My experience studying a Masters degree full-time, while working full-time
Inspired by a conversation with my dear friend Monica, and some support from people on Twitter, I decided to write this blog post about my experience studying full-time and working full-time.
I won’t lie – to do both successfully, was no easy feat, but Monica and I were discussing the topic because she recently found herself in the same position, struggling to maintain a good balance between the two. Neither of us knew anyone else who underwent the same process, and I think many people wanted to read about my experience because they had either considered it, or tried to study and work at the same time, but fell back to part-time study because of the workload.
Disclaimer: This blog post isn’t intended to convince anyone to study and work in parallel, nor is it intended to convince anyone not to. I’m writing this to share my own experiences, to share some of the thoughts and feelings I had at the time, and to personally reflect on that period of time. By doing this, I hope that it helps some people and gives information for people who might be considering the same path. If you have any questions for me feel free to drop them in the comments. 💬
⚠️ Content warning: there are some references (including internal links) to ill mental health and poor physical health in this post, including depression, panic attacks, and disordered eating.
Table of contents
This must be the longest blog post on my blog to warrant a table of contents! 😅 Here goes.
- Why I decided to study a Masters degree and my process of application
(jump to this ⤵️)
- How my week looked: A rough schedule
(jump to this ⤵️)
- Life outside of university: Mostly concert photography
(jump to this ⤵️)
- The importance of having a separation of concerns and physically different contexts
(jump to this ⤵️)
- Poor health: Inconsistent sleeping habits, poor nutrition, health concerns and issues
(jump to this ⬇️)
- Exams, assignments, group work – course content can make a difference
(jump to this ⤵️)
- My maturity and independence level was very low
(jump to this ⤵️)
- Why I didn’t quit: My thoughts on balancing this lifestyle and my feelings on committing to it
(jump to this ⤵️)
- Bringing your best self, and doing your best work
(jump to this ⤵️)
- My declining mental health and the stigma at the time
(jump to this ⤵️)
- If I had to re-do it differently, how would I do it differently? What could have made it easier?
(jump to this ⤵️)
- Aftermath: The cost, the value, the “bragging rights”?
(jump to this ⤵️)
I wanted to start by saying how interesting and weirdly refreshing it is to be reflecting on this period of my life. I don’t think I’ve ever properly done it in great detail. A lot of people who have been reading my blog for a long time know that I was always so active on my blog and social media while I was studying my Bachelors degree and at some point working three jobs. I was really open on my blog about my life at the time, so the amount of blog posts I am able to reference that actually have snippets of university life surprises me a bit. If you want to read more about my thoughts on juggling so many things at once – back then vs. now – the post I wrote for International Women’s Day in 2017, Passion is immeasurable, discusses just that.
I studied my Master of Interactive Multimedia at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), from the beginning of 2012 to the end of 2013, and graduated the following year at a graduation ceremony in 2014. I also studied my Bachelors degree at UTS, so the campus environment was familiar to me.
I worked for a small web design/development agency from the end of 2011, when I was finishing up my Bachelors degree, to the end of 2013, just before I finished studying my Masters degree. I should note that I actually got let go from my job in November 2013, which added to any stress and negative emotion I had at the time. And yes, there were definitely negative emotions. I’d be lying if I said I felt well during this time. I struggled a lot, mentally, but also had some physical health issues come up. In fact, it’s been kind of surreal reading back on my previous blog posts because I didn’t realise how much I probably needed professional help for my mental health state. I will try really hard not to let it make this reflection too biased. 😊💙
There are some notable caveats to my working situation and living situation, which I will make really clear in point form here, but will discuss at relevant points in the rest of the post.
- Living situation: Firstly, I was living with my parents at the time. They didn’t make me pay board or anything. 😛 I had dinner cooked for me on the days I was home and not in class or on campus.
- Location and commute: I lived in Western Sydney at the time. I walked, took one bus, and one train to and from the city every day for work and university. This took me about 90 minutes door to door, sometimes longer, due to buses only being available every 20–30 minutes, and if I was commuting late at night.
