Meet four academics who decided to keep working while they completed a postsecondary degree. All admit that this decision comes with its own unique challenges, and share their reasoning for choosing this path. The panelists are: Arwen Fleming is a PhD student in communication studies with research focus on the intersections of memory, archival photography, and landscape in the aftermath of urban displacement and redevelopment in Montreal. David Ip Yam is a higher education professional and leadership educator by day, martial artist and relationship strategist by – night, and a PhD student throughout. Patricia Paul (MEd., MSc A CFT) works in a university setting and in private practice where she enjoys learning, being active, and working on her green thumb. Salomon Gamache balances dedication to work and passions for life as a financial planner, graduate student in taxation law and a marathon runner.
How did you select your graduate program?
Arwen: I chose the program primarily because of my supervisor and his expertise in my area of research. I knew the program had a great reputation, but I didn’t want to pursue a doctorate without a clear sense of who my mentors would be and how they would help me grow as an academic. I completed my master’s degree with the same supervisor in 2015 and I’ve learned so much already from his approach to research and graduate mentorship. He’s always been very encouraging and supportive of my research and interests, even as I’ve moved into studying part-time.
David: I selected this program for three reasons:
- The program offers a postsecondary education stream and is enriched by an interdisciplinary approach.
- My supervisor was enthusiastic about supporting my application. My rule was to apply only if an excellent supervisor was willing and available to work with me.
- Finally, I had practical considerations: time and money. Since I work full-time at the university where I study part-time, I’m not only able to get to class and to the library without having to commute, but I also benefit from the support that our institution provides for continuing education.
Patricia: I believe the program chose me. It was my second choice on my graduate program application and was grateful for the opportunity. The program caught my attention after meeting with an advisor about the program. As she talked about the program and its requirements, I began envisioning myself as a student in the program. I researched the program and the rest is history.
Salomon: I did my BBA in accounting at Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR). At that time, I had the choice to work for local accounting firms or move to Montreal. Since I was already working part-time with a financial institution and enrolled in a university program to be a financial advisor, I decided to make the move.
I opted not to take the accreditation accounting tests and instead I pursued an undergraduate certificate in financial planning to be a certified financial planner. After going through the portfolio management designation, I finally decided to start a graduate program. In financial planning we deal with taxation matters often so it was natural for me to start the master’s degree.
What motivated you to begin this graduate degree while working?
Arwen: I began as a full-time student but decided to take a break from my program in the spring of 2016 and seek out full-time work to support my family. My partner and I had been dealing with a number of stressful family issues for a couple of years and choosing to refocus on my professional life helped me regain the financial stability and life balance that I needed to take care of my mental health. Graduate studies require a lot of stamina and it’s not always possible to continue a graduate degree while dealing with the life challenges so many of us encounter in our 20s and 30s.
Working for a university while pursuing graduate studies also comes with some great advantages, such as tuition waivers and professional development funding. I enjoy the immediate satisfaction and concrete challenges of my daily work, as well as the joyful curiosity of the prospective undergraduates I meet as a recruiter. It makes me appreciate the education and the opportunities I’ve had. As well, if I hadn’t chosen to pursue full-time work three years ago, my partner and I wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy our own home or save for retirement. My work benefits have also allowed my partner to work toward a Master’s degree at Concordia as well.
David: I was motivated to pursue the doctorate while working because I’m curious and invested in my research topic. I enjoy the reflexivity between theory, research and practical events in my day-to-day work. It’s not uncommon for me to apply what I’m learning in my courses to circumstances and events at work – to attempt to make sense of things, to shape perceptions, and to be more thoughtful in my approach. Perhaps an even greater motivator was the encouragement I received from role models, peers, and mentors.
Patricia: Financial restrictions. The program I entered required full time studies and an internship component, none of which was paid. I therefore had to plan my budget to a T, which in the beginning required me to save a little more money before taking a 16-month leave of absence.
Salomon: When I started the program, I was working in a private financial institution for physicians. As they were either self-employed or incorporated, our meetings were often joined by specialists like accountants and lawyers to create client corporation and to integrate planning structure. I wanted to understand how things work so I decided to pursue a graduate degree in this area. Now that I am working in a non-profit financial institution, in the private wealth team, I have opportunities to implement all that learning regularly.
