Earn a Degree While Working Full Time: 5 Strategies for Success

by Stephanie Thurrott

It can be easy to imagine earning your bachelor’s or master’s degree as a “traditional” student—an 18-year-old who’s starting college full time a few months after graduating high school, or a recent college graduate transitioning directly into a master’s degree program––but these days, the student demographic is changing.

More students are beginning college when they’re older, returning to college after a break, and maintaining full-time employment or caring for their children while working toward a degree. It’s entirely possible to earn a degree while working, and thanks to technology, there is more flexibility than ever before.

Answering a Newfound Calling

If you want to earn a degree while working, Azusa Pacific University alumna Joy Dye, MFT ’19, provides an inspiring example. Dye, who is married with two sons, enrolled at APU in fall 2015 and graduated in spring 2019 with her master’s degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy (MFT).

Happily employed as a teacher, Dye began considering a return to college nearly a decade ago, after a few developments in her life. First, starting in 2012, her family welcomed several foster children. “We fostered love, acceptance, and safety while they and their families healed and grew,” she explained.

The experience opened Dye’s eyes to marriage and family therapy, social work, and the process of healing relationships. At the same time, she found herself questioning her 20-year career in education, wondering if she had journeyed as far as she was meant to professionally. “Will I continue in the education field and retire when I reach that golden age?” she asked herself. “I wanted something more.”

5 Strategies Working Adults Can Use to Balance School and Life

It isn’t easy to return to college as a working adult—but it’s not impossible! Dye identified techniques that helped her manage the different demands she faced, enabling her to balance her life and earn a degree while working. Here are five strategies to consider:

1. Organize responsibilities. Dye said she lists her priorities as faith, family, work, school, and friends/social life. “Whenever I had a dilemma, it helped me to fall back on my priorities,” she explained.

2. Enlist the support of family. While Dye was studying, her husband and her sons, who were in high school and college, reorganized the family’s routine duties. They quickly rose to the challenge and took over the grocery shopping—and cooking—and chipped in with the cleaning.

Dye pointed out an unexpected benefit of this reorganization. “It was hard at first, but amazing things happened,” she said. “I still hardly ever do grocery shopping or cooking because my sons have stepped up and now are excellent chefs and bakers and know how to shop for food on a budget!”

3. Organize your time. Dye scheduled her weeks and months in a planner. She blocked out time to tackle required readings and assignments, and she also scheduled time for herself. “I found that when I scheduled my free time, I was able to enjoy it more. It removed the feeling that I should be doing something else,” she said. When she found that she needed more time to focus on school, she would take a personal day off from work.

Vicki Ewing, MA, LMFT, chair of the MFT program at Azusa Pacific, notes that concerns about time management among students who work full time are common. “The unique design of our program allows students who are working, have families, or other obligations, to begin classes in the evening,” she said. “We are always willing to work with students.”

4. Practice self-care. Amid her personal and professional responsibilities, Dye still found time to unwind and prioritize self-care. “I took walks and hikes, listened to music, and would spend a Saturday relaxing at home,” she said.

5. Turn to professors for support. Dye found that both the APU faculty and the office staff were extremely supportive. During her time as a student, they were consistently answered questions, encouraged students, and made themselves available to help.

“The faculty in APU’s MFT program are awesome. They made it a priority to get to know all the students in the program, including me,” she said.

Are You Thinking about Completing Your Degree?

It’s never too late to go back to school or continue working toward a degree from years past. Ewing points to the many successful students who have returned to complete a degree while working: “In our program, we have students ranging from ages 21 to 85. Taking the first step seem difficult, but once you complete your first semester, there is momentum to continue.”

Dye encouraged anyone who’s considering returning to college while working full time to ask themselves one important question: “What will I be doing a few years from now?”

Dye explained that answering that question revealed two paths:

  • If she didn’t enroll in the professional degree program, she would be in the same job in four years, and her future options would be limited.
  • If she enrolled, she could earn a second master’s degree, become an associate marriage and family therapist, and have a variety of options to explore in a few years’ time.

“This question helped memake that final decision to enroll—and continued to be a source of encouragement when things got hard,” Dye said.

Thinking that a degree from Azusa Pacific University may be part of your future plans? Learn more about the APU’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree programs to start creating the future you want.