How can I balance work, life and study as a postgraduate student?

If you’re asking how you can lead a balanced life as a postgraduate student, you may be asking the wrong question.

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We hear a lot about work-life balance in the media. There are articles on how to find it, some that question whether it even exists and others insisting that as we get older an unbalanced life may actually be best.

Whatever your view, it’s hard to deny that ‘finding balance’ has become a modern-day 'Holy Grail'. Trying to find that elusive balance between study, full-time work, and family and personal commitments, can seem overwhelming at times.

But for Kathy Bates, a current Masters student at RMIT University, completing study in a field she’s passionate about means that it becomes less about how to do something and more about how much she wants the result.

I love [my course], so it doesn’t feel like work. I have six hour classes on a Saturday and they go by in a blink. I don’t need to prioritise [study] because I want to do it,” Kathy says. ‘When you find things you enjoy, you just make it work.

Kathy doesn’t just manage her study either: in addition to her Masters in Public Policy part time, she also carries out two volunteer roles, works full time and trains two hours a day for the Ironman challenge.

Thinking about results

When it comes to study later in life, you need to ask yourself how much you want the end goal. And that goal is different for everyone.

It could be a career change, the next step up the ranks at work or a way to fulfil your passions. Whatever it is, it has to be compelling enough to motivate you or you won’t do it. Once you’ve worked out your compelling ‘why’, you can focus on the ‘how’ of finding what balance looks like for you. 

Seven tips for study-work-life balance

1. Communicate the benefits to those invested

Extra study is likely to benefit more than just you, suggests Professor Sara Charlesworth from RMIT’s School of Management and Centre for People, Organisations and Work, and it’s important to communicate what it means for everyone to make it easier.

‘Sit down with your family or your manager. Tell them why returning to study is important to you and the difference it will make not only for you but also for them. You are going to need them on side during your studies as there will be ups and downs along the way,’ she says.

2. Research institutions and courses

Consider the following questions when you start your research:

  • Are you after flexible learning? Check whether your course offers distance or part-time
  • Where’s the campus located and how will you get there? Think about where you want to study
  • Do you need childcare services?
  • Is café culture important to you? Check out the local cafes and restaurants

Have a question you can’t easily find an answer to on an institution’s website? Most universities and TAFEs have student advisors available who can help, like RMIT Connect.

3. Plan your time

‘The first thing to recognise is that some things are going to have to give way to fit your study … If you’re working full time, consider working part time. If this is not possibly then enrol on a part-time basis.

‘Plan for your study like you would any new endeavour. If it is one year, two year, three years you need to make it become part of your everyday life,’ says Professor Charlesworth.

4. Take advantage of online textbooks

Technology has brought about the end of the days when carrying around weighty text books in your bag is a necessity. Electronic readers allow you to have all your textbooks with you at all times, allowing you to dip in when you have a spare moment.

5. Get out of the house

It can be far too tempting to get distracted by all the chores that need to be done around the house when it’s essay time. So leaving the house to find a place where you can focus can often help. Try the silent section of the library or if you don’t mind a bit of background noise, try a café.  

6. Be realistic with your expectations

‘Be reasonable about what is doable in the time you have. Make sure you build in some down time … life events have a habit of getting in the way of study, and that’s OK,’ Sara explains.

Kathy agrees and points out that postgraduate teachers are very aware of the challenges their students face. She also suggests that you ask for extensions if you need them and communicate with your teachers if you’re struggling.

7. Don’t sacrifice too much for your study

While you will have to make some sacrifices to fit study into your life, it’s important not to sacrifice too much. Otherwise you’ll resent your studies, which will start to affect other parts of your life.

So before you ask yourself how to make it happen, ask how much you want the end goal.

If your reason for studying is not compelling enough, then your ability to find balance will seem like a struggle. But if you have a compelling enough ‘why’, managing your priorities will still be a juggling act but ultimately you’ll make it work.   

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