Pursuing a Master's Degree While Working Full Time

It seems impossible, but thousands of driven graduate students manage to work full time and pursue a degree. What's their secret?

Not enough hours in the day. Not enough money in the world.

This might as well be the official mantra for anyone considering pursuing a master’s degree while working full time. Yet thousands of driven graduate students manage to do so every year. What’s their secret? And what’s it really like? Read on to find out.

Anthony Geehan is a full-time pharmacy technician and current grad student at UMass Boston in the process of earning a master’s degree in English education. He studied English and professional writing as an undergraduate at Fitchburg State University, and he lost his postgrad job at a newspaper during budget cuts. He’s been working at the Lahey Clinic pharmacy in Burlington, Massachusetts, ever since.

Geehan says he is taking two classes per semester, and all but two of his peers are also working full time while in graduate school. (The other two students are working part time.)

One hurdle for students considering grad programs while retaining their full-time job is finding schools that will accommodate their work schedule. Geehan thinks the options are growing, but that “schools aren’t going to feel the pressure to change right away,” he says. “If some people can’t [accommodate the class schedule], there’s about 20 others who can.” However, he does hope that with the popularity of distance learning, along with the number of students working full time, colleges and universities will broaden their more flexible graduate program options, such as the many schools now branching into online education.

Choosing the right graduate program

Jessica Chance is the Assistant Director and Liaison to Alumni and Graduate Students at Emerson College. When asked which graduate programs seem to be “hot,” she hesitates to label. “What I focus on are the kinds of fields where, in order to progress, one has to get a master's degree to be qualified for certain jobs. Some examples are mid-upper-level administrative positions in higher education, clinical positions in human services, medicine, and of course law,” she says. “Aside from those fields, nothing beats experience first. One of the worst things a student can do is stay in school without internships and a couple of years of work under their belt, because often they're still not sure what they want to do. That first job is an education in and of itself. In other fields like marketing or business or education, it takes some time out of undergrad to fine-tune how you want to move up in your field, which can then dictate specifically what you should be getting your master's degree in.”

“I always knew that I wanted to go to grad school,” says Kellie Chung. She studied economics as an undergraduate at Wheaton College and is now pursuing her M.B.A. at Babson College. She currently works full time at UTC Aerospace Systems.

As Chance mentioned, Chung knew that business programs would be seeking applicants who’d already had real-world skills and knowledge, so she started working after getting her undergraduate degree.

“I got some valuable experience, but I just wasn’t at the level that I knew I wanted to be at. It didn’t look like I was going to rise to that level without getting that degree.” Chung says. After two years of working, she wanted to dive into grad school. Her biggest turning point was working a job she didn’t like.

“I was working in New York, and I just decided to quit my job, headed home, and rigorously studied for the GMAT.” She only had about a month to apply to the program she wanted. “I was initially applying to be a full-time student [but] the cost was astronomical,” she says. Chung aimed for Babson College’s entrepreneurship program, and the school offers four different types of M.B.A. programs to accommodate different student schedules.

Around the time she decided to go for her M.B.A., Chung also found a job at her current company, UTC. “They have a really great employee scholar program. I’ve never actually heard of anything better, other than if you work at a college,” she says. UTC compensates up to $25,000 a year for a master’s degree, which has actually urged Chung to accelerate her course load in order to complete it in the timeliest manner possible.

And Chung’s right: finding a work environment like UTC—one that not only supports an employee’s decision to pursue a graduate degree but also aids in financing it—is remarkable. But she also advises would-be grad students to plan on sticking with that remarkable company if taking advantage of any tuition repayment benefits, citing a friend who switched jobs and then owed her old company money . . . due in a week’s time from her leaving. (That is a lot of money to come up with in a week.) Commitment is key, and Chung feels lucky, calling her current role a great job. “The more I made it pay off for itself, the more I got my return on investment,” Chung says. Spoken like a true entrepreneur!

Real-world grad student schedules

Rachel Perkins, Associate Director of Public Relations & Social Media at Central Michigan University, is also studying higher education administration at the school. She says the University’s tuition assistance is a major perk, especially after she paid for her undergraduate in integrative public relations herself. The University also provides practical graduate classes and programs. “The compressed format is demanding, but having class one night a week has its benefits,” she says.

Juggling graduate courses and a full-time job is demanding but becoming more and more common. “During the first eight weeks of the fall semester, I had a class on Wednesday nights from 4:30–9:50 p.m. On top of working at least 40 hours a week, I also have a 45-minute commute,” Perkins says. She can spend her weekends writing papers. “This spring, I’m taking two more courses. Both are evening classes, so I will have one day each week where I am on campus from 8:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.”

Chung has a similarly long day:

6:00 a.m.         Wake up

8:00 a.m.         Arrive at work

4:30/5:30 p.m. Leave work (possible dinner on the run!)

6:30 p.m.         Class starts

9:30 p.m.         Class ends

10:30 p.m.       Return home

“This last semester, I did that Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.” And that’s not including homework.

“In order to pay the bills, I still had to work full time and went to school part time,” says Emerson’s Jessica Chance. She was prompted to pursue a master’s degree after studying acting and creative writing as an undergraduate, and working with theater companies whose focus was social justice. She ended up completing a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

“I chose Lesley University because it incorporates so much around the expressive arts, education, and psychology. It spoke to my own path, and I felt like my creative background was an asset to how the program is designed.” Chance adds that, as someone who now works with students pursuing graduate studies, most find the biggest challenge to be staying involved on campus. “By the time folks are in graduate school, they often have outside obligations and have to focus more on work-life balance, so there's little time to be a part of many activities.” Not to mention the imperative of working to pay for it all.

Financial aid for graduate school is an oft-cited pain point for students considering the cost of a master’s degree. Chance suggests looking into the Peterson's Guide and seeking out paid internships or assistantships on campus. Some programs, such as MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, typically provide a research assistantship, which covers tuition and fees.

But before you panic at the thought of your jam-packed schedule, rest assured, there is plenty to enjoy in grad school. You may even surprise yourself! “I am really enjoying the Babson culture and environment,” says Chung. “It’s such a creative, welcome community, where everyone is trying to help everyone else, which I think is rare is business school.

“I’ve made some incredible friends,” she adds. “I still get excited when I go to campus, and I still feel really lucky to be able to go to that school.”

Esterline chimed in, “I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed working on my master’s. I’m also sometimes impressed with how much I can accomplish in just one semester.

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