- Other commitments: I did not have any familial commitments such as looking after family members or children. I did my share of housework. The only other commitment I had was that I was a freelance, unpaid concert photographer (basically volunteer work) and would photograph concerts at least once or twice a week.
- Relationship status: I was in a long-term relationship at the time. My boyfriend at the time also studied at the same university. We occasionally hung out on the weekends, but for the most part, we didn’t actually spend a lot of time together or dedicate a lot of time to it. My weekends were mostly spent studying.
- Employment situation: My employment was technically as a causal worker, and I was paid by the hour, but I worked 9:00am to 6:00pm five days a week. I did not get any full-time employee benefits such as annual leave, and I was not on a salary, nor was I paid contract rates. I don’t remember how much I earned, but the amount of money I earned in a year was around $40,000 or less. I dare say I was a workaholic, which meant I didn’t ever take a day off unless I absolutely had to. I’ll go into detail about my working arrangements later.
- Cost of study: I live in New South Wales, Australia, where we have the HECS-HELP loan that allows you to pay off your course debt once you have a full-time job. My parents paid all my upfront payments each semester for my tertiary study, which probably equates to a few thousand dollars, but I have been paying for the rest of my debt with my own money. After I finished studying, I had about $40,000 debt. Seven years on, I still have about $18,000 debt.
Why I decided to study a Masters degree and my process of application
I don’t think people just decide on studying a course willy-nilly. I think you have to want to study a postgraduate degree in order to actually do it. Many people believe they should do a Bachelors degree because it seems to be the most logical thing to do after school, but then drop out because they realise it is not for them. Personally, I did my Bachelors out of mostly following a traditional path. But for my Masters, you have to understand that I really, truly wanted to study it.
Having completed my Bachelor of Arts in Communication (BA), I wanted to do a Masters degree in something related to IT and software. I was 20 years old and I wasn’t really thinking about my career. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the near or far future; I was simply enjoying learning things. To be honest, I didn’t think about the cost of study, and I didn’t think a lot about how much tertiary education would (or wouldn’t) help in me getting a job. I think I was quite immature at the time, and I wasn’t quite ready to jump into the workforce and leave studying behind. I thought I wanted to continue being a front-end developer, but I also wasn’t a hundred percent sure. I believed that doing a Masters degree could open up some more doors for me, and career paths other than coding.
I had been offered to do an honours year for my BA because I did so well in it, and my research work in my last two semesters was impressive. For my particular course, you had to be personally invited to do an honours year. This was something I really thought about and honestly felt passionate about, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do another year in the arts/sciences. It made me think of potential paths afterward – would doing an honours year make me more employable? I wasn’t sure. It might, but I also thought that instead of doing an honours year, the year could be better spent towards a Masters degree. I began to think of the importance of having a degree in relation to employment.
I work as a UI engineer now, and my qualifications aren’t very relevant, and I can say they contributed very little to my professional career. I didn’t know this at the time. I strongly suspected that I could find a job without furthering my tertiary education, because I already had a job as a front-end developer, but I still couldn’t be too sure. I didn’t have a lot of community connections, and didn’t attend meetups, but had I been more open to them, I might have learned a lot more from people in the community. I was not a social person and I’m introverted, so the idea of meetups didn’t appeal to me at all. It’s why I try to pass on what I know to people with less experience than me, because the world can be scary when all you’ve known is university and maybe a part-time job.
I did a lot of research to find something in the IT space to study. I wanted to look for something that would supplement my skills as a developer but also help me learn some new skills that would make me more employable. I wasn’t interested in traditional software engineering courses, and I didn’t want to do something related to design or art. I wanted to find a happy medium where I could still do some semblance of coding. I’m not sure what I would have done if I didn’t find the Master of Interactive Multimedia (MIM) course. There were electives, so I could choose more software related subjects alongside the core subjects. This course was the closest to what I was interested in and what I thought I would really benefit from.
