Here I was, halfway through the second year of my Master of Science in Computer Science program, and I was facing a major decision I worried might set back my big plan.
“I would be done in two years,” I had naively promised my husband before I re-enrolled in school. “In fact, some people I spoke to said they got done in one and a half years. I’ll take classes during the fall and spring semesters, and then I’ll get an internship during the summers in between so that my resumé looks really impressive. I can finally have a career.”
Over the past few years, my plan had been constantly shifting. Before returning to school, I was working as an administrative assistant at a college in Boston. After too much office drudgery and politics, I wanted to transition into a career I was excited about. So, I enrolled in community college and took evening classes to see if I could find a place where my interests and employable skills might overlap.
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It took some soul- and Google-searching, but I decided to sign up for a technology-focused master’s degree program. After spending a semester at one school, I transferred to Northeastern to take advantage of the university’s Seattle campus and focus on computer science.
Here are four things I learned by balancing a part-time computer science degree with full-time work:
Balancing a Part-Time Computer Science Degree With Full-Time Work
1. Prepare for setbacks.
No matter how well you prepare or how well thought out your plan is for earning your degree, you’re likely to experience a few setbacks along the way. I faced two.
First, despite my best efforts, the process of transitioning careers and transferring from a community college added more time to my graduation timeline than I had expected. And second, after the start of my second year, my summer internship decided not to offer me a position the following summer, which was a huge blow to my morale.
But, as luck would have it, I was offered an internship with a startup in downtown Seattle. The only problem was that they wanted me to work 40 hours a week during the spring semester.
Here were my options: I could continue to take a full course load during the spring semester and let this opportunity pass, or I could accept the internship, bulk up my resumé, and try to take a full course load over the summer. And yet, there was a third option: I could try to work and go to school part-time.
The last choice felt like a bit of a balancing act. Despite the time I put in, I struggled a lot during my previous internship and wasn’t confident I could make time for an evening class. Considering I could drop the class if things got too hectic, though, I signed up for one evening course and let the company know I would be starting in January.
2. Working and studying go hand-in-hand.
Working and studying often reinforced each other in positive ways. One of the benefits of my situation was that I would learn something and immediately see it in practice or even apply it to my own work. I was taking a course on design at night and would immediately see theories in practice while I was working. I could even effectively translate my studies into code.
This arrangement worked well for me due to my big, embarrassing secret: I actually don’t enjoy lectures. Northeastern University–Seattle is blessed with a great faculty, but an unhealthy diet of television has permanently ruined my attention span. By choosing to study part-time, I could learn through practice and code. While my courses equipped me with the assignments I needed to apply what I was learning, putting that into practice on a daily basis was beneficial to my professional development.
3. Take advantage of experiences.
As I mentioned above, after a successful semester, I confidently looked toward the summer and agreed to intern at a second startup while taking an evening course on big data. This was a particularly exciting time, as both of my internships and all of my courses were coalescing in fun and exciting ways. Here I started experiencing not just my courses helping my work, but my work helping me in the classroom.
At one point, I used a programming language I learned during the spring semester to make some simple code to help with my final project. Another time, I was able to bring questions and ideas about processing huge batches of information—a major focus of my work team—into the classroom. This meant I was seeing different perspectives and spent a lot of time engineering.
During this time, I was also developing confidence and learning more about what inspires me. Receiving feedback, writing code that was getting used by professionals, and making connections helped me get over my feeling of imposter syndrome and justified my choice to change careers. I even got to explore more practical concerns that I hadn’t really considered while engrossed in my studies, such as what type of manager I wanted, what kind of environment suits me best, and the technologies I most enjoyed working with.
4. Find your balance.
Of course, I also encountered challenges. When the semester was in session, I would need to cancel plans or choose to spend the day at the library instead of with my husband. I even recall a Friday night where, because of technical difficulties, I needed to use the TV to work while my partner watched “Great British Bake Off” on our old laptop. At that time, that’s usually what passed for date night. While studying is a major aspect of school, it did become a balancing act.
There were also times where I needed to make a decision between spending more time on school or work. This could have been mitigated if I sought more information about my expected course- or work-load. While I often communicated with professors if a due date wasn’t feasible or spoke with my manager if I was getting overwhelmed, considering those options was tough when I couldn’t go to bed because my code didn’t work as expected. It’s, of course, possible to succeed by working full-time and taking classes, but I wasn’t able to escape it without some bruising.
My Northeastern Experience
I will always appreciate that Northeastern allowed me to excel in my professional and academic life. The administration worked with me to ensure I maintained my financial aid and helped me find courses that fit my schedule. Working full-time while a student allowed me to take risks by joining different companies. It also helped me make friends and connections, and brought me closer to where I am today.
In a bit of a twist, I reapplied to the company that had originally turned me down after my internship. And this past winter, I joined the team as a full-time employee. While that initial rejection will always sting a bit, I recognize now that taking on full-time work while studying helped shape me into a better leader. These experiences forced me to grow, learn, and take decisions into my own hands. Working and studying at the same time was quite the challenge, but it is one I would tackle again.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in November 2017.