The Challenging Juggle of Graduate School
When I tell people that I’ve gone back to school to pursue my doctorate in business administration (DBA), the common response is, “You’re crazy.” Understandable, as I have three young boys (11, 9 and 5), two dogs, work full time, and am married to an equally ambitious entrepreneur who is CTO of a startup on year three.
I hear those people. But I also hear the people who respond differently, with, “How do you do it?” or, “I wish I was motivated to go back to school myself.”
I walk them through my long and packed days, which begin at 4:30 a.m. and end promptly at 10:30 p.m. This schedule continues six days a week (I sleep in until 6 a.m. sometimes on Sundays) and I sustain it while on vacation, sick and in the heat of work deadlines.
I usually describe how I have carefully segmented my schedule to have dedicated time for school, family, work and life, but I also multitask. An aftermarket desk added to my Peloton allows me to read while I work out, and a PDF reader app allows me to listen to countless academic journal articles while I drive, do dishes or laundry.
Such conversations help convey the commitment of going back to school.
Why do it?
Necessity, growth, pivoting, the economy. Of the many great reasons to go back to school and invest in yourself, the most common is preparing for the next level in your career.
Necessity: Some fields require a degree for career advancement. In my DBA program, for example, multiple individuals work as adjunct instructors but need the doctorate to become professors and teach full time.
Growth: Going back to school is an opportunity to grow into a new or better career. My friend Melissa Davies-Fields is a military spouse who always dreamed of becoming a nurse.
“When I was in my 20s, I wanted to take college classes, but with my husband in the military, moving every three years and having young children at home made it seem impossible,” she said.
When her husband was preparing to separate from the military and their youngest child ready to head to preschool, she felt it was time to invest in her career. After completing prerequisite coursework, she was accepted into the accelerated nursing program at Keiser University and she, too, became a full-time student at age 40.
“Although I am often the oldest student in my classes, I don’t let that discourage me,” Melissa said.
She found a support network of other students, many of whom are moms, as well, and they study, commiserate and encourage each other.
Pivot: This doctorate offers a chance to pivot my career away from politics and toward advocacy work. My bachelor’s in political science and masters in political management led me to work in political communications on the Hill in Washington DC and on campaigns in California and Florida at every level. I then transitioned to consulting and business advocacy, and now serve as executive director of weVENTURE women’s business center in the Bisk College of Business at Florida Tech.
I hope this degree leads to research and writing opportunities surrounding critical issues like paid family leave and access to capital, that will help me be a better advocate for professional women and entrepreneurs. I also want to help encourage future generations of women business leaders. According to the business school accreditation body AASCB, only about 20% of all business school full professors are women, while the percent of female business students continues to rise, and is now over 40%.
Economy: A slowdown in the economy may be the perfect time to invest their time and resources into a degree that will help improve their job prospects.
Stats and outcomes
Nationwide, universities have experienced tremendous growth of nontraditional students. Today:
- About 40% of students entering college are over 35 years old.
- 4.3 million undergraduate students are parents.
- 44% of student parents also work full time.
- About 55% of students who are also mothers are single parents.
According to the National Center for Education Statitistics, students identified as nontraditional are more likely to be women, to belong to a racial-ethnic minority group, and have less educated parents than traditional students.
All of this data is in-line with my work at weVENTURE WBC, where I spend a lot of time educating the business community about the changing demographics of our workforce and small business ownership, as women — and especially women of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds — continue to increase year over year.
While 2.4 million American women left the workforce during the pandemic, causing it to be heralded a “she-cession,” it is apparent now that many women have in fact chosen to go back to school or start businesses of their own. I believe it will not be too much longer until the norm in America will be a majority female workforce.
How to do it
Be sure you are ready as timing is everything. Think long and hard if you, your family and your current job and financial situation can handle the workload and cost. Are you prepared to spend significant time away from family, sacrificing vacations or missing special events?
Be realistic about your capacity. Going back to school likely means less sleep and added stress, especially if you also need to keep working. Once you decide you are ready, I suggest thinking about your learning style and seeking a program that meets your needs.
Programs are offered in a variety of ways — in person, online and hybrid. While online virtual programs have come a long way and are proving to be popular, some students (like me) prefer in-person opportunities to engage directly.
The Florida Tech DBA program is designed as an executive program, meaning we spend one weekend a month together for in-person instruction. The rest of the month is self-paced, working through the mountains of reading and writing assignments. My friend Melissa, on the other hand, has a great deal more in-person training and clinicals as she pursues her nursing degree.
Be strategic and do a personal cost/benefit analysis. With all the talk of student dept burdens and loan forgiveness, make sure you are not straddling yourself with more debt than you can realistically handle. Research and compare the cost of programs, ask if your employer has tuition reimbursement or is willing to provide a learning and development stipend. If they do, that is a HUGE benefit to leverage. Ideally, a degree should add to your earning potential, not burden your future financial health.
Pick a degree like you pick a stock — what are the odds you can earn a solid return on your investment, of both time and money?
Surround yourself with support
Support of family and friends is key, as well as their patience and understanding as you become neglectful to some relationships. Hopefully they love you and believe in you enough to build you up and support you, even if it means they get less of you in the short term.
Personally, I’m embracing my dirty house, teaching my kids to do their own laundry and empowering my staff to do more without me micromanaging them. Perhaps most importantly, my husband and I are working on finding new ways to connect and make time for each other, as date nights are less frequent. I also agreed to the second dog, a puppy, so he and the boys have a little lady to cuddle and snuggle with while mom is studying.
I have found myself turning to the podcast “We Can Do Hard Things” by Glennon Doyle when I need encouragement for my soul. On this podcast, and her book of the same title, she addresses head-on the reality that life is freaking hard. We all take on hard things every single day. But that means we have also already survived our hardest, worst day ever, which should give us confidence that we can take on today’s challenges, too.
While I am only one year into the program and question daily the sustainability of the pace I am running, so far I am making it work. In my lowest moments, when I’ve wanted to quit, my husband has reminded me that I am (thus far) an A student and clearly smart enough for the program. He encourages me not to give up just because it is hard. He has also reminded me that “B’s get degrees” and encourages me to nap.