Posted 18 April 2012
Career Advancement: Should you hit the books part-time?
Should you hit the books part-time?
by Koon Mei Ching, extracted from JobStreet.com
In the past two years, I've been thinking about going back to school - meaning, getting into a graduate
programme. Before deciding which school to go to and what degree to take was easy as pie as an
undergraduate. But today, as a 28 year-old with a full-time job and a husband, it's not quite the stroll in
the park I remember. My dilemma now is to decide whether I should take a full-time degree or a part-time
one. And I am not alone.
Statistics show that the majority of graduate students these days are in their late twenties or early
thirties, established in their careers, paying off mortgages and having children. And for many of these
individuals, taking on a full-time graduate programme becomes increasingly untenable. In the recent
decade or so, educational institutions have been improving and expanding their part-time offerings
recognising this trend. Here are some factors to consider when going part-time:
Show Me the Money
As you might already know, a graduate degree does not come cheap. With a price tag ranging between
RM50, 000 to RM250, 000, the financial question begs careful consideration. Many loans, grants and
scholarships are unavailable to part-time students, and only full-time PhD students are eligible for
teaching and research assistantships (which cover tuition fees and include a small stipend for living).
Other crucial benefits such as student housing and health insurance also preclude part-timers.
The question then becomes, should you risk losing your steady income at present or should you hedge
your bets and stay fully employed whilst undertaking your part-time course? For many, it seems that
staying employed and balancing study outside of work hours seems the best choice.
Some companies will support the fees of your degree but bind you to one or two years of employment
post-programme, failing which you will have to pay them back in full. But many other employers,
especially top notch multinationals, will pay for all or part of your degree should you agree to continue
working for them while going to school. These options, if available, can be very attractive.
Jeff Kang, 29 who recently completed his Masters in Computer Science, decided to go part-time as the
best option for himself. "I was being paid too much money. It was a very simple calculation. Not only
did the part-time program at my university allow me to maintain my income and pocket tuition reimbursement
checks from my employer, it also let me spread out my costs over time." These were
key benefits in light of the fact he'd just bought his first house.
The BIG TIME Crunch
So what would one expect in a life of full-time employment and part-time study? Picture this: For
every hour you spend in the classroom, expect to plan on two to three hours in preparation. So,
assuming you take a mere six hours of classes a week, you will need to spend close to 18 hours outside
that class in preparation. Add into this group meetings, homework, reading and projects which do not
necessarily need to be done on campus. As an estimate, add another four hours in group meetings per
week and ten to twelve hours per week on homework/projects and reading. Should you be a
particularly efficient student with remarkable time management skills, you might be able to trim this
somewhat. But the bottom line is that it is a major time commitment.
Check with your chosen school to see how they are building flexibility into their class schedules. Do
they have enough evening or weekend classes to fit your work schedule. Do library, laboratory and
other facilities remain open for extended hours? What about purely online courses or distance courses?
How will this affect your work life? Businesses need workers who are well educated. In recent years,
many business have found ways to encourage workers to get additional education through more
flexible work hours, tuition payment, and childcare support. You should talk to your HR department
and supervisor to discover what's possible in your company.
Support from your supervisor is essential, as your study-life will undoubtedly affect your ability to
perform at work. Being able to involve your supervisor in the decision-making process allows you to
impart understanding to your boss on the need for some flexibility at work.
An example of how important this is is explained by James Tan, a software engineer who undertook a
PhD in Engineering, "I worked quite a few jobs contracting my way though school. It's important to let
management know about times when you won't be able to commit long hours (ie. middle of a release)
during mid terms and school project deadlines."
Balancing Social Life
Personal time is something you have to be prepared to lose. They key may be to squeeze in as much
study time wherever you can find it. For example, if you commute on the train or LRT, read over your
notes or prepare for classes. Use your lunch time to work on projects or problems. This may mean you
lose personal downtime during the week, but it could free up your weekends with a few more hours to
blow off some steam.
Says Samuel Lim, 32 year-old consultant who is in his final year of an Masters in Engineering, "My
social life has taken a definite hit in the last year and a half. The casual friends of yesteryear are
completely gone. No big loss. But even some good friends are missing from the landscape. People not
under the same pressure can only be but so sympathetic to your scheduling needs and desire to gripe
about words and acronyms that mean nothing to them. But generally if you consider them a good
friend, the feeling is mutual and there's efforts on both sides to keep in contact. And depending on your
current job, hopefully not every waking moment is spent in the office or class. Most weeks, especially
early on in the semester, I can take a Friday or Saturday night to hang out with old friends. But not
both nights!" He adds, "All that being said, now you'll have some friends at school. And those people
become a huge part of your new 'life'. You'll certainly spend plenty of time with them. And like most
situations where two or more human beings come together it takes on all kinds of social overlays."
What about family time? If you happen to be single, this will not affect you too much. But, as I
mentioned before, many would already have a spouse and started a young family. Having buy-in from
your spouse/partner and family members is crucial to making this balancing act manageable. For all
the time you will be at work and locked away studying at home, there has to be a clear agreement on
the pursuit of your goals and trade-offs on responsibilities. This is especially crucial for women, who
often bear a disproportionate responsibility for childcare and housework. A non-supportive partner will
make this goal just about impossible to achieve.
Says Maria Rosa, a 31 year-old recent MBA graduate from Singapore, "There were plenty of people in
my class with families that gutted it out and had to work to achieve some measure of balance. The best
advice I can give if you have a family is to obtain a genuine buy-in from your spouse before beginning
the program. We had too many divorces and near-divorces in my class because of the time pressures
associated with the program."
But It Can Be Worth the Sweat and Tears
For all the challenges you will be put through, taking on a graduate course part-time whilst fully
employed can taste very sweet. Those who work while going to school will be able to begin applying
what they're learning in class right way, an exciting prospect for many. "I'm not the kind of person who
flourishes in complete academic theory," says Fatimah Radzi, 27, a part-time M.B.A. student at
Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. "I like to apply it in the real world." For many,
studying all day and focusing on books can be a very difficult transition after tasting the dynamism of
In addition, another bonus to the part-time program can be seen in your interviews with potential
employers, should you be looking for new employment post-programme. Many interviewers will be
very impressed and respect the fact that you succesfully completed an MBA while working. So that's a
little bonus that would look good in your job hunt.
Further, your co-workers and bosses will be in awe of your commitment, discipline and work ethic. "I
have never regretted my decision to go part-time. I'm planning on advancing within my current
company, so my situation may be different, but in the last 6 months, I've had higher-ups that I think
never would have given me the time day before asking me about my progress and discussing my career
objectives. If that's not positive reinforcement for staying committed, I don't know what is," says
Rosalind Tan, a 34 year-old strategy consultant.
Before you make this kind of commitment or time, money and personal sacrifice, ask yourself a crucial
question - are you a good multi-tasker and time-manager? Only take the next step if you believe you
can cope with being stretched. If you do decide to go this path, make sure that you accept the fact that
you may end up needing to either drop a class or accept reduced responsibilities at work in order to
maintain your sanity. Having pressure on multiple fronts is a certain formula for burnout. But if you do
manage it, you would have gained a degree and, more importantly, the kind of character only a
challenge like this can impart...and that is invaluable.