Since the MIM course was in a separate faculty to what I had studied in my Bachelors, I actually had to write and fill in an application explaining why I was a suitable candidate for this course.
I put a lot of effort into my application because I really wanted to study the course. I remember feeling very passionate about it and proud about what I’d written. I wrote about some of my existing skills that I believed showed my capability for handling some of the content of the course, namely my experience with coding, both personally and professionally. I’d done a bit of freelance work and had some pretty impressive work history, and I had a few things on my online portfolio to show off.
After submitting my application I got a call saying that I was not accepted into the Masters, but was accepted for the Graduate Diploma. The only difference was six months of work on a final project for the Masters degree. If I succeeded in the GradDip, I would be able to complete the rest of the degree to obtain my Masters. I was still very thrilled about this! 😊
Thinking back, I am not sure what I would have done if I didn’t find a course I liked. I might very well have gone on to do the honours year for my BA, and then taken things from there. I had aspirations of doing a PhD because I was inspired by one of my tutors in my BA degree who was doing her PhD, and I loved the breadth of research that I could contribute to in the field, but I wasn’t particularly attracted to the idea of studying well past the age of 25. 😆
How my week looked: A rough schedule
I like to think that for most of my life I have been an organised person. I sometimes procrastinate, and sometimes prioritise badly, but for the most part, I’m organised. Even though I procrastinated a lot while studying my Masters degree, I was organised, passionate and dedicated.
I have a regular exercise routine now, and I work out in the mornings. I’ve always been a morning person and very much love starting my day with movement. While I was studying, the only exercise I did was running. I was not yet into weightlifting, and I had stopped dancing ballet in 2010 after finishing all my grades. Apparently I ran 5.2 kilometres without stopping, and I was quite dedicated to running as form of exercise. I didn’t have particular goals, but from what I gather, I made every attempt to go for a run in the morning.
I often had to leave for work at around 7:30 to get there on time, which meant waking up at 6:00, running straight away, then getting showered and ready for work. I recall waking up at 5:00 some days to do work, and skipping my run, and other times waking up early to write blog posts.
My working hours were 9:00am to 6:00pm. Most of my classes required me to be on campus 6:00pm to 9:00pm, and that was about three days a week. There was one semester where I had a 9:00am–3:00pm class once every two weeks on a Saturday, and another semester where I had a class for a couple of hours on a Friday morning or something like that, and my boss was OK for me to start later on those days. As I mentioned earlier, my contractual agreement was technically that I was employed as a causal worker. I can write about “hustling” and bad work-life balance another day, but I was the only employee for a long period of time, so it was just my boss and me, and sometimes I was the only person working on some projects. I felt an extreme amount of responsibility and an obligation to work full-time.
Of course, you’re thinking, ending work at 6:00 and then starting class at 6:00 requires me to either teleport or be ubiquitous to make it to class on time. To be more accurate, I sometimes finished work at 5:45 so I could walk to campus. Fifteen minutes was usually enough. Other times, I would end up running to class at 5:59. Or I’d be a bit late, but that usually wasn’t a big problem as I didn’t miss much. If you’re familiar with what used to be known as the Tower building at UTS, I was basically on level 27 for most of my classes. Those elevators were damn slow. 🤪
Sometimes I ate in class. I bought my dinner and eating in class wasn’t an issue. Sometimes I’d buy it early, at 5:30, while I was at work, and wolf it down before going to class. I didn’t always have a plan, and it depended on how busy work got.
In hindsight, I could have saved some stress and got off work a bit earlier or move my working day half a hour earlier. Perhaps the only reason I didn’t do this was because it was not possible to fit it into my routine at the time. I go hard at the gym these days, and am extremely dedicated to it, and when I look back, I didn’t think of my running stint as being much, but it was only when I trawled through my blog archives that I realise I remembered that incorrectly. I suppose I did work harder than I remember, and made exercise a priority. My nutrition was very poor, though. I didn’t eat enough and I had some nutrient deficiencies as well as eating irregularly.
