathematics; I've been teaching and TA'ing university courses for four years, and have been exposed to lots of people in lots of different situations.

On the whole, I think people who are not splitting their time between work and school do substantially better in their classes. Think of it this way: If a clone of you were taking the same classes but not working, your clone would have a structural advantage over you in your classes. Long stressful shifts actively detract from your ability to do coursework; anxiety and sleeplessness impact the biological end of the learning process.

So yes, I would recommend leaving your job.

That said, it is possible to work and do well. A job that fits with school generally has to:
a) Recognize that your education should be your first priority,
b) Be happy with a worker available for only 10-20 hours per week, who will
c) Leave in two-to-four years.
Jobs in the traditional sense which satisfy these criteria tend to be some combination of 1) in the University, 2) extremely menial, and 3) low paying. Jobs in the University will almost certainly pay chump change, but will hopefully allow you to do something interesting and relevant to your educational interests. For example, many of my friends in plant biology have worked on-campus at the greenhouses or student farm, which beats the hell out of food service and gives them solid recommendations to take into their job search.

The non-traditional option is to create freelance work for yourself. To stay on the plant biologist example, I had a friend who started their own landscaping business, using the tree-pruning skills they had picked up in their field work. Some regular customers kept her fed, and running it herself (as a solo operation) allowed her to set her own hours. (Caution: A business with >=2 people involved requires meetings and various forms of government compliance, which causes an exponential increase in time requirements.)

When I was in undergraduate, I worked for a math tutoring service on campus in which I answered questions at a break-neck pace in four-hour shifts. I did this two days a week. It paid exactly the Oregon minimum wage, in the form of a fee remission, and thus put no actual money in my hands. On the other hand, I learned to think mathematically on my feet and made me basically fearless about my teaching. Outside of this, I typically had two or three people I tutored privately, generally for $20 an hour or so. It worked well enough.

On a last note, I'll say that as an older student with some Life Experience (tm) you almost certainly have a different kind of structural advantage over the horde of 18-year-old freshmen who are still trying to figure out which way their dicks point, so to speak. Older students tend to be much, much better at structuring their time, studying effectively, and generally keeping their eye on the ball.

Good luck!
posted by kaibutsu at 11:33 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

So you've reached the point where you have to make a choice. Either your school work is going to suffer so that you can work, or you can quit your job to focus on school. If you think about your long-tem goals, I think quitting your job is a no-brainer.

From your previous question, I see that you want to go to grad school. If this is still your goal, you're going to need excellent grades and as much research experience as you can get. This is going to be very hard to do if you're still working a demanding job.

In addtion, the job you're at clearly isn't what you want to do for the rest of your life. You wouldn't be in school otherwise, right? So are you willing to sacrifice your grades and ability to gain relevant experience in favor of a few bucks doing something you're not interested in? That seems like a bad decision to me.

Before you start freaking out about money, visit your school's financial aid office. They are there to help you find money. They'll be able to provide you with a bunch of options for getting student loans, grants, or flexible work-study positions. Once you have all of that info, you'll be much more able to make an informed decision.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:40 AM on October 4, 2010

I faced the same situation when I went back to college at age 26. Like you, my job started getting more and more stressful, and I didn't like having to miss out on programs on campus because I had to work, or only being able to take classes on certain days. I ended up quitting my job and it was totally the right decision. My grades improved, and I had more opportunities to do things that improved my education, and meet important people in my field.

Getting a work-study job in your field is a great idea. I'm sure it will help you to have contacts in your field to help you find a job once you graduate, or if you decide to go to grad school.

Definitely visit your school's financial aid office. Have you done a FAFSA? They can help you with that. They want you in school, and they will help you find the money to pay for it. My school's financial aid office offered me mostly grants, plus a little bit in loans, that covered all of my expenses--tuition, books, living expenses, everything. I also had a small on-campus job that made me just enough to cover my grocery money.
posted by apricot at 3:43 PM on October 4, 2010

Again, I was in a similar position. I was working all-night nightshifts on Friday and Saturdays, so was too tired all weekend to do any homework, and then was tired during the week as I adjusted back to normal hours. I was able to cut down my hours initially, and then I finally quit as the academic workload built up to a level where I couldn't do both.

I found work tutoring and running labs on campus, which actually paid me better and fit in around my studies as well. Start looking and asking around on campus - sure it was part luck, but in doing so, I was able to land a small (but well-paid) regular tutoring job within two weeks and then good ongoing hours with labs after that. I think a bit of work is not a bad thing - it gives you job references, it makes you be a bit more organised about getting your academics done (rather than always putting it off because you have all the time in the world), and of course, gives you money.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:43 AM on October 5, 2010

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