Returning to education while working full time: how I managed the balancing act

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Image It can be difficult to ignore the niggling thought that the career path you chose as a teenager might not be the most suitable direction for the person you have become. After having so much time for reflection over the last few years, many people are experiencing this same worry. In 2021, there was a 24% rise in applications from mature students for full-time undergraduate degrees, raising the bar for lockdown productivity from banana bread to essays. Of course, not everyone can drop everything and sign up for a full-time degree. More flexible courses are also a great option; with 28% of mature undergraduate students choosing to study part-time in 2019/20 and a growing number of distance learning choices, it’s a great time to sit down and take stock of your options.

I commend those who can decide what to study in college, follow it through to university and graduate jobs, and spend their whole lives on the path they chose at such a young age. I am certainly not one of those people. After returning to university to help shift my career path, I wanted to share my experience and hopefully encourage others to take notice of those moments spent pondering over dream jobs.

Why I chose to return to university

Before working as a Frontend Engineer and proud Spud, I painted faces as a makeup and special effects student, painted canvases in art courses, and then combined the digital paint bucket with coding as a Web Designer. I thought I was a cool arty type for years but eventually realised it was the coding aspect of my job that really excited me, so I explored ways to help me transition into engineering.

One option was self-learning with companies like Treehouse, which I used a lot when I started coding. They provide great quality tutorials for a reasonable price but I was looking for a recognised qualification and possibly some deadlines to give me a kick up the bum. Alternatively, bootcamps are a popular choice for career changers. They offer short courses that are jam-packed with modern languages and frameworks. However, they can be pricey, so quitting my job and diving into a full-time course for three months was not that accessible.

The winner for me was a part-time Master’s degree. They are pricey but the qualification offered some extra benefits that appealed to me:

  • Internationally recognised, which can help with jobs and visas when moving abroad
  • In-depth study of computer science fundamentals, both theory and practical
  • Opportunities to join graduate schemes to get a foot in the door with large tech companies

I chose the University of York (UoY) to take advantage of their distance learning courses with pay-as-you-go tuition fees and a flexible schedule that accommodates study breaks if life becomes too hectic. My time with UoY spanned two and half years, two countries and a pandemic, and although there were times when I nearly threw in the towel, I’m so glad I stuck with it.

4 tips for balancing work and study

1. Join the community

Connecting with fellow students undoubtedly helps you feel more included in the cohort but can be difficult with distance learning. To help with this, my coursemates created a Slack group that provided opportunities to network, share experiences and thoughts about the modules, ask questions and build confidence in speaking about technical concepts. Chatting with students in similar positions can be reassuring during big life changes, as not everyone in your day-to-day life will understand your decisions; being thirty years old and having to cancel plans to study for exams was sometimes a test of willpower. Everyone on the course was very much in the same boat, so together we could vent and celebrate small wins.

2. Create a workflow that’s effective for you

It took a while to find a routine that worked for me, as I hadn’t studied so intensely for a long time. The Pomodoro technique helped me to break down the mountain of required reading by splitting study time into repeated blocks of 25 minutes followed by 5-minute breaks. Small blocks reduced the intimidating workload and allowed me to concentrate on one task at a time.

Podcasts, blog posts and video tutorials were also a brilliant addition to my workflow. These resources rarely go into enough depth for academic use but they can help to build a well-rounded picture and spark some life into a potentially heavy topic.

A few I found particularly helpful:

  • Khan Academy (great for revisiting maths and basic computer science concepts)
  • Open Learn (Open University’s free courses)
  • CS50 (intro to Computer Science)
  • The YouTube heroes who make incredible tutorials for algorithms and data structures (Michael Sambol’s super quick tutorials. Abdul Bari, the algorithm king)

3. Maintain your social life

My social life certainly took a hit while I was studying. Initially, I struggled to make time for myself and friends, as there was always more to learn and it was difficult to switch off. I worked 40 hours a week and studied 15 - 20 hours, so I had to prioritise. Unfortunately, Tinder didn’t usually make the cut (although, maybe that's a plus). I blocked out time in my calendar to see friends and family, go for a coffee and remove myself from my study bubble. Maintaining a support system helped keep everything in perspective and provided company for the highs and the lows.

Synchronising annual leave with the end of a module was also a great way to switch off from everything and find time for some fun!

4. Ask for help

I was stubbornly independent when I started the course, as if it would be a greater achievement to complete it on my own. I avoided reaching out for help and tried to ignore the worries about inadequacy when comparing myself to more experienced students. This is obviously not recommended! Thankfully, as my confidence grew I felt more comfortable speaking with colleagues and asking for advice, which helped me develop my tech skills by listening to experienced engineers and also ensuring I could actually explain the problem to a third party.

Universities have many ways to support you, too. UoY provide writing classes and maths drop-ins for students who are feeling rusty. There are routes to handle exceptional circumstances if you are unable to study or take exams due to life getting in the way. For example, I used a Sit As If For the First Time (SAIFFT), for an exam at the beginning of the pandemic when I was living on the other side of the world from my family and didn’t know what I should do or where I should be. I realised I wasn’t in the right headspace to study, so I took time off and sat the exam again when I was feeling better. Whether it’s study breaks, retakes, counselling or wellbeing support, universities have many ways to support you.

Summary

My time at university was full of ups and downs, self-doubt and celebrations. There were times when I nearly quit but it was friends and family who helped me to take a step back and see that it would all be worth it in the end. When I received my grade for my dissertation I cried with joy, did a little victory dance and called my mum. My hard work had paid off and I achieved more than I ever thought I could. Image Changing your career path and pursuing that dream job can be daunting but it might be the best decision you make all year. If you’ve been thinking about retraining or returning to university but have doubts about your ability, I urge you to believe in yourself and think seriously about taking the leap. It’s never too late!