Concert photography took up several of my evenings. It was one of my hobbies – if not my only hobby, which I’ll discuss next.
Life outside of university: Mostly concert photography
I didn’t have a social life. 😅 I think my entertainment came mostly from the concerts and gigs I went to. As I mentioned, I’m an introvert. I’m not very social. While I was studying, I had few close friends, and I caught up with them maybe a couple of times a month at most. But in 2011 I got into concerts, and because I studied darkroom processing and black and white photography in my BA as an elective, I had a new found passion for taking photos, and concerts became one of those environments where my passion came to fruition. The same year I started my Masters was the same year I found opportunities to professionally photograph concerts for online music/entertainment publications and blogs.
It wasn’t just enjoyment, I guess it was a lot of hard work. Even if I didn’t have to shoot for a publication, I still went to concerts to enjoy the music and to practice my skill. I did not get paid for contributing to these publications; I got the credit and the exposure and a huge, huge amount of learning, but I continued doing it because I loved it. It was a genuine hobby. I felt continually challenged by photographing in low-light, and I could see ways for me to continue striving and improving. I was always motivated and excited about it.
The way it fit in with my full-time work and full-time study was most often going to a concert after class. I know you’re wondering, how did I have the energy? I do ask myself the same question. I sometimes left class early to catch the opening act of a concert. Luckily most of the venues were in walking distance of campus, and I could easily leave at a time like 8:30, not miss too much of the rest of class, and still capture a few shots of the opening band if it wasn’t an extremely strict venue that only let you shoot during the first 15 minutes.
Physically photographing is only half the game – the other half is editing. 😩 Every concert photographer knows how much of a pain in the ass this is. You only get better at it the more you do it. You only get faster the more you do it. When I started editing, I didn’t take a lot of photos to begin with, and I cared a lot more about composition, so it was easier to pick, edit, and publish. But as I got more camera gear, and became more experienced with photographing in low light, I would take dozens, if not hundreds more photographs in a single night – attempting to get the best, almost perfect shots. A bit of a “spray and pray” approach. I just didn’t want to miss a potential good shot. This meant that I spent a lot more time going through hundreds of photos, and with a 24-hour turnaround, I had to work under pressure or stay up even later than the concert to edit photos.
I found myself editing photos on my laptop on the train on the way back home from a concert at midnight to ensure that I got galleries published in time. I sometimes did it on the train on the way to work the next day. I often used my lunch break as well. The other people in my co-working space went out for lunch, but I often got lunch on my own. Sometimes I stayed in the office and worked on assignments or edited photos.
The importance of having a separation of concerns and physically different contexts
I think something that kept my motivation and drive seriously high (apart from the fact that I was only 20 years old) was the discipline I had to the different contexts in my life – and the fact that they were different. What I mean by this is that my work, university, and concert photography were separate entities with little to no crossover. They were not really related. I was, without a doubt, able to successfully drop all work thoughts once I was in the classroom, and able to get out of classroom and study mode when it came to concert photography. At work, I almost never had my other commitments on my mind.
I compare this to my work-from-home life today, where I physically need to swap my laptop out for my personal one, otherwise I think I’m still at work. Sometimes I use my work laptop to browse the internet after work hours, but I need to close Slack, close Terminal, and remove any context related to work, otherwise these things meld into one, and that becomes distracting. I can imagine that – for example – for parents, there is a certain time you spend with your children, and it’s the best when you turn off your phone and don’t have work on your mind, and if you have a separate space for working and for playing with your children. These days, I feel like I can so easily burn out from not physically changing my environment and mentally moving onto the next thing. In a way, if you think this deliberate context switching for a separate commitment in your life is going to work for you, then you might have to set something up for online classes if you also spend a lot of time on the computer aside from that.
Even though I was doing a lot of things at once, I believe I would have burned out sooner if I didn’t have distinct, undistracted blocks throughout my day.
