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 by Chantelle Francis
, posted on 27 Jun '19

Working During a Masters - How Hard Can It Be?


Postgraduate study is demanding, but many students still manage to balance a Masters degree with part-time work. The trick is knowing what to expect - and how to manage your time. At the time of writing, Chantelle was completing a Masters at the University of Sheffield whilst also working three different jobs.


In a taxi on my way home from a night out, the driver gets talking, and proceeds to ask me what I do for a living. Well…

When I first tell people that I have three jobs and I’m doing a full-time Masters, it looks pretty impressive. But the reality is, part-time roles are becoming far more popular with employers, so trying to earn a living can often feel like a bit of jigsaw puzzle. Still, depending on what it is you need from your work (money, experience, networks) and what it is you want to do, it’s likely that there are plenty of opportunities around the corner for you.

But how do I manage three? It’s all down to the contracts, and managing my time.

Types of contract

I've worked a few different contracts during my Masters, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages for postgraduates.

Casual hours

One of my jobs is a ‘casual hours’ contract with my university, working a few open days throughout the year.

This means that hours aren’t very regular, but it’s a handy trickle of income now and then. Getting a shift is often luck of the draw – an email is sent round asking for availability for a few dates, and if you aren’t one of the first to respond, chances are you may not get a good chunk of the available hours.

Work hard, though, and it’s almost guaranteed that you will be recommended to others in different departments that need an extra hand now and then – I now work open days for roughly three departments.

If you know where to look, universities can make for the ultimate employer – just don’t ignore those ‘pesky’ emails at the beginning of term – they could hold an opportunity for you.

Zero-hours

There’s been plenty of controversy over zero-hour contracts in recent years, but the possibility that the government could scrap them is a scary prospect for lots of students.

For me, having a zero-hours contract means I can pretty much work whenever I want. If I fancy going home for a weekend and want to pick up a shift with my retailer, they’ll gladly give me the hours if they have them. If I’m super busy with coursework and my manager asks if I can come in, I’m not necessarily obliged to do so.

This does of course mean hours are not always guaranteed. So if I’m strapped for cash and can’t pick up a shift, it’s a bit tricky.

On the other hand, I don’t always have to worry about booking time off for holidays – if I’m not going away during busy times of the year (Christmas, bank holidays, etc.) I can more or less just let them know I won’t be around for a week or two. The downside is, unless I do extreme amounts of overtime, I don’t get any paid holiday.

Of course, I can’t just keep a job in the side-lines, and work nothing for months on end. The actual hours that you may have to work on a zero-hours contract will probably vary depending on the employer.

For me, I have to do around 12 hours per week for 10 weeks of the year. These weeks can be organised around holidays and study leave, so for the past three years I’ve done two weeks at Christmas, two at Easter, and six over the summer.

Fixed-term

Fixed-term contracts can take a variety of forms, including permanent and temporary contracts. The latter is usually more popular with students.

I've also worked as an online copywriter whilst I complete my Masters. This has been my most substantial job with regards to hours, and the change took a while to get used to. Unlike my other two jobs where I’m paid an hourly rate, this is salaried, so it affects pay, time off, and holidays very differently.

My contract is 30 hours per week, with a flexi-time system – as long as I’m around between 10am-4pm each day, and fulfil my 30 hours, I can start any time from 8am, and finish any time up 5/6pm – which is ideal as a student. Getting to work for 9am is essential if I want to avoid staying behind late on a Friday evening. . .

The bonus for this type of contract is that I am entitled to a certain amount of paid holiday per year – who wouldn’t want to be paid for being on holiday?! Fixed contracts can include other benefits too, such as sick pay and child care – so if you are a mature student, this may be the ideal type of contract for you.

I couldn’t have taken on this many hours earlier on in the year, as my first two terms had set contact hours for lectures and seminars. However, my final term as a Masters student is dedicated to my dissertation, so it’s down to me to decide how many hours per week should be spent writing it. If I’d started this job earlier in the year, I definitely wouldn’t have taken on more than a 16 hour contract.

So which contract type is best for studying a Masters Degree?

That’s a little different for everyone, so you need to work out what’s best for you, depending on your specific circumstances. Knowing precisely what you can manage is essential – you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.

Managing your time

As an MA student, my contact time was much lower than my undergraduate degree (roughly 4-6 hours per week). However, this does mean a lot of independent study. This should be at least 5 hours a day, (according to my Uni).

On average, most universities usually recommend full-time students work no more than 16 hours per week. And believe me, when you’ve got 3 articles a day to read for each of your four modules, you don’t want to be doing over-time

Masters study is definitely rewarding, but it can also be exhausting. Oftentimes, my evenings were spent falling asleep on the sofa, having attempted to read that book chapter for tomorrow. And with the prospect of spending my entire weekend serving customers, it could often be a little stressful working out when I’d actually get some study time. There’s a few little knacks that you can learn to manage your time effectively as a working Masters student.

#1 - Never leave your house without something to read

This included when I was meeting friends for drinks. They’re late? Read a few pages of your book.

The morning commutes to work also provided invaluable head space. I never felt too inspired travelling at 6:30am on a Sunday morning, but the 45 minutes it took to get to work became a great way to get some studying done. Unless you suffer with horrible travel sickness, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be doing some form of work on your morning commute. Those tweets can wait ‘til later, right?

You may not feel like you’re achieving a substantial amount of work in the short time you travel, but those snippets soon add up.

P.S. – post-it notes are a must.

#2 – Work out which study environment works best for you.

For my first two years of undergad, I always believed that I worked better at the library, because there were less distractions. Problem is, I never actually tried working at home until my third year. Finding a good place to study means that when you get home from work, you’ll be less tempted to sack off you’re reading – and you might even begin to look forward to it.

As it turned out, working in the library was more like a socialite’s paradise – which meant a small percentage of actual work achieved. It also meant time getting there and back, which could be used elsewhere. For me, putting on my scruffy joggers, making a good brew, and setting up at my dining table was the way to go.

So, don’t be tempted to study the same way your friend does – it just might not work for you. If you want to work at home, there’s no shame in leaving a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door. Everyone’s in the same boat: you don’t want a ‘brew break’ turning into 3 hours of Keeping up with the Kardashians.

#3 - Find a time of day that suits you

It’s always hard to be where your friends are not, but learning to separate your time into earning, learning, and relaxing to a timetable that suits you personally will always have bigger benefits in the long-run. Sure, you might miss out on the odd drink at the local now and again – but a big’un coming up at weekend? No probs, you ticked everything off for this week.

If your shifts with your employer are irregular and you’d like something more fixed, don’t be afraid to ask if you can change them (or vice versa!).

A lot of the time, employers can accommodate you needing to finish or start a little earlier. With my retail job, I found that working 8am-12pm most days set me up for the day really well. I hadn’t lost a whole day working, and I was already awake and ready to get stuck into coursework when I got home.

#4 - Negotiations

If you find that your working hours are becoming a little too much, and your employer won’t budge, you need to decide if keeping the job is actually worth it. After all, you came to University to get a degree, and not that brand new iPad.

There will be other jobs – don’t stick to the same employer if the job just isn’t working with your studies.

Other ways to fund your study

Working during a Masters can be a great way to support yourself as a postgraduate. But it isn't your only option.

There are plenty of ways to fund your studies alongside (or instead of) working, especially with postgraduate student finance available for Masters students. However, if a loan isn’t what you’re looking for, you can check out other funding sources such as universities, charities, crowdfunding, or even employer sponsorship.


Editor's note: This blog was first published on 17/08/2016. We've checked and updated it for current readers.





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