Many nurses are pursuing advanced education. Expanding knowledge is always a good thing—for them, for their employers, for their patients, and for their careers. But what happens if you’re going back to school while you’re also working full-time and raising a family? Perhaps it’s challenging, but it’s definitely doable. These nurses have done it and have tips to help you do it too.
When Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC, was asked by her employer to return to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in order to remain in an executive leadership position, you might say that it wasn’t the perfect time. “I was working over 60 hours per week as a nursing leader for a complicated department; we had five kids at home—all with multiple sports and commitments—ranging in age from 1 to 17 years old,” recalls Burger, a media specialist and contributor for www.registerednursing.org. “There is no perfect time to start back to college.”
But Burger and many others made it work, and you can too.
Do Your Homework Before You’re Doing Your Homework
Before you jump right into a program to earn another degree, Simendea Clark, DNP, RN, president of Chamberlain University’s Chicago campus, says that you need to do some homework. “If you’re thinking about going back to school, do your homework first. Everyone has a different set of circumstances, so it’s crucial to research programs and schools that best fit your needs. Many schools offer online modalities that allow you to take some or all of your coursework from the comfort of your home, saving you travel time to and from school,” says Clark.
Be sure that the educational program you select is something that you love—not just something that will bring in the bucks. “The key for those who want to advance their education is to make sure it is something that drives your passion for nursing,” says Adam Kless, MSN, MBA, RN, NEA-BC, vice president of clinical operations for Avant Healthcare Professionals. “Selecting an educational path for mere money will leave one hollow and disappointed in the long run.”
If it will help you, see if you can spread out your coursework. “I chose to take two classes per semester, including the summers. That helped me stay full-time in the graduate program,” says Valerie C. Sauda, PhD, MSN, RN-BC, MGSF, an assistant professor at Husson University’s School of Nursing. “Although it lengthened my study a little, it definitely helped me maintain the work/life balance. I also feel that I learned the material more thoroughly and was more engaged in the classroom and online group activities. A shorter program may not always be best for learning and life. Enjoy the journey!”
Tell Your Family and Your Boss
Now you’ve found the perfect program for you. What’s next? Your best bet is to tell the people closest to you: your family and your boss.
Your family probably already knew that you were looking into an advanced degree, but if they didn’t, be sure to tell them. You may need their support and the best way of getting this is to be honest and transparent. “Have conversations with the key stakeholders in your life—your current boss, your spouse, and your children. Creating ways for them to give you critical feedback in the moment can save a lot of heartache later. When you are under a lot of stress, it can be difficult to maintain a good communication feedback loop,” says Melissa McClung, MS, LPC, a professional career advisor and owner of LBD Careers, LLC. “Setting this up in advance can preserve your important relationships when there are inevitable conflicts.”
There are many reasons why it’s crucial to tell your boss. “Getting your boss involved will allow you to successfully incorporate your education into your work life by scheduling around class, providing you extra learning opportunities while at work, or benefit from finding a mentor at work who is already doing what you desire to do,” says Kless.
“At the outset, you may need to negotiate with your employer for some flexibility with your work schedule,” explains Divina Grossman, PhD, RN, APRN, FAAN, president and chief academic officer at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. “Solicit the support of your supervisor or mentor at work so that you can have more flexibility in your schedule so you can prioritize your classes, clinicals, or to write papers and projects.”
Grossman says that when you tell your boss, you may also be able to streamline your schoolwork by having “your course requirements, such as term papers or special projects, be about topics or issues that you are dealing with at work. This way, you are not only meeting the requirements for your advanced degree, but also are resolving issues in the work setting through your research and projects. Your supervisor will be thrilled to know that you are doing research-based practical work that advances them and you.”
Plan Your Schedule, But Be Flexible
When Sauda was earning her PhD in nursing/education, she planned daily, weekly, and monthly schedules. “I prioritized time for family, time for work, and time for myself, while ensuring that I blocked out time for study and research during the school year. I had to ‘give up’ a few things, including binge-watching TV, checking my social media multiple times a day, and participating in nursing groups as a volunteer,” she says. “Creating and sticking to a daily schedule is crucial for success in an advanced degree program.”
Terri Bogue, MSN, RN, PCNS-BC, a consultant to hospitals and health care through her company, Thor Projects, LLC, planned her time as well when she returned to school. “I scheduled time to study after family dinner and on weekends. I knew that my degree would open doors and opportunities that would benefit my family as well as myself. This knowledge helped me to keep focused on my goal,” she says.
