At first glance, most people don’t know what to expect from part-time or online grad school. Some say it’s easier than full-time; others say it’s harder. Some students report struggling to access resources, while others find a wealth of support. Why is there so much debate about part-time and online grad school? And how should you prepare for them? This article will answer both questions and more.
In truth, part-time and full-time are apples and oranges. They’re so often debated because they’re fundamentally hard to compare. It isn’t that one is easier or harder, it’s that they involve different challenges. They offer different resources. And they require different skills. These differences fall into two main categories: time management and access to resources.
Many of these differences are nuanced and examining both the differences and the similarities will help you prepare for part-time or online grad school. For this reason, we recommend reading this article from start to finish to get the full picture. However, if you’re particularly interested in one of our top ten tips, here’s the list:
- Build Your Day Purposefully
- Give 100%
- Prioritize Big Blocks of Time
- Start off Light
- Consider Big Life Changes
- Build Your Own Community
- Use Digital Resources Over Human Resources
- Ask for Help
- Seek the Right Advice
- Take Care of Your Body
Time management is one of the biggest differences between full-time and part-time grad school. Full-time students have the luxury (and the burden) of devoting all their energy to grad school. Full-time students generally report their experience as “intensive,” “demanding,” or even “overwhelming.”
In contrast, part-time students are constantly splitting their attention between school, work, and family. This not only means increased travel time, but also increased mental fatigue and decreased productivity. So how can you practice better time management as a part-time or online student?
1. Build Your Day Purposefully
The surest way not to accomplish something is to wait until you “have time.” No one has ever spontaneously discovered a free hour to workout, prepare a meal, or clean the house. You need to plan for what matters to you. So ask yourself, "What are my top priorities right now?" And then, "Where is the best place in my schedule to put those activities?" If school is your top priority, be honest about that. If family comes first, make that clear in your plan of action. You need to allocate time for your top priorities first; only after that can you start filling in the gaps with what matters less. If you don’t allocate enough time, you’ll find yourself working overtime, missing deadlines, or even worse… multitasking.
Multitasking is truly the siren song of the modern worker. While almost all of us know that it seriously reduces performance (and in fact, that it doesn’t really exist), we’re still tempted to do it! And saying “just don’t multitask” is like saying, “just don’t eat junk food.” It’s terrible advice.
So instead, try reframing it like this: If you allow yourself to be pulled in all directions, you will give less than your best to all of them. Imagine yourself on a soccer field, sprinting back and forth between your different obligations, running the same 100 meters over and over until you collapse in exhaustion just halfway through the day. This is how your brain feels when you multitask.
2. Give 100%
If we cannot multitask, then the only viable alternative is to give 100% to everything we do, one thing at a time. It seems silly, but a lot of us have actually forgotten how to single-task. And the idea that we should rekindle that ability is slowly building steam. While some people are still trying to live two lives at once and “have it all,” you can get a head start on your single-task training right now:
- Meditate (even for just 5 minutes)
- Try using just one browser tab at a time
- Turn your phone off (yes, all the way off) during one meeting or lecture
Now there’s just one roadblock left: guilt. Many grad students struggle with guilt when splitting their time. If you have kids and you attend an evening study session, you worry that they miss you. If you have a part-time job and you’re in class, you want to check your work email. What if there’s an emergency? What if something goes wrong and you’re not there to fix it?
Most adults (grad students or not) experience this kind of anxiety. The best way to beat it is to remind yourself that only by giving 100% now can you give 100% later. If you spend half a study session on the phone with your partner or give in to checking your email during class, you’ll probably need to make up for that lost time and attention down the road. Instead, give 100% wherever you’re at right now. The more disciplined you are about instituting these divisions, the more effective you’ll be. And the best part is that it won’t just help you during grad school, it will help you for the rest of your life.
3. Prioritize Big Blocks of Time
Another great time management strategy is time blocking: grouping like tasks together and dedicating large chunks of your day to each category. The Doist blog gives this great example of an average (left) vs. a time-blocked (right) schedule.
By spending more time in one place (and one mindset), you can reduce switching costs, increase focus, and maximize productivity. For example, you might try doing school work from 6-9pm each night. Or you might confine your part-time job to just three days of the week. Keep in mind: time blocking doesn’t mean forgoing breaks. In fact, taking an active 5 to 10-minute break once an hour can actually increase productivity!
While we often daydream about the perfect schedule, it’s true that most grad students have outside constraints on their day, like:
- A class that’s only offered at a certain time
- A child who needs to be dropped-off and picked-up across town
- A client who can only meet on certain days of the week
When time blocking isn’t feasible, you still need to get that work done without multitasking. What can you do? In this case, we recommend getting creative with your schedule. Consider waking up an hour early each day or doing a working brunch every Sunday. Wherever you can find more time, try it! Then, after you’ve tried a few different time slots, make what worked best a regular habit so you have an extra hour or two each week.
4. Start off Light
Sometimes, part-time grad students use all the strategies above and still feel rushed. This is usually a symptom of overcommitment. Most part-time students overestimate the workload they can handle and choose an academic schedule that’s simply too demanding given their other responsibilities.
If you’re thinking, “But I’m different.” You may very well be right! But here’s why you should start with a light course load anyways:
- It’s easy to add an extra class or take on more work, but it’s hard to walk back commitments once you’ve made them.
