https://pds.blog.parliament.uk/2018/11/23/flexible-working-studying-while-you-work/

Flexible working: studying while you work

Lorna and Helen chatting

Helen Thomas and Lorna Kennedy both recently completed their studies and they both worked in PDS while they were studying. In this blog post, they talk about the challenges and how studying while working was more rewarding than they imagined.

Helen is an information manager and studied an MSc in Gestalt Psychotherapy. Lorna is a programme delivery manager and did a PhD in Programme and Project Management Intelligence.

Why did you decide to study while you were working?

Helen: Since my mid-twenties I’d been interested in working as a psychotherapist/counsellor on either a voluntary or paid basis. For me, working at depth in mental health needs to be grounded in solid study of both theory and practice, along with building your own self-awareness. I therefore chose to do an MSc rather than a diploma, plus I had a hunch that studying this subject at this academic level would be much more satisfying than my first degree (in Maths!).

Lorna: I’ve worked on projects and programmes for many years and I’m really interested in how organisations respond and react to unexpected change. Looking at complexity, change, and uncertainty and how to find a balance between those things was what made me decide to do a PhD.

What was your working pattern when you were working and studying?

Helen: I’ve had several patterns over the years. Initially, I reduced my hours to work a nine day fortnight, then down to a four day week. This particularly helped me manage when I was on weekly placement seeing clients at a low-cost counselling centre. In the final stages as I prepared for my viva examination, I went down to three days a week.

Going part-time really helped me settle into a series of routines with my studies and my job. I was lucky as I took the opportunity to change my role which meant that I stopped line managing a large team. This helped me adjust to the emotional demands of working as a counsellor.

Lorna: I worked full-time initially but then I worked compressed hours once I got further in to my studies. I’m an early riser but also a night owl so having this flexibility really helped as I can fit a lot into my day. Not having to commute into work every day made a real difference to the amount of work that I could get done in a week and it also meant that I had time to spend with my family too.

What were the best bits about studying while working?

Helen: I was pleasantly surprised by the mutually beneficial connection that developed between my two worlds. I started to see interpersonal relationships at work in new ways. I also got a lot of satisfaction, energy, and increased confidence from my studies especially when I overcame obstacles. I got great writing advice from a Commons clerk colleague too!

Some of the things I learned on my course I applied to how I worked here, which was really rewarding, especially around ways of approaching change and finding what helps people to take the next step in a situation. I think continuing to work here also made me a better therapist as I kept connected to the ’regular’ working world. I appreciated my friends at work more too – if I hadn’t been working, I was in danger of becoming pretty isolated.

Lorna: Studying can be quite a lonely journey as you’re doing it all on your own but it was useful to be working at the same time as some of my colleagues were respondents for my research.

I also used my colleagues to do focus groups and I got a lot of validation about what they thought and felt about programme and project management in the workplace. It also meant that I got to collaborate with people which is something that you rarely get to do when you’re studying for a PhD.

Using colleagues to help with your research had an unexpected advantage: active listening. I found that I became a better listener as I was looking at things through a different lens, rather than just colleagues talking about work. I began working with different teams during my studies and it was so enjoyable that I ended up inviting colleagues to my 50th birthday party.

What were the worst bits?

Helen: Using annual leave when I had deadlines for my studies. It was hard having to work towards a fixed deadline and use up your leave then needing a break once the deadline had passed but having little or no leave left. It can have a damaging effect on your personal life. After seven years, I'm looking forward to my first proper two week holiday next year.

Lorna: Switching gears between working and study was tough. I feel like your brain works in a different way when you’re studying compared to when you’re in work mode, so making that mental shift was difficult. Knowing there were deadlines looming was stressful and your health can suffer if you don’t manage your time well. I also found my writing style became more academic which was a bit of a barrier for people I worked with, as they were having to unpick what I was trying to say.

Finally, any advice for those thinking about studying while working?

Helen: It helps to understand why you’re doing it. You need to plan ahead and become good at juggling if you aren’t already. Ideally, you also need enough supportive colleagues at work who respect your choice to study.

Similarly, it helps when your studying colleagues know the demands of your job. Find what support you need to make studying and working both work, recognising that your needs and the needs of your situation will probably keep changing. Try to enjoy the process of growth as you learn, the journey is important as well as the destination.

Lorna: Being aware of how much of your time is going to be consumed by studying is essential. Both Helen and I were studying at the same time, so it was great having someone doing a similar thing to you and being able to talk to each other about it. I also love learning and how much it can help you, so given the chance, I’d happily do it all over again.

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