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6 Tips for Balancing Family and Degree

Words of wisdom from working professionals in Georgia Tech’s online master’s degrees

“With a full-time career, three kids, and working on a master’s degree, my time is spread thin. I want to ensure that each gets the proper amount of my time and attention,“ said master’s candidate, S. Chase Mecham.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Pursuing a rigorous graduate degree while working and making time for family is no easy feat. Mecham is one of the working professionals who shared tips for juggling family responsibilities while keeping up with the demands of taking a Georgia Tech online master's degree.

1. Set Realistic Goals

Start by setting goals you can meet. Most of the learners in the Online Master of Science in Analytics and the Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity, who shared their views, suggest taking one course at a time despite the temptation to take on more. As Joseph Kyle Richardson put it, “Be careful that your excitement about the program doesn’t overwhelm your judgment of what you can truly handle.”

Chrissie Flicker pointed out the importance of keeping your family needs in mind when selecting your courses. “Take fewer courses at a time and plan to finish the degree slowly. It’s better for your stress levels and for your family. Keep the goals realistic.”

2. Communicate Ahead

Accept that adding a demanding graduate program to an already busy life dominated by work and bustling with family activities – will be challenging. You’ll need a strong support system at home to make it work. That’s why it’s essential to communicate with family to set expectations, clarify how much time you’ll need, and get family members’ buy in before you start your program. “The commitment issue needs to be dealt with upfront,” explained Colleen Fellows. “If you don’t decide on how to handle those responsibilities beforehand, it’s only more stressful to figure out in the moment.

3. Manage Your Time Wisely

As Drew Mooney noted, “The biggest challenge has been time. Cutting back on time with a spouse and kids is hard.” Here are some ways Georgia Tech’s time-strapped online master’s degree learners are beating the odds.

Experiment with routines until you find one that works for you. A.J. Angus, for example, has set times during the week and weekends for different tasks such as reviewing lectures and working on assignments.

For some, working in the mornings before work or while children are asleep does the trick. “The time of the day I have most control over is mornings,” said Thomas Cobb. “I started getting up at 4 a.m. and doing classwork until 6 a.m. when I had to leave for work.”

For others, like Laura Beebe, evenings turned out to be a better option. “With the heavy degree requirements, I couldn’t rely on being able to complete them in a set number of hours in the morning. I had to adjust and do degree work in the evening so that I could work as long as I needed.”

If your job involves travel, you may find time for schoolwork while in transit as Richard Powers suggested, “Work on the plane. Work in the hotel.” Javier Rodriguez, who as a consultant sometimes spends two weeks at a time on the road visiting clients, adds, “Avoid the cocktails and go directly to your room to keep studying.”

Peter Sahlstrom shared that being deliberate with his time has been helpful. “It turns out that being able to get 30 to 60 minutes of work in every evening works better than an uninterrupted four-hour chunk when I’m distracted.”

For Mooney, being deliberate with time doesn’t apply only to schoolwork. “We’ve been extra intentional when we’re having family time. We put our phones away and focus on being present for ourselves and the kids. You get less time, so don’t waste it.”

Set priorities and accept that you may need to sacrifice some activities that don’t advance your current goals. Nikita Olifer, for example, had to make difficult choices to carve out time. “I had to give up some of my sports training and postpone Chinese lessons – perhaps indefinitely.”

Most contributors to this story agreed that planning ahead is essential. It enables you to keep pace with your work and meet deadlines. Planning your time also allows you to avoid distractions and focus on your priorities in the time you have available. And, as Cobb found, it can help to free up time for family activities. “Working ahead provides much needed flexibility especially toward the end of semesters when my kids’ activities are ramping up.”

4. Set an Example

Several learners in our master’s programs discussed the value of sharing their learning experience with their families. “It helps knowing that doing this advanced degree to push my mind is leading by example for my children,” Flicker explained.

For Mecham, talking about his experience emphasizes the value of education while also keeping lines of communication open. “I want to set a good example for them and encourage their education, so I talk to them often about what I’m working on and why,” he said. “I am using this opportunity to teach by example that education is important and at the same time, use it as a way to better communicate with my family.”

5. Appreciate Your Spouse or Partner

Without the support of an understanding spouse or partner, managing work, family, and a demanding graduate degree would be extremely difficult for most adult learners. But keep in mind that spouses and partners need a break too. As Frank Falat discovered, it can be well worth it to seek babysitting help – not only to make time for schoolwork. “It also reduced the toll on my spouse.”

For Sahlstrom, who completed two previous degrees at Georgia Tech with his spouse, this is the first time he’s “been a student without her” and he’s careful not to take advantage of her support. “It’s been crucial that I don’t take for granted that she’ll pick things up where I let them drop.

6. Keep Your Eye on the Prize

When you’re overwhelmed with schoolwork, it’s important to stay focused on the big picture. The time you spend on your master’s degree may seem endless but in reality, it’s a short journey and a worthwhile investment. Mecham advocates keeping your eye on the prize. “Yes, it’s going to be grueling at times. Prepare your family for this. Then share with them what you’re doing and how it will benefit you all as a family,” he said. “My children wear their Georgia Tech swag with pride and feel like they’re an equal part of this journey. It is something we can all be proud and excited about. Someday, maybe they’ll be students here as well.”

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