Grad School or Work? How to Balance Both

“Grad school or work?” is a common question. Adding classes and homework on top of an already 40-hour (or more) workweek sounds stressful—but it doesn’t have to be. There are tips and tricks you can leverage to find some semblance of work-life balance.

But first, you might be wondering, “Should I even go to grad school? Is it worth it?” In today’s job market, the benefits of a master’s degree keep growing. The number of jobs that require a master’s are projected to increase 18 percent by 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and those with an advanced degree are estimated to earn an average $1.38 million more over their lifetime than bachelor’s degree holders.

By earning a graduate degree, you’re gaining specialized knowledge in your field and signaling to your boss that you’re interested in advancing your career. Employers do take notice: 33 percent are now hiring those with a master’s for positions typically held by bachelor’s degree holders.

Because of that, it’s important to ask your human resources department if the company offers tuition reimbursement or an annual stipend for professional development. Fifty-nine percent of employers recently surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management said they offer graduate educational assistance.

Having the support of your employer makes the decision of whether to go back to school easier, and can help with work-life balance. If they’re encouraging you to earn your master’s degree, they’ll likely be more understanding of your graduate school schedule and accommodate if you need to leave work earlier than usual for classes.

Here are some other tips to help you balance grad school and work.

Incorporate Your Everyday Work Into Your Coursework

Another way to foster your employer’s support is if you leverage your master’s degree to solve an issue you’re facing at the office. If you need to complete a dissertation as part of your program, is there a topic or project your team is tackling that you could research or work on? Perhaps you’re in a marketing role and your company is trying to scale its business internationally. Exploring how to effectively market a product to customers with culturally diverse backgrounds would benefit the organization and help you stand out at work, because you’ve shown you can take initiative—a win-win.

Find the Right Fit

There are a variety of factors to consider when trying to choose the right grad school, including cost, program offerings, and location. If you want to learn on-campus and can’t move due to work, then you need to research the schools in your area to see which ones offer the best program for your area of study, as well as a network of professionals you can learn from and lean on throughout the process.

If you’re interested in learning online, you open up your options. You can explore universities in a different region and, rather than work around specific class times, learn on a schedule that works for you—introducing an added level of flexibility.

Balancing grad school and work will be easier when you’re in a program that aligns with your career goals and learning preferences.

Learn Time Management

Time management is crucial when you’re trying to complete coursework on top of the to-dos you’ve been assigned at work. Spend time on Sundays mapping out your schedule for the week. Determine what’s due and allot time—not just the night before—to finishing assignments. Create a schedule you can stick to that also leaves room for unexpected surprises, like a rush project at work.

Northeastern Associate Teaching Professor Joe Griffin encourages practicing “risk management.” In a post on project management tips for non-project managers, he suggests that adult learners trying to balance work and school should:

Identify risks, analyze them, and plan a risk-response strategy. This could be as simple as realizing you don’t work well at night. Maybe you’re a morning person. Plan a coursework strategy that mitigates the risk of unproductivity. Set aside time in the morning for working and let people know that is “your” time. Set up a process that works for you—even if it’s at 2 a.m.—and stick to it.

By boosting your workplace productivity, you can also improve your efficiency when it comes to completing coursework.

Take Breaks When You Need To

When you’re establishing your schedule, make sure to factor in time for yourself. Whether it’s spending an hour reading something that’s not a textbook, leaving your office for lunch, or indulging in your favorite TV show, allow that brain break. By giving yourself time to unplug, you can return to both the office and classroom feeling reenergized and refreshed.

Know When to Say No

This isn’t to say you should cancel all social engagements, but you need to prioritize your commitments. Be candid and upfront with your friends and family about your schedule. The same goes for work: Use paid time off wisely. Rather than putting vacation time toward flocking to warmer climates, consider saving a few days so you’re able to take time off around midterms or leave work early when a big group project is due.

Also know when to say no to your course load. If work always gets hectic around the holidays, consider taking fewer classes during the fall semester. If you want to effectively balance grad school and work, you need to be honest with yourself about the amount of tasks you can handle at any given time.

Keep Your End Goal in Mind

The good news is: You don’t need to perform this balancing act forever. Keep your end goal in mind and remember that grad school might take up two or three years, but the pay-off that comes with earning your master’s degree will last years longer.


Are you interested in applying to grad school? Now is the time to explore Northeastern’s more than 200 graduate programs.