Poor health: Inconsistent sleeping habits, poor nutrition, health concerns and issues
My sleeping habits were quite irregular. Although I don’t remember exactly how many hours of sleep I got, it was an average of six hours – sleeping at midnight and waking up at 6:00am. I’m pretty sure – like most people who work Monday through Friday – I slept in on the weekends when I didn’t have a Saturday class, and caught up on that sleep debt I’d accumulated through the week. I don’t think I was sleeping enough for the amount of exercise and movement I was doing throughout the day. Seven years ago, I think I could get by with less sleep compared to now.
There were some days where I only got three hours of sleep because I was doing assignments. In a previous blog post said I’d worked through the night until 5:00am on a university project, and had slept at 4:00am a couple of weeks beforehand. I also said that I slept at 10:00pm, generally – and actually, that’s a lot better than I’m doing these days in 2020! I’m sleeping at least an hour later than that now. 😉
But all in all, I didn’t have consistent sleeping habits, and I think that hurt my physical health at times. I stayed up when I needed to finish an assignment by the deadline, and I obviously stayed up late when I was out photographing concerts.
My diet and nutrition at the time was abysmal. I don’t believe it was as a result of work and study, but I was struggling with my body image a little bit at the time, so I likely didn’t eat enough food. I skipped meals frequently and changed my diet a lot because I found I was intolerant to so many different kinds of food, or a lot of things I normally ate (such as rice) gave me stomach cramps. As a side note, I wasn’t a coffee drinker at the time, so that was not something I depended on or tried. 😆
My diet lacked so many essential nutrients that in October 2013 my digestive issues ended up causing me extreme pain in my pelvis and hip. It was so painful that some days I was bedridden and it really hurt to walk. After getting an ultrasound and CT scan, doctors found that it was caused by a varicose vein in my pelvis, consistent with pelvic congestion syndrome. I also had a haemorrhage in my ovary. I was referred to another doctor to find the cause, and it turns out my colon was almost full, causing pressure on the area around my pelvis.
It ceased to bother me much after that episode, but it derailed my energy and mood for several weeks. I ended up having to ask for extensions on some of my assignments because I was so sick. This was not the first time I had digestive issues, either; I was diagnosed with having a full colon in 2011. Now that I look back on it, I’m not sure what really caused my digestive issues; it’s not that I was eating badly (in fact, I wasn’t eating enough), but I think I lacked enough of the right foods.
I also have (chronic) genetic high blood cholesterol, and I was frequently at the doctor to monitor this at least every six months, so I often got other things checked too. Something I was surprised to look back on is how low my vitamin D levels were:
I also had very low vitamin D levels. The normal level is from 50 to 200. Mine was 18. Eighteen. Sheesh. My doctor said it was the lowest she had seen anyone have.
My iron levels were also frequently low, I think simply because I didn’t eat enough protein. A lot of people think in calories, so to visualise how much I ate, I can think of one incident that can put things into perspective. I had a conversation with my friend Rachel about how much I was eating, and when she calculated how much I ate daily, it was something in the realm of 1100 calories or less. And even then, I was struggling so much to eat more (and closer to a healthy amount of calories) because I had been so restrictive in my diet for so many years.
I feel like these issues with my health had somewhat of an impact on my mental health (which I’ll discuss later in this post), and added some stress and pressure to my work and study. Even outside of this context, it is so, so important that you take care of yourself and prioritise yourself. If there is one thing you take away from this post, taking care of yourself physically and mentally would be it. 🙏 You just can’t give your best when you’re not feeling your best.
Exams, assignments, group work – course content can make a difference
My course mainly consisted of assignments and group work. The core subjects had no exams or tests, and there were three to four assignments per subject, so they were worth a pretty large percentage of the overall assessment. This was very much what I was used to during my Bachelors degree too – not a single exam. However, I chose an elective subject for my Masters degree that was related to software engineering, and there was a final exam worth 50% of the entire assessment. I don’t feel like this was a bad choice, but after so many exams in high school and not doing an exam for four years of my life, I think it was a shock to jump into something with an exam. Personally, I don’t do well in exams. I do much better when given the time to demonstrate my skills with an assignment. I overestimated my confidence in the exam and I walked in feeling alright, but was immediately anxious when I was sitting in the examination room. Most of the questions were multiple choice and some of the choices were super tricky. I passed, but I actually didn’t get as good a grade as I was hoping. I definitely think it was a case of me being caught between two similar answers and ultimately choosing the wrong one.
