Working and Grad School
March 10, 2011 8:37 PM   Subscribe

Working an unrelated job while in grad school: yea or nay

(This is anonymous because I have friends who read MeFi, and this is really obviously me, and I don't want them reading my past questions and comments!)

There are all these questions about work issues and school lately. I am adding to the mess.

I have spent the past two years working 24 - 32 hours a week while in an undergrad/postbac program, taking between 8 and 16 (usually around 12) credits. I really like my job: my coworkers are great, my supervisor is flexible with my hours, and I make good money and have health insurance. However, it's not really related to my field, except in the broad sense that they are both health care related, and there's not much room for growth. It's a step above an administrative position, and a lot of the skills aren't transferable to my future career.

I just found out that I've been accepted to a MS professional program starting this fall. Graduate school has been the goal all along, so I'm pretty excited. My husband and I always talked about me quitting my job once I start grad school, but suddenly, he's starting to pull back on that, and wants me to stay on with my current job for as long as possible.

As mentioned, I like my job and they like me, but I don't feel like this is the best decision. First, I'm already working hard in classes, and still not able to give 100% in them because of work commitments, and these are just undergrad level classes. Second, I'm not involved in the department at all (for example, when guest speakers visit or meetings of a student group. There's also been this interesting volunteer opportunity that has popped up a couple times that I've never been able to make time for) because of my schedule. Finally, because it's not really related to what I want to do and not a resume builder, I don't want to spend another two years at it. If I am to work, I'd prefer to do so in a position that is directly related to my future goals. I've already experienced periods of total anxiety related to scheduling, commitments, etc, between work and school, and feel like I am always asking one or the other for special favors. The idea of doing it for another two years is really depressing and exhausting.

My husband thinks I can't pass up the money, and that it'll be easy to do both. He's in graduate school right now and graduating in the spring (he doesn't work, but he has a paid internship in his area of interest with about 10 hours a week). He's also unsure of his own ability to find a job in his field. and I think that's the source of his change of heart. I understand his concern, and I recognize that I'm very lucky to have this job.

Does anyone have experience working an unrelated job while in grad school? Any advice or thoughts?

(Oh, and since I'm sure someone will bring this up: there's very little opportunity for RA/TAships in my department, unfortunately. It doesn't get a lot of funding, and what little we get goes to PhD students.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ok, I can answer this! (Although, of course, YMMV...)

I'm in the second year of a combined teaching credential (received at the end of the first year) and MA in Education program. I graduate with my MA in May. This year I've worked ~25 hours/week doing completely unrelated work (writing/editing financial services marketing stuff) that I'd done for several years in a previous life. While it's been nice being able to pay my bills and not be totally broke, the disconnect between where my head is for my thesis work, and the few hours I spend every day writing about complex financial instruments has been a detriment to my ability to deeply sink my intellectual self into my thesis topic. In other words: it's sucked. Even though I'm totally and completely excited about my thesis topic and love the entire process, I'm always feeling like I just can't quite get to where I really need to go, and that's a big bummer.

So I'd say if you guys can swing it at all for you not to work, or for you to do something, anything that's theoretically or practically related to your field of study, then do that.

Finally, I can completely and totally relate to this: I've already experienced periods of total anxiety related to scheduling, commitments, etc, between work and school, and feel like I am always asking one or the other for special favors. The idea of doing it for another two years is really depressing and exhausting.

I've had to do the same albeit only for a year and you said it: exhausting.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:07 PM on March 10, 2011

In terms of sensible and practical, I personally would stick it out at the job until your husband got a job and insurance. But only you know if it's feasible to do that while also going to grad school. (In this economy, I'd probably actually consider deferring admission until my husband was working. But I'm terrified of being without insurance and, again, without specifics about your program and plan, hard to say if that's a good decision.)

I worked as a nanny while in law and grad school. I loved it. I found that the time AWAY from my school responsibilities, thinking about something else entirely, was really refreshing and rejuvenating; when I thought about nothing but school, I burned out fast. I also worked an unrelated full-time job through most of college. But you may be someone who thrives on that sort of laser-focus that burns me out.

On preview, I am the opposite person of hapax_legomenon.

