Saturday, March 26, 2011

Combining Work, Family and School

The NYTimes had an article this week entitled "What’s Your Biggest Regret?"  While I have some - doesn't everyone? - one of the biggest is that I didn't get my Master's degree before I had kids.  But when measured against the regret that I would have felt if I hadn't had my kids, it is minuscule.  Logistically, however, obtaining my Master's then pre-kids would have been a more efficient way to go. 

Also this week, the WSJ Career Forum had a blog post by Sue Shellenbarger.  The reader asked how to go back to school while also working and parenting and Shellenbarger asked for reader's tips and hints.  

Deep in the recession of 2000-2001, I decided that my skills needed an upgrade.  But with two elementary school-aged kids, I knew that I would have a hard time fitting it in, much less actually making it to class at night after 40+ hours a week on the job.  I began investigating online MBA programs and settled on one that was a mirror of an in-person degree at a well-respected private not-for-profit school.  This accredited program was taught by a combination of working professionals and full professors. 

The program stated that students normally should expect to devote 20-25 hours a week to studying and I then realized that I would only be able to take one class at a time, which lengthened the program for me.  There was also the issue of cost and I was lucky that my employer had a partial tuition reimbursement program with a yearly maximum allowance, so I ended up using four years' worth of stipend, but actually took slightly less than three years to complete.  My program had six sessions a year and required 11 classes to complete, so I took four sessions a year. And I ended up spending 25-30 hours a week studying. 

How did I accomplish what I didn't think I could complete?  Ingenuity and determination.  I studied on the bus during my commute.  I read on my lunch hour. Lost sleep was a given. During weekend drives to soccer games for my kids, I outlined points for research papers.

Thanks to the advantage of technology, I was able to integrate the school work into my life.  For instance, my daughter was going to a week-long soccer camp, and I wanted to take the four hour drive to drop her off, but I had a Business Law paper due the next day.  I hooked my laptop up to the car battery and typed in the middle seat of our car while my husband drove.  I had my notes all spread out on the seat.  Was it fun? No, but I got  a grade of 98% on the paper. 

What did I give up? Television, movies, novels, reading for pleasure, sleep and having people over for dinner.  But since I had breaks between sessions and took some sessions off (like the November/December sessions), I was able to relax and regroup during the breaks.  This might not work for you if your program has "cohorts," which are groups of students that go through the program together in lock-step.  Cohorts are great for getting to know your fellow students so that's a trade-off you'll have to weigh for yourself if you think you might not want to go straight through.  I still was able to "meet" many of my fellow students in a non-cohort program and still consider them colleagues five years later. 

One thing that I didn't give up was volunteering at my kids' school.  I was PTA Treasurer for two years and then PTA President for one year during the time I was completing my Masters.  Was I loony for taking on this additional burden? Yes and no.  I was able to develop time-saving techniques and shortcuts while working on my degree and these have paid huge dividends in my work and personal life. 

Studying side by side with my kids after work at our kitchen table became routine.  The kids learned that even adults have to do assignments that they don't want to do and they also learned by observing that learning is a life-long endeavour, not just something parents make kids do. 

An unexpected problem occurred was when my husband was diagnosed with a serious and potentially fatal disease about one year into my program.  I took two six-week sessions off from school at that time but since I had bought the textbook already - a 1200 page business law monster - I did all the readings in my spare time, mainly to combat nervousness about my husband's health and to quell my anxiety with something that I could control.  I could not control his diagnosis or disease.  In the end, the serious condition became routine and I was able to re-enroll.  Since I had already read the text, I was able to do really well in the class.  In addition, the thought of being the sole supporter of a household was certainly a motivation to complete the degree, though - an added incentive.

The graduate degree did catapult my career ahead the way that I intended.  I doubled my income in five years and I have more satisfaction from my career.  I have realized a long-term goal, which was to teach university and graduate-level classes myself: I teach online classes exclusively because my kids are still at home but hope to teach in person at some point in the future.    

My passion is mentoring and coaching others and the degree made this possible much earlier than I had anticipated.  I enjoy nothing as much as I do helping others to take on new challenges, offering a new or unique way of looking at a problem or road-block and reaching goals that are important to them.  Acting as a coach/consultant is rewarding in the way that speaks to me on a deeper level. 

In the ten years that have passed since I started my online degree, online programs and alternate programs for working adults have exponentially expanded.   There are some tricks to finding a program that fits your needs and I will cover these in a future post. 

Going back to school will use skills that you might not know that you have and will increase your ability to handle complex tasks.  It's a career move that I heartily endorse.

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