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How to Succeed as a Part-Time Graduate Student

Grad studies are challenging for everyone. But for part-timers, it's a juggling act that often requires specific planning and skills. Here's what to know.

Graduate studies are challenging for everyone. But for part-timers, it's a juggling act that often requires special planning and skills. Almost by definition, part-time graduate students have other responsibilities. For any number of reasons, the hours available to put in academic work may be limited. The same goes for networking and out-of-class learning opportunities. Working at a full- or part-time job? Busy with childcare or other family duties? If so, these roles must be balanced with your classes and all the reading, writing, and other work that goes with them. To keep things under control while maintaining the progress needed to complete a degree, follow these steps.

Take advantage of “stolen time”

If you have a one-hour lunch break at work, consider devoting half of it each day to reading class material. At home, listen to podcasts while doing the dishes or folding laundry. Keep textbooks or a portable device on hand for perusal while parked before heading in for a shift, commuting on the subway, or in a waiting room before an appointment. In these and other ways, take advantage of any extra time that becomes available. These little chunks of time can add up to a lot more work getting done than it seems at first.

Set target dates

For part-timers, academic terms and even years can slide by almost before you know it. Keep in mind that if you take too long, you could exceed the time limit sometimes placed on program completion. Even if not, you could end up taking an excessive amount of time to add that degree to your résumé. To avoid such problems, set target dates for important milestones such as earning half the credit hours needed for a degree or finishing the preliminary research for a dissertation. Don’t let a term go by without taking at least one course. Take vacation time or make other adjustments in your personal life allowing you to increase your course load for at least some terms. When you set specific goals with a timetable to meet them, you’re more likely to stay on track.

Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Degree for Your Goals

Network with professors

While your time may be limited, it’s still important to connect with faculty on an individual basis. Stephanie P. Kennedy, founder of the educational consulting firm My College Planning Team, says that while making connections can be a challenge for part-timers, it’s something every grad student should strive for. “Your professors are your mentors, and that transcends the classroom,” she says. “You need to spend time with them and allow them to get to know you.” She acknowledges that this can be difficult for part-time students who tend to have many distractions. At the same time, taking the time to make positive connections with faculty can pay off when you need advice, job recommendations, or other help in the future.

At a minimum, schedule occasional appointments with professors before or after class to discuss course requirements or a class topic you’ve found interesting. Attend lectures or cultural events hosted or attended by professors. If you’re an online student, be active in discussion boards and get in touch with your professor when you have questions or pertinent comments. Don’t overdo it, but make sure your professors know who you are and that they see you as a serious student.

Stay up-to-date

You don’t need to be a math whiz to know that it takes longer to complete a degree as a part-time student than as a full-timer. Among other considerations, this means you can be vulnerable to changes that occur over time. Program requirements are adjusted. Faculty and administrative staff take different internal positions or leave the university. New courses or program tracks are offered. To avoid surprises, keep up with announcements from your department or the university as a whole. Watch for emails, “snail mail,” or online notices about new developments. Be sure to stay in regular touch with an advisor or other contact person. Take advantage of the information and resources made available, and you’ll have a successful venture as a part-time grad student.

Related: The Importance of Finding Balance as a Graduate Student

Attending college part-time during undergrad may have been uncommon, but in grad school, many students choose the path of attending part-time. You may have to approach your schedule and daily life a bit differently, but you certainly can pull it off with a little attention to detail and finding the right people to support you along the way.

For more great grad school advice like this, check out the blogs and articles in our Graduate School section.

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