Working and grad school: 4 tips to do both

Finding balance as a grad student

Mary Sun, grad student and Sallie Mae Bridging the Dream Scholarship recipient, gives tips on managing work and grad school (and deciding if it’s right for you).

When my father immigrated to America from Hong Kong, he and his brothers brought their flooring business with them. I learned to value hard work early on, helping out up in carpet warehouses and starting my first venture – baking and selling “gourmet” dog treats – as a child. I soon graduated to babysitting and mowing lawns before starting my own tutoring business, coaching swim lessons, and getting a retail job as a teenager.

Working and paying my own way remained a mainstay of my college experience. I spent my years at UPenn multitasking: I triple majored across a dual-degree program in computational biology, finance, and healthcare management, while founding two companies, interning for Booz Allen Hamilton and Goldman Sachs, and holding two to three part-time jobs at any given time. After I graduated, I accepted a full-time offer from Microsoft and was able to secure sponsorship for my master’s degree in software engineering. I loved working as a product manager and found even more fulfillment through volunteering as a crisis counselor.

When it came time to start medical school, I was faced with a choice: do I continue to work? I enjoyed it, it helped me maintain financial independence, and there honestly hadn’t been a large part of my life without it. However, medical school is nearly all-consuming and is a large investment in of itself. Should I give up a paycheck to go “all-in”?

I’m not the first person, nor the last, to be in this situation. Higher education is expensive and working can sometimes be the only way to afford it. However, graduate school is an academic commitment – students need to attend classes, review material, and prepare for exams.

The decision to continue (or start) working while going to grad school is a difficult one and only you can decide if your financial situation requires it. If you’ve decided to try your hands at a part-time job during your studies, here are a few suggestions to help you find balance:

1. Look for a job that connects to your studies.

Currently, I work at a health tech company where I can spend time thinking about patients and understanding how my clinical knowledge can be applied in an operational setting. Sometimes, what I’m studying is immediately applicable to the work I produce. Even when it’s not, I’ve found that working in a healthcare company reminds me that the hours I put in learning material will eventually contribute to improving outcomes for patients.

2. Be realistic and detailed.

You need to have a frank discussion with yourself about how you expect to spend your time. Maybe you’ve committed to 15 hours a week of work, and that seems reasonable. But what about your commute time? And the time you spend getting ready to go to work? Try using a digital planner like Google Calendar to understand all of the details of your day. This way, you can manage your time more effectively and set expectations with your workplace.

3. Be upfront with your supervisor.

It shouldn’t be a secret to your boss that you’re in grad school. The right boss will see your ambition and ability to multitask as an asset to the role, and they’ll be willing to be flexible – as long as you’re honest and transparent. Be open about your other responsibilities so you don’t find yourself sacrificing the investment you’ve made in your education.

4. Give yourself a trial period.

It’s best not to overcommit yourself to a job before you know the short- and long-term effects it’ll have on your studies, along with your physical and mental health. A trial period is likely more manageable if you’re doing shift work, but if you don’t have shift work, this is where being open with your supervisor becomes even more important. A trial period will allow you to reassess quickly. If you’re working for a month and your grades suffer, consider scaling back.

If you find that working while going to grad school is hurting you, not helping you, you may need to consider other means of financing your education. Don’t feel pressured to work. If you can find a job that is flexible and meets your needs, go for it! If not, look for more scholarships or grants, consider a student loan, or seek support from people in your networks who may be able to help.

Above all else, be kind to yourself. Graduate school is already an enormous commitment, and you should prioritize your mental health and academic experience.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey financial, tax, or legal advice. We make no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect our view or endorsement. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.

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