Continuing to work while you go to school part-time (or full-time) has advantages for your school, your employer, and you. The many advantages to you, such as the ability to continue earning an income while in school, must be weighed against disadvantages like having little time for personal pursuits, friends, and family.
More alternatives to traditional full-time graduate school attendance are available now than ever before, and if you are happy with your current job, you may not have to choose between school and work. Part-time program formats include evening and weekend courses, online components, and more. Attending grad school part-time will just take a little more forethought and juggling than it ordinarily would, but the rewards are many, including financial.
What’s in it for your school?
Grad schools depend on their part-time students to bring a wealth of industry knowledge and connections to their programs and classrooms. Part-time, working students bring these benefits:
- They can help their full-time classmates network in the field and potentially land job interviews with their organizations.
- They draw on authentic case studies for project work.
- They bring experience and sound judgment to the classroom.
- They strengthen the relationship between their school and their organization.
- They have a tendency to be locals—so schools have an easier time recruiting and supporting part-time students.
- They bring diversity to the classroom. Working students can be students who are older, who must work for financial reasons, who have children, etc.
- They can help bridge academic theory to on-the-ground practice, adding a practitioner’s perspective to class discussions and projects, and offering concrete examples that help other students learn.
Does this mean that it’s easier to get into part-time programs? Not necessarily, but you may benefit from your experience. Most schools base admissions decisions on essays, recommendation letters, resumes, test scores, and undergraduate grades. If you are working in a relevant field, your resume will be stronger because of it—for some schools this translates into less weight being given to your test scores or grades.
What’s in it for your employer?
If you work in a relevant field, your employer might appreciate your efforts to go back to school. Indeed, if the alternative is that you quit your job to go to school full-time, your employer may loathe the possibility of losing your skills and having to go through a process to hire and train someone else. Specifically, nice and forward-looking bosses will be happy to see you:
- Build new skills like improved research methodology, writing abilities, etc.
- Renew your verve for your work
- Facilitate new connections to your school, professors, and classmates
- Identify and connect broader research and trends from graduate studies to your day-to-day work and strategic planning.
Does this mean your employer will help pay for your education? Every employer is different, but in 2015, about 54 percent of employers offered tuition help to employees, the Society for Human Resource Management reports. The average dollar amount employers gave employees as financial aid for school was $4591.
If you have a tuition benefit as part of your job, ask your human resources manager or boss about the details of the benefit before you take advantage of it.
- Are you expected to earn a minimum grade point average?
- If you miss work due to class, how is that time out of the office counted (is it ignored, or is it counted as paid time off, for example)?
- Will your organization reimburse you for the costs of tuition, or foot the bill from the start?
- Does the degree program have to be directly related to your organization’s (or your own) work?
- Will the organization contribute to the cost of textbooks, fees, or other expenses associated with going to school?
- If you don’t already know whether you have a tuition benefit or not, there’s no harm in asking. If no such benefit exists on the books (yet), your employer may still be willing to contribute some of your tuition or fees. If you are currently looking for work and know that grad school is in your future, you may want to inquire about tuition benefits during your salary negotiation.
- Finally, whether your organization offers you a tuition benefit or not, your employer can be supportive in non-financial ways, such as by being a bit flexible with your schedule, advising you on practical elements of course work, connecting you with colleagues in the field, and attending your graduation ceremony.
What’s in it for you?
The best of both worlds. More balance, less risk, tighter schedule.
Attending grad school part-time offers some noteworthy financial benefits to students. Since part-time study means taking fewer courses simultaneously, you should be able to balance your studies with your job (whether you already have one or you’re searching for work). Employment means you can maintain a steady income during school to help offset your expenses. Moreover, as a part-time student you are still eligible for new student loans to pay for grad school, and if you take enough credit hours, you are able to defer pre-existing student loans from undergraduate study.
If you like your job, you don’t have to leave it. Part-time students are such a welcome addition to graduate programs that schools are willing to accommodate working professionals in a variety of formats. Look for programs
- in your region
- that include evening and weekend classes, and/or
- that are online with only occasional in-person meetings.
The work you do in a part-time program is the same as you would do in traditional programs, but the part-time structure allows you much more flexibility.
Keeping your job while you are in school allows you to earn your full salary, spread the costs of school out over a longer period of time, and might put you in line for a promotion. You also can use real projects at work as the basis for case studies in your course work.
Sharpening your outlook on work and school
If you are looking for a professional challenge that you aren’t finding on the job, working towards a graduate degree might just be the answer.
Working in the field while in school can help you choose courses that are really relevant to the skill/knowledge areas you want to improve, rather than selecting somewhat randomly from a course catalog. Your work can be a roadmap for some of your course selections.
Kelly Doherty, Assistant Director of Marketing and Recruiting for Graduate Business Programs at Portland State University, has observed that students who work full-time have a different attitude towards specializing their degree than students who have less work experience or have recently finished their undergrad degree. She says more experienced and/or working students have a much better sense of what areas they want to specialize in, and understand the value of spending a little extra time and money to specialize. Because of their experience in the field, they know what direction they’d like to go, and what extra credentials they need to get there.
If you are in a job in the same field as your studies, you can network through professors and other part-time classmates to benefit your work. Of course if you are enrolled in a primarily online program, you will have to work harder to connect with professors and classmates who are in other cities. It’s worth the effort, though, as building relationships with other professionals can lead to generative partnerships, job opportunities, and learning about new trends in your field. And you may even have reasons and opportunities to meet at professional association conferences.
Additional considerations about part-time study
Going to school part-time won’t feel like college (grad school rarely does anyway) because you are getting less of the campus experience.
Going only part-time means that finishing school could take twice as long—something to consider if you have personal and financial goals for your immediate future.
While your income might not be reduced, you may still have financial challenges ahead.
- Because you’ll have a full-time job, you will probably not have time for an assistantship (which can lead to reduced or waived tuition).
- Financing your education through student loans means taking on debt, which may weigh against you in the future (when applying for a home loan, for example).
- Financing your education on your own will require budgeting and possibly sacrifice, depending on your income.
- For more information about financially preparing for school, go here.
You’ll be very, very busy (grad school always is anyway) and have to juggle family, classes, and job obligations.
- Acing your classes and your job might be challenging. Clarify your priorities, and ask for help when you need it. If you can, delegate!
- You may also have to pass up on some extracurricular academic opportunities, including study abroad, conferences, lectures, film screenings, and other events that happen during your workday.
- You might have to persuade your boss to be flexible with your work schedule to accommodate classes. If you intend to keep your current job, inform your employer of your grad school plans as early as possible and discuss the potential impacts and benefits your studies could have for your work.
Conclusion and further resources
Continuing to work full-time while you are in graduate school has profound rewards—financial, professional, and otherwise. Predictably, it also takes more effort.
Possible alternatives to going to graduate school full-time include becoming professionally certified through a professional association, licensed through a state agency, or completing coursework for a certificate in a field recognized by a college. You can also simply take courses one at a time, as needed, without aiming for a degree. Finally, you can take workshops or classes through local technical assistance providers or community groups.