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How to cope with shifting to part time work while you study

When you’re working full time there’s a certain rhythm to the week; the prospect of cutting back your hours to embark on study threatens to throw this into disarray. While juggling work and study can feel a little like being prime minister of a small country, once you’ve navigated the adjustment period there are ways in which this arrangement will enrich your work life, your personal life and your studies.

Dr Emily Nicholson, Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Ecology in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences cut back to part time when she juggled her academic role with parenting small children. More recently she has supported her employees and peers as they negotiate the challenges of adjusting to part time hours.

Shifting your personal expectations

According to Dr Nicholson, it’s essential to be realistic about how much work you can do in the period you have allocated. ‘I think the biggest challenge is shifting your expectations of what you can achieve in a week. It is easy to get bored with tasks because they take so much longer to finish: you feel like you’re not moving through things very quickly anymore.’

This frustration can be moderated by being realistic about the fact that you are spending half as much time as you would have when you were full time. Dr Nicholson recommends you resist comparing yourself to your previous full-time productivity. ‘Try and measure your output given the amount of time you are spending on projects. This way you can see that actually are being really productive.’

If you’re keeping records of your work, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by how much you are achieving. ‘You’re actually probably more productive per hour spent working. Recording everything is a really good way of managing your own expectations and adjusting your goals.’

Managing workplace relationships

Your manager and colleagues may also need a little support to adjust to your new hours. Dr Nicholson says, ‘A lot of the time people just forget that you work part so they keep on expecting you to be producing at the same speed. The biggest thing that I found when I was working part time was to have a really clear line of communication to manage other’s expectations.’

It’s important that this isn’t isolated to a single conversation. ‘Keep that communication line open just to gently remind them that you work part time and also make it really clear what you are achieving and what you’re aiming to achieve. Clear communication and clear goals are critical.’

While it’s best to have these conversations face-to-face, it’s good to also have everything written down. Dr Nicholson says, ‘It depends where you work but following it up in writing really helps. Also, reporting back on where you are at so that people don’t forget what has been discussed.’

'The biggest challenge is shifting your expectations of what you can achieve in a week.'

Dr Emily Nicholson,
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

The importance of organisation

Dr Nicholson says that while it’s equally important to be organised when you’re full time, part time workers often start to work more efficiently. ‘People do get more organised when they are working part time and that’s just out of necessity. In a full time role there are lots of times during the week when you get tired and your brain switches off. Working part time you lose a lot of that time and you seem to work more effectively.’

Combining work and study is actually not that different to having a job with a lot of different elements that you have to juggle. ‘Trying to get all the different parts to fit together is a challenge a lot of people will find familiar if they have had a complex job.’

Keeping many balls in the air

The possibly of conflicting deadlines is another challenge of combining study with part time work. ‘In study it might be big assignments or exams – things that are inflexible or something where you need to do group or teamwork,’ Dr Nicholson says. ‘You might also have big deadlines at work where you need to deliver a report or you might have an event. You have to be looking quite a long way ahead and having a calendar helps you to be ready for when things are coming up.’

When conflicts do arise, clear communication is integral. ‘Either the work or the study might need to be a bit more flexible around the other. Communicating with your supervisor in your paid work or your team if you are doing group work is the best way to manage those crunch times.’

While there is a degree of flexibility available at university it is important not to take this for granted. ‘Most academics are really aware of juggling lots of different things because that’s what they do in their job on a day-to-day basis. They are really sympathetic as long you communicate challenges in advance rather than telling them at the last minute that you couldn’t complete your assignment.’

Dr Nicholson says one of the most surprising benefits of combining study and work is that the different activities will feed off and enrich each other. ‘When you are studying, some of the things you are learning in your studies might help you in terms of the way that you do your job and your job might bring you a lot of insight to the practical aspects of the theory you are learning in your studies.’

Dr Nicholson says that the same can occur when caring for children and studying or working. ‘I think it can be a real positive to do multiple things at the same time. Even though it’s challenging it may actually improve your outcomes.’

For more tips around navigating a return to study, read about the experiences of others who have made the leap.


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Dr Emily Nicholson
Dr Emily Nicholson

Senior Lecturer In Quantitative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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