In a way, I chose a course that played to my strengths a little bit (but not too much). I’m not sure if this is the way people want to play this game. 😆 University is actually very boring if you are doing a course in something you are already good at. (I share a few more thoughts on this when I discuss my commitment to the course and how I actually went above and beyond for things that I found too easy.) For me it would feel like paying a lot of money and wasting time to have my skills certified. This might be needed for some jobs, but I’m not sure – if I had to do this, I would not feel motivated. It was the right choice to choose electives that were challenging for me and pushed me out of my comfort zone.
How well you deal with the coursework makes a big difference to how much you can commit to it. Some people don’t do well with spending a lot of hours putting together an assignment. They would rather learn the material and sit an exam for it. In a performing arts degree, one would have to spend a lot of time practicing. Some science based degrees will require a lot of research and work in a laboratory. The actual amount of time you spend studying and working on what contributes to your final assessment is worth considering, especially in how it fits in your lifestyle. Perhaps if I had a degree with more tests and exams, I could have spent my morning and evening commutes studying (when I wasn’t editing photos). It’s not always difficult to study material and read notes in various scenarios.
The other thing about committing to university is the amount of effort required outside of contact hours. How much are you going to need? It’s often hard to predict. The thing I learned the hard way is that if you miss a class, or fall behind, it absolutely sucks to get yourself back on track. It’s one thing to attend the classes and digest the information, but I personally felt that it was easy to underestimate how much time and effort it takes to then apply that information to assignments or to study it for exams.
My maturity and independence level was very low
I was 20 when I started my Masters degree; 22 when I finished. In one of my very first classes I remembered us all having a discussion where the topic of age came up. I can’t remember exactly what the discussion was about, but it was akin to graphics as a form of communication over the course of history. Our tutor was gauging the amount of decades between our ages and wanted to know exactly how young the youngest person was. I think she started at 30, and there was a good amount of hands up, at which point she went to 25 and counted down from there. I think there was one person who was 22, but then I was the youngest at 20.
Although I fully appreciated being around mature people in their late 20s, 30s and older, who had experienced so much more of life than I had, I had a long way to go before I was mentally at their level. I feel like my mental struggle (which I’ll detail later) made me come across as incapable and immature, and I felt insecure as a result. These days, with the cost of property rising to ridiculous heights, no-one really shames anyone for living with their parents, but I swear I felt insecure about it at the time. I don’t think many people (outside of the aforementioned class where the tutor asked about the youngest person) knew exactly how old I was, but I definitely had the feeling that they thought I was older than I actually was.
Many of my classmates had other commitments. Some of them were working full-time as well, and others had families and children. I knew some who lived even further than me – out in the mountains or on the Central Coast, so they had an even longer commute than me. Oftentimes I heard stories about them studying on the train or doing assignments. When I found out that many of my classmates also worked a full-time job, this really normalised the idea of working and studying at the same time. Many of the classes were in the evening to make it more available to people who worked a full-time job. I must say, I was in the minority for people who studied full-time whilst keeping a job; many of my classmates chose to study part-time. I guess I believed that if it was possible for others, surely I could do it too.
I actually cringe and am rightfully embarrassed by some of my old blog posts in which I became openly personal about some of my experiences during this time of studying and working, some of which actually had complaints about what I was studying. Although I won’t link to any of them in particular, they are there. 😳 I feel like it’s very obvious that I was immature at the time and I was still a growing adult. Some of my classmates had caught on to this after reading my blog, and I had to remove or privatise parts of my blog posts because I had written my thoughts out in a very insensitive manner that offended some people. This was a lesson I will take with me through life, and was actually a turning point in me curating the content on my blog and making changes to the topics I wrote about. It made me hyper-aware of my digital footprint and the way I used my platform. Even today, I think so many of us can easily get into hot water over the content we share online.