Definitely something to discuss with the husband, though. Can you come to some kind of compromise like you'll stick it out for a semester for sure while he looks for work, with negotiable extension to a year if necessary, but after that, whether he's found work or not, you're quitting to focus on your studies?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:12 PM on March 10, 2011

I found I had much more free time/unscheduled time in grad school than undergrad, even with a TAship and a demanding program. My program had no busy work, and the kind of assignments given to undergrads just to keep them on track for the class were virtually non-existent. There was A LOT of reading, and the ends of every semester were very, very busy with final papers and projects, but there wasn't the day-to-day work I did all the time in undergrad.

My TA position was supposed to be about 15-20 hours/week, and for about three years I had an addition 10 hours/week job absolutely and totally unrelated to my chosen field in order to make extra money for some personal projects and to limit loans. So I was doing 25-30 hours of paid work on top of coursework (normally 3 classes). However, I was the only one in my program doing that, and it required that I have little social life (which was fine with me). I don't regret doing it at the MA level or early in the PhD, but the extra job affected my scholarship when I got past my PhD coursework and I quit it.

I think you could make this work, but some of it depends on your program and what your day-to-day workload looks like. For me, doing this successfully also depended on a supervisor who was ok with me reducing hours during finals week and the week right before finals so I could do those big final projects.

However, a major part of this will be the financial well-being of your household. My advice is to try to keep the job for now (for the benefits if for nothing else), stick it out for the first semester, and if it becomes too much, assess whether or not you can continue it. If your husband has a job by then, that would be ideal and may allow you to quit with fewer financial repercussions.
posted by BlooPen at 9:17 PM on March 10, 2011

PS -- your husband says he thinks it will be easy to do both because he is freaking. out. He's not actually listening to what you're saying about your concerns because he needs it to be easy for you so he doesn't have to feel like he's forcing you to do something that will be bad or stressful for you if he can't find a job ... which I'm sure he feels plenty of pressure and anxiety about.

Big sections of this question jump out to me about NOT actually being about working while going to school, but about a breakdown in marital communication.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:18 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

In the purely anecdotal realm, the two people I knew with total outside, absolutely unrelated jobs in grad school didn't finish. The money was ok just working, and there was such a big disconnect between them and the life of the department (much of which happens outside of the classes, in study sessions and seminars and informal conversations) that they didn't feel like they were getting anything out of it.

Probably there are as many or more poeple like Eyebrows who did it and loved it. YMMV.

The bigger issues here are in your own relationship -- there is a subtext in your question that begs for help, and isn't about the work issue. That's about trust, and communication, and whether or not the two of you are functioning as a partnership.
posted by Forktine at 9:20 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

How many credits do you plan to take at once?

I have successfully juggled an MA program with an unrelated full-time job the past few years, but most terms I've only taken one class at a time. I've been glad to have the money and security, but it's been very hard juggling everything at times. One term I had to take two classes, and it sucked utterly. In my case, it was less about having multiple things to focus on and more about just never having any time to relax.
posted by treblemaker at 10:50 PM on March 10, 2011

You don't have to make a decision right away about whether you will keep working this job in the long run. Surely you can start grad school while working (though maybe drop your hours a bit if you can), and then see what happens. If you start to find it's not working out, then drop the job. Or right from the start, begin to hunt for a job or an internship that is more aligned with your career goals and drop the current job if and when you find a better opportunity.
posted by lollusc at 10:51 PM on March 10, 2011

In most of the fields I am familiar with, the following things are roughly equivalent:
1) A Master's Degree and no work experience in the field,
2) A winning attitude and no work experience in the field.

The point of grad school is to gain specific experience in your field that you can apply your learning to and to make connections and build a network within your field and your community. I would not suggest going through with the expense and difficulty of a graduate program if you do not have the chance to fully engage in the program and the field.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:07 AM on March 11, 2011

(Long post warning.) I am 3/4 of the way through my first year of grad school, and I have a lot of things to share about my decision to keep my job while attending school. I'm a full-time student in a Master's program, and I work 21 hours per week at another university in a profession unrelated to my current degree program. I've had this job for nearly three years (2.5ish when I started school), and through it have great benefits (health care, retirement, subsidized transportation), work with really nice people, have super flexible hours, and am lucky that it's a pretty low-key environment. Some thoughts:

-Working a job outside of school made it slightly harder in my first semester to get to know my classmates. However, I'm noticing that just by the virtue of spending sooo much time together in class, weekend conferences, and blowing off steam after big tests or papers, I am still making friends and connecting professional interests despite my busy schedule.

-It sucks to slog into work and feel like you have more important school-related things to be doing. A universal truth of grad school is that there's never enough time to read as much as you think you should or to revise your papers or study for exams. Working definitely adds to the time crunch. However, I work very hard to manage my time outside of work and class, and have done well in all my classes so far.

