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September 13, 2017 |

What Worked for Me: Tips for Balancing Work and School

I recently finished a four-year journey of balancing my obligations here at Acentech, and taking classes in acoustics. It’s not for everyone. I learned some best practices for studying along the way, and want to pass on what I learned to others considering the same (or starting out this semester):

1.) Find the best place to do homework for you:  It seems like every movie has some romanticized montage of the lead typing on their Mac in a coffee shop in the middle of the day, right? I can’t tell you how many times I tried to make this setup work for me, but it was always way too distracting. Apparently it works for some people, or this movie clip wouldn’t exist. I also tried working at different libraries, including the main reading room at the Boston Public Library Central Branch – if you’ve never been, you should really go because it’s gorgeous.

The one main drawback of studying in the library is that I needed to watch or take my stuff with me when I needed a snack or a bathroom break, which was a drag considering I had books, papers, a calculator and a laptop. Ultimately, my best study place was my office. I would study after the work day was done, and as my colleagues started to leave for the day, it was extremely quiet, I could focus and leave my things at my desk without worry of them going missing. I’m very grateful that setup worked. Of course, there are acoustical considerations for how people perceive what is “quiet.” The director of our architectural acoustics group actually conducted a study surrounding this phenomenon, but the investigation of perceived vs. actual noise levels in a space is a different blog post altogether.

2.) Make study buddies: I took 10 classes as part of my program, all online for me although the program is half students on-campus, and for the first three classes, I didn’t reach out to make study buddies, and made all kinds of excuses for myself: thinking my classmates wouldn’t benefit from help, that they already knew a lot of the subject matter, and not knowing how to meet these people virtually. Then my fourth class was a particularly difficult subject, with a somewhat unforgiving professor. The online students all banded together after a week or so, and it made the entire experience so much more manageable and enjoyable. We had an email chain and kept in touch that way, even if just to say I’m struggling this week to someone else who’s going through the same thing was so helpful. After that class experience, I was empowered to seek out study buddies (and even shared a few classes with colleagues here and local students) and found the experience of getting help from someone and helping someone else deepened my understanding and enjoyment of my classes.

3.) Prioritize fun stuff: I found that it wasn’t good for me to do only schoolwork in my freetime, and I still needed to have some fun. (This sounds obvious, but there was so much work to do, I forgot this pretty quickly.) There were two semesters where I took two classes each, and these were the most challenging for my sanity. I had to do much more than work and study. But I prioritized some key things those semesters to avoid feeling like I was a homework automaton. I kept up with my two musical outlets, a singing group and an acoustic duo; I did not quite make it to every gig, but I still didn’t drop them completely, which I think helped a lot. But my friends and spouse definitely got used to seeing a lot less of me and I was very accustomed to saying no to social things, which wasn’t fun, but I could only do so much.

4.) Hold on to the “good” professors: I put good in quotation marks because I think all professors try to be good, but some are more natural teachers than others, while others are better fundraisers or researchers. I had one teacher in particular, who taught two of my classes, and he really went out of his way to make dense subject matter accessible. He was a resource for me in many things, including work outside of classes like on my master’s paper, Matlab and measurements. Above all, he really cared that everyone in class had a good understanding of fundamental concepts. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a few times in person at peer conferences, and he’s a stand-out. Having him on my team was very important to getting through some of the more challenging courses.

5.) Don’t be shy:  Don’t hesitate to ask for things from professors or school staff — no one is going finish this degree but you. My spouse was responsible for drilling this in my head when I would feel bad for “pestering” a teacher or staff about needing answers for something, and he kept reminding me that it was the school’s responsibility to meet me halfway and provide support, and not to feel uncomfortable asking for things. My program in particular was very large, so this may not apply as much to someone at a smaller school.

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Two Caveats:
Caveat A: I did not have kids during this time in school but many of my classmates did, and I don’t really understand how they made it through the program, but many did. I even knew one classmate who took two classes throughout the program, worked-full time and had a new baby one semester. (But, hey, he also worked at NASA so there’s that.) I would suspect that his spouse really supported him quite a bit. I can’t give advice for this, but it can definitely be done.

Caveat B: A lot of my experiences and tips are specific to someone doing an online program vs. in-person. The grass is always greener (right?), but I felt like a lot of things would have been easier if I was taking classes in person, especially finding study buddies and getting support from the school. Personally, it felt like it would have been less effort if I could just show up at the office instead of writing an email or leaving a voicemail. But being married and firmly based in Boston, I didn’t have the option to move somewhere else for a year or two, so this program was really the only one that would work for me. Needless to say, I’m glad it exists.

 

Note: Credit for the image from the Boston Public Library can be found here.

Author: Nicole Cuff

“I am fascinated by music and engineering and consider myself fortunate to work at a place where I can pursue both. I came to Acentech from a 10-year career in…

One response to “What Worked for Me: Tips for Balancing Work and School”

  1. Mariana says:

    I really enjoyed this post because I can relate with most of your thoughts and past experiences! I am still a student though, so I am currently living this process of balancing work and school life. I totally agree with the grass being greener too! Since I am attending an onsite program, my caveats include that I need to add commuting times to the time management equation. Luckily for me, most of my classes happen between 4PM and 10PM. This allows me to be at work full mornings and sometimes full days. However, there are times that I have a hard time finding a timeslot to eat any food between commuting from work to school and then from one class to the next. I hate to admit that I have arrived home after 11PM without having had anything but candy since lunch time. I would recommend to other readers that they keep in mind their health. I now constantly carry granola bars or some healthier treats in my bag in case I have one of those long days.
    Other than that, I believe that being a student and an employee at Acentech has given me the opportunity to learn a lot from both worlds and I would recommend following many of those tips mentioned by Nicole. Once you get through graduating, it will be worth …or at least I hope so! Fingers crossed for my last school year.
    Cheers!

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