How do you balance work and graduate degree?
Arwen: In some ways, it feels easier than balancing my full-time graduate studies with part-time work because my income is so much higher than it was as a student (which relieves a lot of financial stress) and my work schedule creates a clear structure to work around. I try to view my doctoral work as a passion I pursue outside of work, like a music practice – if I’m unable to focus on my studies due to a more hectic work period or other commitments, then I remind myself that I need time to reconnect with my project and work up to a productive writing schedule again.
I would not be able to make any progress if it wasn’t for my partner, who takes on a lot of the daily chores when I’m on a roll, or my wonderful work team, who make it so much fun to come to work every day. If I didn’t enjoy my day job so much, I don’t think I would have the energy to pursue my doctorate. A terrible day job can really drain the creative energy and enthusiasm needed to pursue graduate work.
David: I find that diversifying where I spend my time and energy creates balance. For example, for my hobbies and side-projects, I facilitate and coach in the areas of martial arts, relationships and leadership development. These activities complement my work and PhD by giving me a space to be creative in different ways and contexts. I also cannot underscore the value of social support. My partner, friends and even some colleagues have been so supportive.
Patricia: Balancing work and school requires planning. It also requires a constant reappraisal of what worked and what could improve in terms of my time management. For example, I would prepare meals and freeze leftovers each weekend. Meal preparation was immensely helpful for the long days I spent on campus or at my internship.
Salomon: I do a lot of sports on a regular basis because staying activity helps me concentrate for the rest of the day, energizes me and regulates my sleep. As my spouse and I enjoy doing sports together (e.g., road biking, running, going to the gym), we are able to share important time together. Family time, whether watching a comedy or playing games) helps take off stress and turns off the mental switch.
What advice would you give to someone interested to follow your dual path of work and studies?
Arwen: Be realistic about what you can do, but don’t be afraid to push yourself – it’s okay to slow down later on if you realize you can’t maintain the same pace throughout your studies. Take the time to research your work benefits, including professional leaves, educational funding, flexible work hours, and incentives for pursuing graduate study. If the right opportunities arise, consider applying for a job at the university where you’d like to study. Depending on the institution, there are often a wide range of positions in research, communications, or administration that could be very compatible with graduate study, and in my experience, university employers are often more flexible and encouraging of employees pursuing graduate degrees.
David: It’s not just about time management, it’s also about managing one’s physical, emotional, spiritual and mental energy (a.k.a energy management). In other words, it wasn’t enough for me to ask: “Do I have time to accommodate the PhD?” I had to ask myself why I wanted to do it, how it would make me feel, and whether it would align with my sense of purpose. I also had to select activities to stop or pause to have the mental, physical and emotional energy to see this through. I would recommend taking the energy management assessment and to ask yourself to what extent pursuing a part time PhD would enhance or detract from your energy scores and to go from there.
In the end, I didn’t have to change my life to accommodate my PhD. I had to make room for it by giving up a part time teaching job and other recreational activities, but I kept my core routines and relationships intact. I think that this was a key ingredient to feeling at peace (for the most part) with this pace.
Patricia: Make sure you make time for self-care. When you feel overwhelmed, find a way to take a break, rest, and take care of yourself.
Salomon: For me, two things come to mind:
- Dedication (or passion): you have to love or have a great interest in the topic you want to study, especially at the graduate level because it’s tough. It requires more hours and necessitates the management of the other aspects of life (family, work, personal time).
- Structure: you have to be disciplined (very). If you delay your studies for even a short period of time, workload could compile very fast, particularly when combining graduate level part- time studies with life responsibilities. For example, if you are one or two weeks late in your readings, it’s going to be challenging to catch up. Time management is crucial and doing this well is key for me.
My grad program required me to leave the full-time workforce. This has had severe ramifications to me financially and professionally. My advice to those considering grad school is that if the program you’re looking at makes it impossible to maintain a career while completing the program, run far, far away. Academics who design programs which meet the needs of the “real world” understand the value of remaining engaged in the work force. Maintaining engagement in one’s career is not evidence of, nor is it permission to, put less effort into one’s academics (contrary to a lot of the social justice narrative). If done with integrity and honesty, it should enhance one’s studies.