Balancing Postgraduate Study and Part Time Work

By Rebecca Moynihan

I definitely didn’t have a plan for when it came to my next steps after university. I had spent my final year at university writing for and working on the student magazine, and the local newspaper of my university town. I had also been writing my own blog for a few years, and knew that I had a real passion for writing. I had a vague idea that a career in publishing would suit me best. I tried to gain as much experience in the industry, seeing that I’d be at a disadvantage with a psychology degree. Whilst finalising my dissertation, I secured a month’s internship at an independent publishing house near to my university town. I absolutely loved it. Once that placement came to end, and I moved back to my hometown, I managed to find another remote placement for a smaller independent publishing house, and began my placement whilst also managing to find a job at a coffee shop in the city centre. My journey to a career in publishing was very much on the way… 

That was until I got the news that I’d be graduating with a first class degree in the summer, meaning that I was eligible to apply for a funded MSc. I wanted (admittedly) to escape the ‘real world’ for as long as possible, and I figured, what would be the harm of studying for another year to make myself more employable? So I applied, and was granted full funding for what I thought would be a one year research degree. I started my research degree in September of 2017 and continued at the coffee shop. My research topic: the experience of graduates making the transition out of university (a topic very close to home). There was no issue with working whilst studying, with a zero hour contract it allowed me the flexibility of booking time off when needed, and picking up afternoon shifts, meaning I could spend the morning working on my thesis.

Despite feeling I had enough time to complete my thesis whilst working, I ended up being pushed for time, so I applied for an extension in the summer of 2018. This allowed me until January of 2019. In that space of time, I started a new role as an educational support assistant at a local sixth form college. That was where I really started to struggle. It was a full-time role, working 8.30-4.30, Monday to Friday (not including the one hour commute there and back). I had gotten the role after enquiring about work experience – wanting to put my knowledge of educational transitions into practice, supporting the students transitioning into college. And to my delight, they offered me a full-time role!! An opportunity I couldn’t pass, convincing myself I could very easily balance writing my thesis. I couldn’t. I’d come home from work absolutely EXHAUSTED, not only physically, but mentally. I’d cry every night, feeling the most stressed I had ever felt – I’d spend my days in work not being able to concentrate, thinking of how much I still had to do. I had no time to eat properly, didn’t have time to go to the gym, and would be up until late hours working on my thesis. I couldn’t make appointments to meet with my supervisor meaning I was missing out on feedback… I was soooo upset with myself – I felt like I was not only letting myself down, but my new employers. They had asked me if it would be difficult to work full-time whilst studying, and I had said no, optimistic and wanting so badly to work there! 

A few months into my role, I knew I had to come to a compromise – for the sake of my wellbeing. I spoke with my manager, apologised for my optimism, and we decided we would reduce my hours, meaning two days a week, I’d finish at 12pm. And this started to make it easier for me and I was so very grateful that they allowed me to do this. Not only did it allow me the extra hours, but it allowed me two days where I could definitely drive up to university and meet for feedback during my final stages. The day before I submitted my thesis, I finished at 12pm and drove up to campus with my friend, and we hid away in the library proofreading, making final edits (and referencing – because I never learnt to do that as I went) and by 12am (!!) we were ready to submit. The submit button was pressed, and all that was left to do was print and bind. 2am, we were driving home – not sure what emotions to feel and at 6am, I was waking up and ready to head into work. HOW I DID NOT CRASH AND BURN IN THESE MONTHS I DO NOT KNOW. That day I finished work again at 12pm, and drove up to hand in my physical copy. 

Though I know it’s unhealthy, I work more effectively when I’m under stress – perhaps I’m lying to myself there because is it really effective if I’m also having breakdowns every week? But, If I was to have my time over again, despite the enormous amount of pressure I put myself under, and the toll it took on my mental health – I wouldn’t change my experience. I may have perhaps admitted to myself from the start that working full-time wouldn’t be a good idea, and that’s something I’d advise anyone wanting to take on a postgraduate degree with full-time work, really consider it. Is it worth the toll it will almost definitely take on your wellbeing? Can you successfully balance your work/life balance with studies on top? Is it realistic? Could the role be taken on part-time? 

I have now graduated (via email, ugh, COVID) with my MSc, and am now working full-time at a university, wanting to (full 180 here) pursue a career in Educational Psychology. But I will definitely re-consider working full-time alongside my PhD. 

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