How to Balance Full Time Work and an Online Degree Program

Life gets hectic. There’s information overload to deal with, mobile devices that keep going off, family, friends, seasonal allergies, and dinner parties with the boss. There are more than enough obligations on your list to keep you busy, but for some reason, many of us will eventually hear a little voice suggesting that it’s time to go back to school and fine tune existing skills while building upon them with impressive new ones.

Given that we live in the age of technology, it’s natural to consider the flexibility of online learning while juggling a full time job. Here are a few words of wisdom from those who have been where you are now, and who’ve managed to find their way to center stage at graduation.

Pace yourself

Once you decide to return to school, you’ll probably want to do it all at once – grab the bull by its horns and teach it who’s boss. You’ll think back to your college years and remember that being a student was tough, so you’ll want to make sure you get it over with as quickly as possible.

But as tempting as it is to accelerate your progress, consider how much free time and energy you’ll actually have during the week. At the end of the day, when all your colleagues are finishing dinner and watching their favorite TV shows, will you be ready to commit to a few hours of study?

In order to avoid discouragement in the beginning of your degree program, consider signing up for just one class at first. Give yourself a chance to figure out how to incorporate new activities into your already hectic schedule so that you can make the transition that much easier.

Rearrange your schedule

The time needed to complete an online class is similar to a traditional class. Plan on spending 10-15 hours weekly for each class, maybe even more in the beginning of your program as you get used to learning at the college level. This means you need to cut out activities from your weekly schedule or else you will be overwhelmed.

Make a list of activities you can forgo to make room for study time. You may have to watch less TV, socialize less, or cut down on other activities like web surfing and hobbies. Also, look for ways to save time. For example, you can save time on food preparation by making a big batch of food on the weekend and eating leftovers during the week. You can even hire others to help you. For example, a maid or laundry service can be a good time saver.

Don’t neglect short time periods or activities not commonly associated with studying. For example, you can review notes during your lunch break at work. Some online classes have audio lectures that can be played on MP3 players. You can listen to these lectures while exercising or driving. Weekends are great times to catch up or even get ahead on your assignments. Take advantage of the uninterrupted hours on the weekend by working on your most difficult assignments.

You will probably have to spend most of your spare time studying, but here is a flexible time chart that can help you create a weekly schedule with enough time for your coursework. Finally, you may be tempted to skimp on sleep to save time but don’t overdo it. You need enough sleep to mentally function well and do a good job on your assignments. For most people, 7-8 hours of sleep each day is enough.

Restructure your workspace

Sometimes your study space will be crammed into the middle seat of the middle aisle of a very packed aircraft. Sometimes it will be on your lap in front of the television. It may be worth it to ask your employer if it’s alright for you to study at the office (not during work hours, of course). If that doesn’t work, a local library or setting up a home office could suit your needs.

Associating a specific location as your study space helps delineate your study time from your everything-else-time. The more clearly you can define your study time and place, the easier it will be to juggle all your commitments. Having that time and visual cue can be just the thing to help you get started with your coursework especially when you feel like procrastinating.

Prepare to study at the college level

The online format doesn’t mean classes are easier. Assignments are still college level so you will have to spend the same mental effort as on-campus students.

Unless you’ve recently studied at this level, it will take some time of getting used to. Just because a course is delivered online doesn’t mean it abides by the commonly accepted online behaviors like texting or avoiding punctuation when communicating in chatrooms.

It also doesn’t mean that you can copy information from websites and avoid referencing sources. To get used to the college level of learning, read articles in academic journals and book chapters on topics you’ll be studying. You can improve your typing skills too if you lack in this area, because you will be doing a lot of writing.

Set goals and create milestones

At the start of any online course, you’ll get a list of key topics and required readings, information on how to log on to your course website, and lots of other important administrative tidbits that will help you get off to a smooth start.

One of the most important pieces of information will be your course calendar. Good online courses provide you with a detailed schedule of all online activities, assignment deadlines, and test dates. Read through these details carefully.

Once you’ve made notes in your calendar and set reminders for yourself, devise a plan of action. Break down big goals into smaller, more manageable tasks. The more detailed your strategy, the easier it will be to stay on track while juggling work. It will also give you an invaluable sense of accomplishment when you reach your milestones, even the smaller ones.

Get used to the technology

The technical aspect of online learning scares many people, but being an online student means that you have to eventually come to terms with the fact that your main method of communication will be through the use of technology.

Get used to seeing your words on the screen. Be open to sharing your perspectives and realize that the more you engage, the more you develop connections with people who share your interests. Those connections do wonders for your sense of professionalism – the more you contribute value to your learning community, the more you’ll be able to contribute to your workplace.

With enough practice, you can become competent with the online tools and over time working in the online environment will become second nature to you.

Manage expectations of family and friends

Once you’ve setup your study schedule and clearly outlined your goals, it’s time to communicate your needs to the people closest to you. Interruption is the bane of productivity so you need to be clear to family and friends that you need time by yourself to study. Let them know when you are studying and ask them not to interrupt you unless there is an emergency.

Also, continually remind them why you are going back to school so they can encourage you on your journey and be understanding when they don’t see you as much because you are studying.


It is possible to be successful at pursuing an online education while working full time. You will have to work hard, be flexible, and be open to trying new things. Pacing yourself will make the transition from a part time class load to full time more manageable. Figuring out where and when you study best is also important to succeeding as a student/full time worker.

Give yourself some time to acclimate to the demands of higher education and remember that online technology changes the playing field. It creates new possibilities and opens doors that would otherwise have stayed firmly shut. Once you make the choice to walk through that online door of opportunity, the only thing left to do is persevere.

Do you want to enroll in a top online degree program? Visit our home page to see our choices of the best online degrees. Also, we have a list of tuition rankings if you’re looking for an inexpensive degree.

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