Making the decision to study a postgraduate degree is a big deal. After all, your taking on something that’s going to have a big impact on your career (according to the 2019 QILT Graduate Outcomes Survey, median salaries for postgrads are more than $20,000 higher than for undergrads).
However, studying isn’t everything. You have a life as well, after all. You have a job. Friends and family. Exercise. A social life. Taking on a postgraduate course definitely means some adjustment, but you can definitely make it work without compromising your life too much.
Well, we’ve talked to two people with experience to get the lowdown on getting the most out of your studies – and your life.
Dr Shaunagh Foy is a registered psychologist who works as a student counsellor at Charles Sturt University as part of our student support network. She talks to current students when they have any concerns or queries, whether about their studies or anything else.
Michelle Smith recently completed a Bachelor of Business Studies with Charles Sturt University. And she had a lot of other things going on while she studied.
“When I started studying, I was working full-time, had two children, helping my husband run his business and volunteering on the fundraising committee at the local Ronald McDonald House. I also did my Certificate IV in Training and Assessment while studying my degree. But I felt I wanted to do more study to advance my career.”
Here are their top three strategies for getting the balance right.
1. Be prepared
When Dr Foy talks to postgraduate students, she finds that time management and fitting study around other parts of your life is often raised. She always advises students to start their study as soon as possible.
“One of the main tips I give is to read the subject material as soon as it’s available online. That can be up to two weeks before the subject or session actually starts. A lot of other universities don’t post any material until day one of a session; at Charles Sturt students can get a head start with a range of essential information for their course. This can include compulsory readings, a week-by-week schedule and also the assessment items for the end of the subject.
“What it means is you can open up the course material and see when the required reading and assessments are due. Then you can make a plan to ensure you can get them done.
“Some course coordinators also post the options for assignment questions early. You can start thinking about it well in advance – even if you don’t actually mean to. It’s not uncommon for you to be driving or mowing the lawn and you find yourself mulling over a topic! Touching base with your course coordinator regularly in the run-up to the course is also a good idea, as they can tell you when the material is available and offer advice for planning your study.”
2. Involve your family
Dr Foy recognises that it can seem daunting to take on study when you also have a family to look after. Even more so if you’re a working parent as well.
“I recommend right at the start of your study you sit down with your family, including your children if you have any, and explain what you (and they) can expect during your study journey.
“Also, tell them why you are doing it. What are your goals? Why do you feel it is the right move for you? Explaining why you are doing the study, the outcomes it will help you achieve, alongside how study will influence family life (in terms of, say, having dedicated time to study when you might need to say no to playing with the children) can really help at the start.
“It might be as simple as having to plan to bulk cook and freeze meals that can be reheated during the times when you need to do more study (at assignment time, for instance). Having a wall planner with such periods marked on it can also be a great help.
“If children know why you are doing something, they will more easily adapt to different circumstances. Also, by explaining why you are doing something and sticking to it, you set a great example to the kids in terms of following your passion and seeing it through.
“It’s also important, particularly for children, that you reiterate that while your study will mean change things, it’s not going to be forever. Depending on the age of your child, explain what you are studying, what you are reading or writing about, so they know what mum or dad is actually working on. Including your children makes it a lot easier to ask for time to complete things. It also makes it easier for the child not to take it personally if you have to spend some time away from them.”
Mrs Smith certainly found that her family was central to her study success.
“It was tough at the start, but I have a very supportive family and they helped me keep going. For instance, my 11-year-old son (as he was when I started my degree) would help with cooking dinners. I discussed what I would be doing with my family and they knew I needed time in my office to study.
“I also saw my studying as a good example for my son who was doing his HSC when I was in the last year of my degree. I’d say, ‘Okay, let’s both go off and study and then meet back here in two hours’. Then we’d go for a walk together or have a snack together, taking a break from our respective studies.”
Mrs Smith also found that when she was struggling with her balancing act, she could also get support from her online Charles Sturt ‘family’.
“When I felt that my study–life balance was getting out of hand, the student Facebook groups really helped. I could reach out to get advice and support to help me through.”
3. Make study a daily activity
Dr Foy recommends making study a part of your day-to-day life. Which can, in fact, give you more time for other things across your study journey.
“I suggest to postgrad students that you do something on your study every day. For instance, when there is a mid-session break, it’s better to see this as study time without classes rather than a period in which to switch off. Even doing something administrative like checking that the format of your essay references is correct can help keep you ‘tuned in’ to your studies. It also prevents last-minute accumulation of work, which helps keep the study–life balance throughout your course. Plus, it reduces anxiety, as you’re making progress with your studies every day, in however small a way.”
Mrs Smith found this strategy very useful during her business degree.
“It really helped to keep going, studying across three sessions and doing something every day. That didn’t mean we couldn’t have holidays and days out; but doing something each day kept me in the study mindset.”
Tips to help make your studies a success
So to sum up, here are Dr Foy’s top three tips to help maintain your balance when it comes to study.
- Plan ahead as much as possible.
- Get your family involved.
- Do something for your studies every day.