“It’s also helpful to set reminders for assignments and tests on your phone’s calendar as soon as you learn about them. Review your calendar at the beginning of each week and mark down pockets of time when you will study and do the same for spending time with your family,” says Clark.
Besides having a schedule, it’s also important to be flexible. Because, let’s face it, life happens. “The most important thing to remember about balance is that it is constantly about reevaluating and making changes,” says McClung. “I suggest developing a systematic way to check in with your priorities to ensure that you are prepared to flex when you need to. For example, this can be as simple as using a planner and scheduling out time for the important things: work and school obviously, but also family time, meal planning and preparation, exercise, and household chores.”
Have Some Space
Setting up a particular area in your home can help when it comes to doing your schoolwork. “Create a study space that helps you focus. For me, it was one corner of our dining room where I had a small bookcase for my textbooks, all the study materials I needed, and good computer access,” says Sauda. “I also set up a corner in my office at work to house my short assignment work that I could complete during breaks. Whatever you decide, do what works for you and make it a pleasant experience. You’ll accomplish more in the available time that you have.”
Bogue says that she would also set aside both time and a consistent place in her room to study. That helped her to balance it all.
“It is important to have a quiet place to study and complete coursework. A private, dedicated space will allow you to get work done, free from distractions. It is also important to get an early start on assignments, give yourself extra time to complete tasks, and seek help if needed,” says Clark.
Ask for Support
All our sources say that having a support network is crucial when you work and are going back to school. Your network can be family, friends, or even colleagues.
“Surrounding myself with people who were not in the program, but who cared and encouraged me either in person or via email, made all the difference—especially when I went through those difficult courses or when I felt like I couldn’t do it all. It’s the network that made a huge difference,” says Sauda.
Grossman takes it one step further. “You cannot be all things to all people. If you are usually the designated parent for carpool, can your spouse or a friend or neighbor help you out? I learned as a parent that if I can involve other parents in a way that we can help each other, both of us can be successful,” she says. “For example, I can do the morning pick-ups, and they can do the afternoons so that I could attend my classes and do my writing. If I am in charge of cooking meals at home, can I cook in bulk on weekends and freeze the meals or can my spouse help with the cooking?”
If you still need more help, Grossman says, think about hiring someone occasionally to clean or get your kids to help so that your work is reduced.
“Keep your lines of communication open to ask for help when needed and to keep instructors, your boss, and your family informed of any last-minute changes in schedule or areas where you need help,” recommends Clark.
Don’t limit your network to just family, friends, and coworkers. “I was scared when I took my first doctoral class. I had been out of school for over 15 years, and I was afraid that I couldn’t do the work. What I learned quickly was to ask for help, use the learning resources available online and at the campus, and develop a relationship with the faculty. As a faculty member myself, I can tell you that faculty want to help you reach your advanced education goals. They want you to be successful. Asking for help can really make a difference,” says Sauda. “One of my best experiences was in doing a literature search for a paper. I was not getting the articles that I needed to complete the paper, so I finally reached out to the university librarian. Within an hour, I had more than 20 articles that I was able to look at with her support. Not only did it save me time, but I learned the value of a librarian and library services when doing my research.”
Be Good to Yourself
To balance work, school, and life, self-care is essential. “Be patient and compassionate with yourself—this is hard work,” says Bogue.
McClung says that you have to make sure that the other areas of your life are good. To succeed, you have to make sure that you also take care of your health, relationships, and anything else that is important to you.
“Eat well, exercise by taking a walk before or after completing an assignment or after dinner with your family, and make sure to get proper rest,” advises Clark.
Grossman adds that, if you’re a parent, you keep tabs on any guilt feelings—and be easy on yourself. “Do not feel guilty about not being there when you can’t be and having your spouse or relative take over for you. This period is time-limited—not forever,” she says. “When my daughter ran track and field, they knew I could not be there for all the meets, but I could be present for some of them. I could do more on weekends than during the week because of my work and graduate school schedule.”
Totally Worth It
While this time may be difficult, it will also be memorable and fun. “The most important strategy for success is our attitude. Give yourself time to adjust to your new role as a graduate student. Like anything new, you will get the hang of it in time. Above all, make the most out of it, and enjoy the experience,” says Grossman.
Clark says to stay focused on both short- and long-term goals. “Be patient with yourself as you ease into becoming a student again.”
“The challenge and personal growth that came with pursuing an advanced degree helped me find my focus for future research and teaching,” says Sauda. “Always remember that the journey to advanced degrees is worth it!”