- Succeeding early on will give you the confidence to tackle even more, while taking on too many classes at first might demoralize you.
- You can graduate on time, even with a reduced course load, by adding summer or winter courses.
- It gives you the chance to catch mistakes early on (like commuting, homework, or networking taking much longer than you expected).
As you build your schedule, carefully consider any factor that might affect your workload capacity. Schedule at least one less class than you think you can handle and add at least one more semester to your graduation plan. If you make initially conservative choices with your academics and your career, it’s likely you’ll either hit the mark or be pleasantly surprised by some free time.
5. Consider Big Life Changes
In addition to your academic life, you also need to consider your personal and professional lives if you want to succeed in part-time grad school. If you’re about to:
- Buy a house
- Have a child
- Make a large investment
- Take on a big promotion
- Switch careers
… now might not be the right time for grad school. If you’ve yet to make that big life change, consider whether it’s more or less important to you than attending grad school right now. Because as hard as that choice is to make, you can’t do both. The best situation for a part-time grad student is one where they have a regular schedule and a stable personal life, and they’ve mastered their day-to-day at work. If that doesn’t sound like you, consider delaying school.
And if you’re thinking, “It'll be manageable as long as I have a really light course load,” keep in mind that grad students who spend longer in school than their peers tend to lose interest in the degree and often don’t end up graduating.
Access to Resources
Access to resources is another major difference between full-time and part-time grad school, and it’s a perfect example of the apples and oranges dilemma. Part-time students usually spend less time on campus and utilize fewer human resources (possible cons), but they also receive special attention and have a more streamlined learning experience (potential pros).
As a part-time student, you’ll probably spend less time on campus than your full-time counterparts. Full-time students have constant access to quiet study areas, computer labs, and student-friendly shops and restaurants, while part-time and online students often find it difficult or even impossible to access these resources.
But physical resources aren’t the largest benefit of being on campus. The primary reason that being on campus is an advantage is that engaging with other people is the most beneficial part of grad school. Being on campus makes it easier to network, find peers to study with, and attend office hours, which ultimately makes students who can get to campus more successful. But if you’re a part-time or online student, there are some unconventional strategies you can leverage to make up the difference.
6. Build Your Own Community
7. Use Digital Resources Over Human Resources
Human capital is inherently limited; no matter how many personnel a school hires, each one can only do so much work in a day. In response to that constraint, grad schools generally take two main actions:
- They allocate staff only where they are most needed and most valuable
- They create resources for students that do not require human capital
Generally, staff is most needed and valuable to full-time students. This is because full-time students spend more time on campus (and are thus more likely to actually use the school’s services), pay more (and thus expect more from their education), and have a greater demand for career services specifically. Generally, part-time students who already have jobs are less concerned about getting a job over the summer or being employed once they graduate.
For all these reasons, much more attention is given to full-time students than part-time ones. For example, full-time students often receive an initial email outlining all the services available to them and why they should use them. In contrast, part-time students often need to go out of their way to find and utilize those same services. This is the status quo for a reason, but you should never be afraid to demand the services that are most valuable to you.
Grad schools’ second response to limited human capital is creating digital resources to better serve both full-time and part-time students. Once they’re established, digital resources cost almost nothing to reproduce and distribute. They are widely available to every type of student. And they’re usually simple to access. Digital resources include things like... job or internship posting boards, school-specific networking sites or alumni directories, automatic resume evaluation tools, online library access, and articles or guides written by the career and academic services departments. This is a fantastic jumping-off point for part-time and online students.
In addition, schools often have specialized resources for categories of students like executive MBAs, part-time students, and online students. So if you’re in one of those groups, you might find you’re actually being reached out to more or that the resources you’re being recommended are actually more helpful. Take advantage of these specialized resources whenever possible.
Lastly, part-time and online students almost always access their school work through convenient, centralized online systems. Course content is usually very well-organized and it’s hard to miss assignments. This is one of the biggest advantages to part-time grad school.
So far, we’ve discussed seemingly endless differences between full-time and part-time programs. However, there are also many similarities. These strategies apply equally to full-time and part-time students: asking for help, seeking advice, and engaging in self-care.
8. Ask for Help
Both full-time and part-time grad students struggle occasionally and both groups can feel underserved by their programs. If you’re in that position, it’s wise to ask for help. This is the simplest yet most often overlooked tactic. If you’re not getting the support you want or need, ask for it. Professors in particular are happy to assist you, whether it’s with course content, making connections with classmates, or networking for your career.
9. Seek the Right Advice
No one knows a situation like the people who’ve lived it. Talk to current and past students of your program and ask them for concrete advice. More often than not, every one of them will have some version of, “I wish I knew this back when I started,” or “If I could do it again, this is what I would do differently.” Talk to three or four people and extract all the wisdom you can.
10. Take Care of Yourself
This is straightforward but incredibly beneficial advice. If you’re overtired or sick, your productivity automatically goes down. Try to limit stress, avoid all-nighters, eat healthy, and exercise regularly if you want to stay happy and effective.
It seems that we are still far from settling the debate, but we hope that you enjoyed this article nonetheless. If our top ten tips for mastering part-time grad school have been successful, then you are now more optimistic and more prepared for the challenges ahead. Good luck!