Many people are familiar with the concept of "work-life balance"—the ongoing struggle to keep a healthy split between time spent on your professional and personal time. For grad students who work full-time, it's more accurate to talk about "work-study-life balance." And if that's a mouthful, it's even more of a handful.
While it is technically possible to work full-time while studying full-time, it can be a bit like fighting a two-front war—both areas are important and require constant attention, and ignoring either is something you do at your own peril—and meanwhile, you can never forget your obligations on the "home front" either.
Of course, there are some obvious advantages to this approach, from finishing school more quickly to maintaining your current job and the associated income and benefits. Just be aware that by choosing to study and work full-time, you are essentially signing yourself up for a few very hectic years. You should be very clear about the reasons you want to be a full-time student and worker.
Many of the general challenges faced by grad students who work are covered in the article, "Are you ready for the lifestyle changes?". Those described here are of particular concern to potential grad students who are thinking about trying to work full-time while studying full-time. By doing either or both of these part-time instead if possible, you may manage to avoid or minimize some of the challenges described here. Also note that this article is primarily geared toward masters students; doctoral candidates often find that their studies constitute something of a full-time job in and of themselves.
The reality is that few universities or employers even conceive of their programs and positions being undertaken simultaneously on a full-time basis. As is evident from the term "full-time," full-time studies or full-time work are seen as being about as much structured activity as a person can handle in conjunction with the requirements of everyday life. If you opt to do both at once, you are bringing twice the demands and twice the responsibilities into your life (for a certain amount of time).
Neither your work nor your school will ever come to a halt while you navigate the demands they each place on you. In all likelihood, you will struggle to keep up with the requirements of both (and possibly be told by people in both places that you are compromising the quality of each).
This tug of war can take many forms, from schedule conflicts during crunch times to an accumulation of tasks that become difficult to balance. For example, you may have to stay up late several consecutive nights in order to finish a school assignment by a deadline that just happens to coincide with the day you need to file a report and present to a new client at work. Even if you have a fair amount of influence over your work schedule, you can't control for everything. Perhaps the annual conference you are supposed to attend for work will fall during your mid-term exams.
More often, it isn't the big events at work or school that add up, but rather the cumulative effect of many smaller responsibilities that makes full-time grad school and work so challenging. It can be downright difficult to keep track of all the work-related to-dos and projects while also digesting the intricacies of readings and completing assignments for several different courses at school. If you work in a position requiring constant innovation or creativity, you may find your inspiration sapped by the fatigue that full-time school engenders. Finding the mental stamina to keep it all together can be overwhelming at times—especially when these demands are added to your already busy everyday life.
The flexibility of your employer and your grad program are critical factors in your ability to balance the two endeavors. If your employer understands that you will have academic demands that necessitate sometimes sudden shifts in schedule or occasional personal days to deal with school-related obligations, it will make the prospect of studying that much easier.
Similarly, finding a graduate program that can accommodate some of the requirements of your work life can make a big difference. Finding out that your boss won't let you shuffle some work hours so that you can attend a 12:30 class twice a week is not something you want to discover after enrolling: If you want to keep your job, it's best to start talking with your managers about your graduate study plans early, while also researching schools that offer worker-friendly programs (evening or weekend classes, online courses or components, part-time options). See more about preparing your workplace in the article about going to school part-time.
Even if class schedules appear to complement your work schedule, be cognizant of the scheduling issues that can arise from out-of-the-classroom requirements, such as field research, practical experience components, or group projects where your fellow students may have far less demanding schedules than yours. A group meeting near campus at noon on Monday may seem perfectly reasonable to your classmates, and practically impossible for you.
Working full-time while also studying full-time clearly requires a lot of effort. Putting so much of your mental and physical energy into this uneasy arrangement can quickly leave you feeling fatigued, stressed, or both. While many grad students and workers routinely feel tired and stressed by their work, as a full-time student-worker you will likely encounter stress and fatigue levels well beyond those of most of your colleagues. Perhaps for the first time in your life, you may find yourself planning and accounting for every hour of every day, from the few hours you can block off for sleep to the 45 minutes of your commute or your lunch break (both may become "extra" time for studying).
"I worked full-time and our classes were evenings and weekends. I put on hold or gave up most of my other extracurricular activities during the time I was in school… Working full-time while pursuing my graduate degree, even though the program was designed for working professionals, was very intense. Plan for this and then go with the flow."
– Lee A. Murray, Master of Nonprofit Leadership, Seattle University, 2005
Allow yourself as much time as possible to complete the application process if you are living abroad while you research and apply for programs. Especially if you are in a developing country, you may experience delays in mail service, your ability to register for standardized tests, hearing back from potential references, and completing other pieces of the application process.
Given the fatigue and stress involved with studying and working full-time, it's important to recall your motivations for taking this approach, and to regularly reevaluate your ability to continue at this pace. If you are really finding it too much to handle, remember that it's usually possible to reduce your course load once you've begun your studies. For example, you may be a full-time student one term, and then become a part-time student for the duration of your education. Keep in mind that shifting the number of credit hours you take each term may also shift your eligibility for some loans and other financial aid.
While there are inherent challenges in trying to study and work full-time, there are also some advantages to the dual full-time approach. If you are considering this option for grad school, you probably have sound reasons for doing so, and these advantages may already be readily apparent to you.
One major advantage is that working full-time allows you to maintain your job and the salary and associated benefits while also progressing in your studies. You may rely on your job for your own or your family's health insurance, or you may need the income from full-time work to support yourself and still be able to afford grad school. Or you just don't want to take on considerable debt. Maybe you truly enjoy your job and know that staying involved there is part of your overall life trajectory just as your degree is. Continuing to work full-time while commencing grad school may even have additional benefits, such as a chance to apply classroom learning in work settings, and vice versa.
While the aforementioned advantages may also apply to part-time students who work full-time, part-time study simply may not be your preference. It goes without saying that studying full-time enables you to complete your degree and receive your qualification in less time. Indeed, the idea of finishing a masters degree in, say, two years going full-time as opposed to three or four years going part-time may be enough incentive for you to choose the full-time path, despite the associated demands and stress.
Similarly, you may feel that just because you are financially dependent on your work to afford grad school doesn't mean you want it to be an undertaking that drags on for longer than necessary. Another time-related concern that some working grad students report—although usually only to fellow working classmates—is the sense that that their non-working classmates have entirely too much free time on their hands. These students may wonder how they'd (fruitfully) fill their own days if they weren't working.
Perhaps you have milestones you want to hit on a certain life schedule; full-time studies and work may just make that possible. You may even be open to part-time study but find that the program you most want to attend does not offer this option.
It's probably clear that the advantages of full-time study and work are highly personal and subjective, while the challenges are all but inevitable. Although the prospect of working and studying full-time may seem ludicrous to friends and colleagues, it may suit your personal ambition and abilities much better than a part-time approach.
To answer the question in this article's title, provided that your employer and your program are accommodating, then yes, it is possible to work and study full-time. But without a doubt, this option is not for everyone. You'll have to decide for yourself, knowing that in many cases it should be possible to reduce your study pace or change your job in the middle of your studies if it all gets to be too much to handle.