How to juggle a full-time job with an online masters degree

Sarah Redrup is studying an MA in Illustration via distance learning at Falmouth University and was awarded one of our Postgrad Solutions Study Bursaries 2020. We caught up with Sarah to see how she is enjoying her postgraduate studies and see how she is managing to get the right balance between studying, work and the rest of her life.

“Working full time plus taking on a part-time online masters, is not an easy task. Even part-time masters courses are generally designed for people who can dedicate much of their towards it. My job is pretty full on, I run a bakery with my family so it’s not exactly your typical office 9-5, as I can sometimes find myself working six-day weeks and all manner of shift patterns – bakers work throughout the night after all! So, before I applied to study my MA in Illustration at Falmouth University I had a long think about whether or not I would have the time and the self-discipline to follow it through. It was unlikely I would be able to afford to work part-time any time soon so I decided that it would be now or never and give it my best shot – I needed to master the art of self-discipline sooner or later! Here is how I broke it down to make my online postgraduate studying a manageable task.

Compartmentalising

By far the most valuable skill that I had to learn was the ability to compartmentalise my headspace. The worst feeling is when you can’t concentrate on the task at hand because all you can think about is your long list of deadlines and to-do lists. At first I found myself stressing about my masters at work and then stressing about my job while doing my masters. It felt awful, like I was constantly dropping the ball and struggling to keep up. So, I decided I needed to dedicate not only chunks of my time by also my headspace to one thing or the other, not both. Now I plan which days and evenings I want to focus on my university work and I wait until then to stress about it. And when I’m not at work I treat my brain like an out-of-office email reply – in short, any work thoughts can wait until I’m back at work! Compartmentalising your headspace is useful for general life chores and downtime too. The last thing you want is to be enjoying a movie and suddenly start worrying about your impending essay deadline. If you’ve decided to set a certain time for relaxation or socialising, then keep it that way in your brain too. Trust me, you do have time for it all! At first I started worrying that if I was relaxing I was wasting time, but now I remind myself that seeing my friends or going for a walk is just as important as working on my reports. Letting off steam keeps me sane and aids my productivity.

Small, productive tasks

Another organisational skill that has proven useful is to identify chunks of time where you can be doing a small, productive and easy task. For example, my commute to work includes a 20-minute walk and a 10-minute hovercraft ride, so in that half an hour I browse Pinterest and Instagram, saving and pinning images for me to look at later. It’s enjoyable and easy to do while walking. Then when it comes to sitting down and actually creating art I have ready-made mood boards waiting for me to find some inspiration in. This can also work for bookmarking articles and research papers to read later. When creating a to-do list make sure to identify small but important tasks. When I’m feeling lethargic and lacking the creativity to do a big task then I tick off a few little ones. It helps me feel like I’m still getting somewhere. At the end of a day I look back at my task list and cross off what I’ve achieved, even if it’s small it’s still valuable. And if I’ve done less than I would like I don’t beat myself up over it, I just move the task to another day. You can’t always force yourself to be in the right frame of mind, so there is no point in getting upset with yourself.

Manage expectations

When it comes to distance learning it can be very easy to drift away from the course and stop participating. It’s important to decide what your expectation is for yourself, it doesn’t have to be the same as everyone else’s. You might not be able to attend everything or contribute to every discussion but make sure that you’re meeting your own minimum requirements. Ask yourself what it is you want to get out of the course and make sure you’re always working towards that. Sometimes I feel defeated when I can see so many of my peers participating more than I can, but I remind myself that all of our situations are different so our experiences of the course will be different.

In summary…

I’m into my final year now with just two modules to finish before it’s all over. Looking back I have certainly made myself proud with all that I have managed to achieve. And although I haven’t been the most perfect student – and self-discipline was definitely a tricky thing to master – I think we often surprise ourselves with what we’re capable of when we throw ourselves in the deep end!”

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