-I don't think that working an unrelated job necessarily means that you are not able to engage in your new field. I'm a member of student organizations, planning a conference, applying for grants, attending conferences, etc. I don't think that any of my professors or classmates would say that I'm disengaged. I'm not trying to toot my own horn here, but just trying to say if you want to get involved, you get involved no matter what the constraints are.

-I am not awesome at my job anymore. I still come in and perform at a perfectly respectable level, but I no longer have every detail stored in my little brain, etc. My boss seems to be okay with this because he is a kind person and respects what I am doing with my time away from work. If I started screwing everything up, then we'd probably have a talk.

-This is hard. I often don't have much energy on the weekends to go out at night, and it's hard keeping up the mental energy to keep up with everything. Sleep, exercise, and meditation are your friends.

-Having come this far, I am SOOO happy that I didn't leave my job. I am paying my expenses from my wages, not from student loans. My employer is adding to my retirement fund. I come to work, and it's lovely to spend time with non-grad students -- real world people who I know and have liked for several years. But most importantly, when I graduate and am out on the job market -- I will still be employed, have insurance, and have some cash coming in. I have too many friends who quit their jobs for grad school, and are now SOL because the economy is crap and so few jobs are available in their fields.

I hope this helps. Note that these observations are colored by being single and the fact that my employer contributes to my tuition payments. YMMV.
posted by sk932 at 8:02 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm currently in a liberal arts MA program, and I've been watching several of my friends juggle unrelated jobs with their MA coursework. For the most part it seems hard but doable. They have good bosses, or are in positions where they command some power because things would fall apart if they left. All of them have completely zen and non-panicky personalities, so they don't have much of a problem when something bad happens at their job or when they don't have a book completely read before class. Many other people in my program (including me) decidedly do not have that personality, and would crumble at the mere thought of balancing so many different obligations.

It's up to you to decide what personality and approach you have to your masters program. The people I know who have outside jobs see their MA as an means to an end, and thus don't feel too bad if they're not OMGSUPEREXCELLENT at coursework or their job because neither is important in the long run. Some of us are tied more closely to the coursework itself and like to devote as much effort as possible to each task, no matter how mundane. If you're a perfectionist, it will be difficult to juggle school and work as well as you'd like to.

Maybe I'm missing something, but is it possible to start grad school with the job and see how it goes? If it doesn't work you can drop the job, and then you can at least tell your husband you tried.
posted by lilac girl at 8:18 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hi again, I came back to add one more thing. Eyebrows' comment made me think more about my own process, and while I don't necessarily need the laser-focus thing she mentions, what I DO need is time to build up intellectual and productivity momentum, if that makes sense. What I mean is, I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project doing the human equivalent of a dog turning around several times before lying down. Dunno why, but I do. After x amount of time, however, I engage more deeply and am exponentially more productive. After a couple of full days of working on something I can get more accomplished in a few hours than I did in the couple of days prior.

Point being (sorry, long week and my brain is fried - TGIF): maybe thinking about your own process will help give you some insight on what you need to do to feel successful in school and help direct your decision.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 6:39 PM on March 11, 2011

You can quit your current job any time, right? Would you be open to starting out the first grad school semester while working and see how it goes? I did the first 40% of my master's coursework spread over two years while working full-time in a slightly relevant field, and then the last 60% in one year. For three-quarters of my last year coursework I worked 20 hours/week in a super-relevant field (a paid internship arranged through my grad program), and starting next week I'll be finishing up the last half of my last semester coursework while working full-time in the post-grad school job of my choice. Ideally I would have waited to start this next job until after my thesis was done, but I decided to take this job earlier due to the economy/job market.

Working during my master's degree added a year to my time in grad school, but I was also able to earn some serious money and pay for my tuition with that cash, have health insurance, and connect my real-life job skills and professional experiences to my coursework in ways that my straight-out-of-undergrad classmates couldn't. It also gave me the flexibility to quit my full-time job and do 6 months of intense coursework and the paid internship (which I don't think I would have gotten without my previous work experience).

It was stressful and kind of surreal at times, but I am convinced that the inherent "ability to multi-task" demonstrated by concurrently working and doing grad school is what landed me my next job. However, you should probably check back with me in 2 months and see if I managed to finish my thesis on time!
posted by Maarika at 1:37 PM on March 12, 2011

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