Tuesday, 2 February 2016

How I Completed My Master's Degree as A Full-Time Working Mom

I have seen a lot of posts on social media by moms (or other full-time employed adults) who are considering further studies but not sure if it can be done. I thought I would share what worked and what did not work for me for anyone considering going down this path. Obviously, this will be variable depending on your personal commitments and how demanding the particular course you have chosen is but hopefully this will be helpful to someone out there.


I was lucky enough to do my initial four-year honors degree the traditional way- as a single, full-time university student straight out of high school with no real commitments other than to complete my studies (and with kind parents graciously footing the bill). My Master's degree was a little bit different- I was in my late twenties, married and already had an extremely demanding corporate job. The above already took up most of my time, however, doing my Master's was something I dreamed about so I took the plunge. As I was working long hours full time, I opted for a distance learning option as I was not sure that my schedule would allow for physically attending weekly lectures. 

Just a month or so into my degree, I got the joyous news that I was pregnant with Noodle. While elated at the prospect of motherhood, I was a bit apprehensive about working full time and completing a degree with a baby. However, since I had already gone to the effort of registering, buying the textbooks and forked out the fees for the year, I decided to give it a go, without putting too much pressure on myself. 

As it turns out, I had a rather tough pregnancy, with severe all day and all night morning sickness for seven out of nine months. Things had gotten busier than they were previously at work, which meant working longer hours. I also discovered that distance learning was in some ways harder than face-to-face learning. While I was provided with extensive learning materials and explanatory notes, with almost unlimited online resources, there was no lecturer explaining the more difficult to grasp concepts and no friends to bounce ideas off. You could email lecturers with questions but this was tedious and not instantaneous. Mind you, this was a few years back and this has changed a bit in the last few years with online learning now a lot more interactive- classes now tend to have live online tutorials and digital student support groups. 

I trudged on, handed in my assignments on time and working through the course material during the year. The timing of my final exams were a bit trickier- I wrote my exams about four weeks after Noodle was born and the university would not allow me a deferment. Anyone who has had a baby before will know that the first few weeks are a bit of a blur and that as a parent, you find yourself in an incoherent sleep-deprived zombie state in this time. You are told to 'sleep when the baby sleeps'. For me, this became 'study while the baby sleeps'. There were the usual challenges of adapting to life as a mother and I was still recovering from a c-section). In the week before exams, I was a crazy person, home alone with baby and reading the textbooks out loud to her. My lullabies had textbook quotes that I was trying to remember in them (I am sorry Noodle!). 

By the time exams came, I had a further challenge- someone needed to look after my bundle of joy while I was writing my five hour exams. My mom and husband had both taken leave when Noodle was born and had to go back to work by this time. My sister was living in a different city at the time and my inlaws are some distance away. This meant leaving Noodle with my father while I wrote exams. Now, he was a great, hands-on dad when we were growing up but quite old-school and I am fairly certain that he had no experience in changing nappies or burping babies. You can understand why I was a little bit nervous when I left her with him  for that few hours. My focus was divided between writing my exams and the horror scenario's running through my head. Anyway, she survived and I survived my exams (I was not in the run for Valedictorian or anything but I did okay). 

Enter year two of my degree. This entailed doing the last couple of course work subjects but the major focus for this year was doing my dissertation. I was on maternity leave for five months and did most of my dissertation during this period. (P.S. Anyone who thinks maternity leave is a big fat paid holiday is very mistaken- looking after an infant really is a full-time job). I had a strict rule that looking after Noodle and spending quality time with her was my number one priority so I continued to study mainly while Noodle slept

When I really had to get more done (bearing in mind that she never slept well, even as a baby) I had her in a rocker at my feet, rocking it with one foot while sitting at the dining room table typing up my dissertation.  Other times I had her in a carry pouch. I even naively ventured to the library with her once, running out frantically with her when she cried (after that failed attempt I delegated my mom as my library book collector)

When I returned to work after maternity leave, things got really hectic. I only had a few hours with  Noodle in the evening, so I tried to sneak in studies when I could during my work day- during my lunch break, the occasional quiet time or when waiting in between meetings etc. I studied a bit once Noodle was in bed and the rest of the time I tried my best not to let my crawling explorer eat, tear or slobber all over my notes (mostly in vain). Closer to exam time, I let daddy do some baby-sitting over weekends or let her play at my mother's house for a few hours. I took a couple of days of study leave for my final exams. I passed and a few months later got to attend my graduation!


1. Know what you are getting into. Consider what support systems you have in place and what resources you have available. Do your research before you even start with regards to what is expected of you. If classes are online, do you have regular internet access and access to printers, etc? Will you need to physically attend lectures? Are there assignments, seminars, tutorials or labs? Look at when these are scheduled, how time consuming they are and then consider whether or not it its viable for you to commit in the first place.

2. Organise, organise, organise. Make sure that you have your day planned and clearly delineate what needs to be done by when. Have a list of your study deadlines and place this somewhere where it will be visible to you. Also have a timetable with your family obligations, eg. kids activities, any days you need to send things to school or daycare, etc. Set reminders for yourself or you will forget something.

3. Try to break your work up into smaller, more manageable chunks. Create summaries of core principles so that when exam time comes, you mainly need to study the summaries. Allocate a set number of hours that you are going to commit each week. If you do not succeed in committing this amount of time, try again the following week or re-assess your study plan, there will be some trial and error involved. Set deadlines for yourself insofar as when you will be covering what work.

4. Do not leave things to the last minute, especially assignments or exam preparations. You never know what personal crisis might come up at the last minute. This will also give you time to discover if there are any problem areas. 

5. You will probably have to accept that you will need help from those around you. If others offer help, accept it graciously. Delegate any tasks that can be completed by others when you have to. Get babysitters when you need to. Approach your lecturers for help when needed- they desperately want you to pass and will help where they can. Keep an open line of communication with your work superiors.

6. Look after yourself. Eat healthy and exercise. Take a good multivitamin. After all, you will not be able to study, work and take care of your family unless you are in good health.