Going Back to School While Working? Yes You Can!

going back to school while working

Instead of taking all of these one-off courses, why don’t I just get an MBA?  As I said those words to my boss, a voice in my head screamed ‘are you crazy? You’re already working too much!’

I watched his face: surprise, curiosity, and a smug smile that seemed to say ‘of course she can ask, but she’ll never actually do it.’ Little did he know…I wasn’t sure why, but this felt right. That year, I not only started an executive MBA program, I convinced my company to pay for it. Then I slogged through 2 of the toughest years in my life. This what I really learned.

Time management is the only skill that matters

Going back to school while working

If you’ve thought about working full time and going back to school at the same time, time management is your most valuable superpower. With appropriate time management, you can do everything that matters. You learn what you really have to do yourself, what someone else can do, and what doesn’t need to be done at all. You learn how much time it takes to complete a task to a level you can be proud of, and how little there is to gain by investing more.

I outsourced everything I possibly could to free up time. In life that meant housekeeping, yard work and laundry; my local dry cleaner enjoyed two extremely successful years. I even dry-cleaned my underwear. At work it meant delegating tasks to my assistant, with the added benefit of watching her skills and her confidence grow. She ultimately did some of those tasks better than I did.  In school it meant learning to let go and trust my team: dividing each week’s readings, then explaining key points in our study group meetings.

Focus, focus, focus

laser focus

photo by fastlizard4 at Flickr

Remember when we used to brag about being great multi-taskers? It’s all BS. How much BS becomes obvious when you have to juggle work, school, and real life.  It hit me about 3 weeks into the program, when I suddenly realized that it was almost midnight and I hadn’t written my part of our case analysis. Reading other interesting articles, taking a phone call, giving in to the siren song of the ice cream in my freezer: I pretended to work on the case at the same time. I needed to start focusing like a laser.

The next day, I got serious. I stopped multitasking, returned to my most effective reading and note-taking techniques, and re-engaged with the joy of learning. I mercilessly cut out all distractions: turned off the phone, shut down my web browser, found a quiet place and got down to it. Whether working in the office or doing schoolwork, I got into the zone. Time flew by, the learning flew into my brain and the work flew from my hands.

If your degree relates in any way to your job, make focusing on your homework work for you. Using work assignments as the basis for school projects, I got independent reviews that my manager never saw. That made my final work product even better and pushed me further on the career path.

Set expectations

yes and no, set expectations

Recognize the degree to which going back to school while working will fill your time. Set some clear expectations for yourself. What can you really accomplish? Maybe it’s not the best time to lean in to special projects at work. You have a huge special project in play already.  And it might not be the best year to host Thanksgiving, even if it is your turn. Learn to say no. I warned family and friends not to expect much from me for the next 24 months. Except for 1 or 2….etc, it worked well.

At work, I rigorously set realistic deadlines and was scrupulously honest about what I could get done; the hours that I used to spend working overtime were now devoted to school.

I wasn’t dating then, but my classmates who were had similar discussions with their partners and spouses. Tough discussions but necessary ones. Those who didn’t had some very rough times until we reached graduation.

Adult Education is a Team Sport

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to earn a degree while holding down a job and running the rest of your life. Adult degree programs expect you to work in teams. Whether study groups or project teams, very few assignments are done alone. In some programs, the work is so voluminous and so intense that the only way to survive is with a study group. And as in school, team skills are essential at work. Collaboration, communication, empathy; without them you can neither survive nor thrive, at school or at work.

I was lucky; my group worked well together As in any effective team, we were stronger together than any one of us could have been alone. Floating (or sinking) in our ocean of work, we rowed the boat together. We also tossed one another life jackets. A financial analyst helped me with accounting; I helped her conquer her fear of public speaking.  We laughed, we pointed fingers, we redlined one another’s’ work – and we reminded one another that the only thing that mattered was learning the material, not a set of test grades.

Two years working with these teams made me a better team player at work. Always willing to ask for opinions, I learned to listen more closely to the answers. When I became a senior leader, I kept track of what I didn’t know and sought advice from those who did before making decisions

Look after yourself

wind down after work

As the schoolwork piles up, it’s easy to let your self-care slip. Don’t let that happen! Neglecting self-care puts you in the express lane to burnout. No matter how many deadlines you have, how high the work piles, set aside at least a few minutes each day for yourself. Eat healthy meals. Read a novel or meditate for as little as 10 minutes before bed. Take a hot shower, or a long bath. Protect your sleep time. Get out and move: arrange walking meetings at work or with your study group. Take a 30 minute exercise break on weekends. Make dates with your partner, or with yourself if you are single. My study group agreed to take one Friday night off each month so we could reconnect with our lives and our loved ones. Life goes on while you study; you will watch some of it from your window, but don’t lock the door completely.

Is it worth it?

going back to school while working

Going back to school while working, I sacrificed two years of my life in my thirties, prime social and career time, for a piece of sheepskin. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I found friends with whom I could debate and disagree, laugh and learn. Newly learned skills took my career to places I never expected. I learned about myself, stretched my abilities and pushed my limits. Earning your first, second, or even third degree while holding down a full-time job and adulting in your personal life will be the hardest, best thing you ever do for yourself.  Make your plan and go!


Marne Platt

Dr. Marne Platt is the President of Fundamental Capabilities and the author of 3 books (so far): Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way; Professional Presence; and PREP For Success. Originally a practicing veterinarian, she built a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. She founded Fundamental Capabilities to ‘pay it forward’ by providing career development workshops and coaching for women. ‘Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way’ is an ‘older sister in your pocket’ packed full of advice for young women on building their own independent and exciting life. 'Professional Presence' and PREP For Success' help you strengthen your spoken and unspoken communication and leadership presence.