The Graduate Student Experience: How to Balance Work and School

by Tobin Perry

Leslie Castro, MS ’20, will admit that balancing graduate school and a full-time job wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it was downright challenging. But, as she nears the end of her graduate student experience at Azusa Pacific University, she said it has absolutely been worth it.

“I’ve always encouraged myself by telling myself that discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life,” Castro said. “A little bit of discomfort goes a long way in terms of personal development.”

What the Graduate Student Experience Is Like

Castro was in the middle of a career as a project specialist for ADP’s employment tax department when she started her graduate program. Looking for a career boost a decade after completing her undergraduate degree, Castro took advantage of her company’s tuition assistance to pursue a graduate degree in research psychology and data analysis. She’ll graduate from the program at APU in 2020.

While Castro said balancing school and work was tough at times, it helped her learn to make every minute count. Ultimately, she realized she liked to keep busy, continuously pushing herself forward.

“It’s a long journey where you will encounter setbacks, stress, and lack of sleep, but you will also pick up small rewards along the way, such as new learning experiences, friends, and a drive and determination you never knew you had,” Castro noted.

Nathan Ingalls, MA ’19, had a different experience but arrived at a similar conclusion. Ingalls was working at APU when the opportunity presented itself to start a graduate program in leadership with an emphasis on leadership development. Ingalls completed his degree in just under three years by focusing on one class at a time. By taking three-hour courses, he had one day of class—and usually 12 hours of homework—each week.

“I had 16 to 17 hours of commitment to the course a week,” Ingalls explained. “It was like a part-time job. And yet it was an incredibly positive academic experience that I gained so much knowledge from. The investment of time and energy was absolutely worth it.”

Thriving While Balancing School, Work, and Life

Now veterans of the graduate student experience, Castro and Ingalls have advice for those considering a similar path. Here are six tips they offer to anyone who’s thinking of going back to school in pursuit of a graduate degree:

  1. Build relationships with peers. Castro said the friends she developed in the cohort of her graduate program helped motivate her when the curriculum became demanding. Since they were all facing the same challenges, her friendships helped her feel less isolated.

  2. Ask for help. You need to speak up to your peers and especially your professors when you need help or have questions. Castro encouraged students to work at the pace that works for them—and to lean on the support of others when needed.

  3. Develop your routine. Castro noted that when you add graduate school to an already full life, the change in your routines can get uncomfortable. The challenge, she explained, is to develop new routines “so you can learn, grow, and benefit from that discomfort.”

  4. Prioritize your time. If you’re attending graduate school and balancing full-time employment, time will be at a premium. In an effort to balance all of your duties and responsibilities, you’ll need to prioritize your time and make every minute count.

  5. Know what you want to get out of your program. Ingalls encouraged incoming graduate students to think about what their priorities are in the program they’re pursuing. He advised students to write down what they want to learn from every class and to focus on achieving that during their time at school.

  6. Find your study spot. Ingalls found it particularly helpful to have a specific spot in his home where he could block out distractions and focus on schoolwork. This helped him make his study time count. Whether it’s in your home or on campus, it’s a good idea to find a space where you can cut out distractions and focus solely on your schoolwork.

Interested in finding a graduate school program that fits your career goals? Take a look at the list of graduate programs offered at Azusa Pacific University.