School as an adult

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There’s been a topic that has come up plenty of times recently, and that is how I am doing as a part-time student who also holds a full-time job.

First, a bit of background.

I have held a job continuously since I was 15 and am no stranger to being a working student.  I self-funded my undergrad degree and managed to come out with only $12k in loan debt.  Before I graduated from university I had done a variety of jobs including working as a retail cashier, clothing store associate, exam proctor, pizza maker, supervisor, franchise manager – the list goes on.  It might seem like a lot of different job titles but a few of them were all with the same employer when I was promoted.

After I graduated from university it took me just over a year before I was hired into the job I now call my career.  For the record, I applied for this job two years prior back when I was still in university.  It’s a reality for most undergrads that you will not graduate into an amazing job right away.  Even a year might seem like quite fast but I had started the hunt and application processes when I was in my third year of university.  My number one tip to current university kids would probably be to start the job hunt early.  Some employers might request that you hold a degree but sometimes you can convince them to consider you until you get the magical piece of paper.

About a year after I started my career I started graduate school with the blessings of my employer.  I am very lucky to have an employer who believes strongly in professional and personal development, and also recognizes that especially in technical fields the game changes quickly and we need to maintain our skills through continuous re-education.  Another twist to the story is that I do not attend class in person but actually am doing the whole thing online.

So, one of the questions that my co-workers asks me is how I view education now compared to when I was doing my undergrad.  I believe the biggest difference between how I feel about it now is that I care a whole lot more.  Even though I graduated with a degree I loved as an undergrad, undergraduate degrees are still quite generic and cover a wide range of sub-disciplines.  For example, my degree is Geography.  In order to fulfill the requirements I had to study both human and physical geography, as well as a variety of elective courses which usually consisted of religions and culture for me.  Those who know geography will know that human and physical are further broken down into an enormous list of disciplines.

So, is variety a bad thing with undergrads?  Not necessarily.  It’s true that we need to learn from a variety of topics in order to become well-rounded individuals.  Even in my career as a GIS professional, I draw plenty from the other geographic disciplines.  I obviously do not have an in-depth knowledge of them, but I know enough to ask questions and find answers, and evaluate the truth in those answers.  By studying religions and culture, I was afforded the opportunity to learn lots about society and the world we live in.

Once you’ve entered into a career, you need to be specific.  General knowledge of a wide variety of topics isn’t always useful.  Some you will learn on the job of course, but if you are able to find post-graduate education in your field I would 100% recommend considering it if you have the time and funds.  And I think you will find that the experience is quite different from your undergrad.  You might not enjoy 100% of the courses you take, but I am sure that you will find the value in taking them.  My undergrad marks were pretty mediocre, but I am excelling now with a GPA I could have only dreamed of before.  And I find myself more excited about the assignments.  They are lots of work but I am excited to learn something that I know without a doubt I will eventually be using at work.

Is it for everybody?

Well, probably not.  I think it all depends on goals and you have to weigh the costs and benefits.  My new certifications will not bring me immediate financial gain.  I’m not getting a promotion or pay raise any time soon.  I have a goal to progress into a supervisor or management role in the future, and that’s where I hope my hard work now will benefit me.  I will have to compete against others and I now have something that they might not.

I also had a goal of being a better employee overall.  I wanted to be able to perform at my very best and I found myself forgetting some of the basics.  These courses have reminded me of the things I forgot in between undergrad and my current position.  I have also found many new ideas that I am eager to implement into new projects.  I also now have some knowledge that other members in my team do not, and that makes me a valuable asset for training and innovation.

You also have to weigh the pros and cons of the effect that studying while working will have on your present life.  I rarely leave my home, and when I do it’s mostly to run the essential errands.  Long weekends no longer exist, I haven’t watched a full movie since before Christmas.  I live in a different city than the rest of my family and we are so far apart that I require at a minimum three-days to visit with them.  I am no longer able to do that.  My daily routine consists of going straight to work and then straight home where I spend 1 to 1.5 hours taking care of dinner and then study until bedtime.  When the days are sunny and warm I am stuck looking at the sky from my semi-permanent position in front of my laptop.  I’d love to read a great novel but I barely have time to read my textbook.  In some cases I’ve even resorted to bringing my textbook to the gym with me so that I could read while working out.

If I had a significant other or a child, imagine how stressful it would be!

Could I have waited until I was older?  Possibly, but I was afraid I would get so used to having my regular time off that I wouldn’t be able to get back into the studying mindset.  I still remember how to properly read and take notes, how to format my assignments and write a proper bibliography.  I might not be able to do all of that 10 years from now and would have to relearn how to be a student.  After working a 9-5 job with every weekend and holiday off, would I be able to go back to no time off at all?  I felt that if I waited I wouldn’t have the motivation to do it – but that’s just me.

There’s also a big difference between classroom-based and online learning.  When you are learning everything online you have to be a great self-starter.  There is nobody to motivate you and you will at a minimum have one assignment due each week.  Reading is essential and it might be hard to get a hold of your professor or classmates if you are having troubles.  Expect to be spending a lot of additional time doing research in order to understand the concepts.  It’s also ridiculously easy to let the internet creep in and take over your time.  Before you know it you have spent two hours on Facebook instead of reading or writing.

So for those of you who are considering hitting the books again, I want to be downright honest with you – it’s not the easiest thing your going to do.  Don’t expect that your professional experience is going to carry you forward.  It will to some degree but you’ll also find that there is plenty you don’t know about your own field, but that’s probably the reason why you are there in the first place. 🙂

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