I feel like my experience might have been very different if I tried to tackle this when I had more experience in life and generally just a bigger worldview. I’m also a senior engineer now, and I clearly didn’t have the amount of responsibilities back then that I do now, so the work would have been easier to juggle. To be frank: I was young, and in a position where if I lost my job (which I did, albeit towards the end of my degree… hah), my entire career would not necessarily have been at risk, because I suppose you could say that my career hadn’t even properly started yet. 🤷🏻♀️
Why I didn’t quit: My thoughts on balancing this lifestyle and my feelings on committing to it
Many people tend to wonder how it is plausible to study and work full-time. After I shared my thoughts on Twitter, some people chimed in because they gave it a try before finding that it didn’t work for them. So it’s probably safe to assume that some people make the choice because they think they can do it, even when fully aware of how commitment is needed.
It was all a big balancing act, and my lifestyle may be one that you may or may not be able to draw parallels to. I lived with my parents, didn’t have kids, didn’t have much of a social life, and I had access to a loan so that I didn’t have to pay for my studies upfront. These are things that probably put me in a position of advantage and privilege. I can go into details about what may or may not work depending on different situations, but that would come with my own opinions and render this post somewhat biased. Instead, I want to discuss my commitment to what I was doing and why I think I was able to successfully stick to working and studying full-time.
I say “successful” because I didn’t fail any subjects and I was able to turn up to work every day unless I was sick. I might have been late to work or class sometimes, but there was still consistency in my attendance and work. I won’t lie: I probably could have excelled better, but there is no denying that I gave it a try and gave it my all, based on my situation and health at the time.
I was incredibly ambitious in everything I was doing. I will reiterate – my Passion is immeasurable post compares the large amount of things I did back then compared to now, and how the number frankly doesn’t matter. I was – and generally always have been – an all-or-nothing kind of person. I find it difficult not to complete something until the very end, and to not give something my all. One might associate it with perfectionism, but the difference here is that there was a profound and deliberate amount of effort – not a constant, picky desire to try and improve something to extremes or beyond its means. I often find myself disappointed when I stop short of the end of something, even if that thing was not that important or something I didn’t even like. Trivial things like dropping tap dance in favour of jazz and ballet (I had to drop a dance class because schoolwork became too much), and not finishing Dungeon Siege II because my brother Brandon beat me to 100% completion and I had watched him complete the 8% I didn’t do – that kind of stuff still gives me a feeling of, “Oh, it would have been nice if I did more of that/finished that.”
I think a lot of people know that when you are doing things that you really love and enjoy, it becomes hard to drop one of those things. When push comes to shove, there are times in life when you know that something isn’t giving you value and happiness and making a decision is not that hard. If I had to give something up, I feel like I would have been disappointed and dwelling on making a choice I regretted. I know that doing this with any of my commitments would have come with some amount of regret, that I was not ready for. I simply wanted to keep going.
Bringing your best self, and doing your best work
I think that enjoying what you are studying is really important. Sometimes we mightn’t have a choice because we need to obtain a qualification for the career path we choose. But while it might be bothersome to complete a degree to obtain the qualification, if you are truly choosing a career path you love, you should come to accept any challenges and the lows that might come with it… but that is also a separate topic entirely.
On a related note, in a conversation with Monica, we discussed having an affinity for both work and what we were studying. This led me to realise that, if it comes to making a change to part-time study or managing your workload by doing less, it will allow you to do the absolute best work that you can do. Balancing several subjects a semester while trying to work – and if you have other commitments, committing to them too – may mean that it’s not possible for you to give 100% effort. Quality over quantity, of course.
If you feel particularly passionate about a subject, I feel that it would disappoint you to not do well in it. When you really love and care about something, it can be disappointing and you can potentially let yourself down if you do something wrong or fail to achieve what you set out to achieve. The same goes for what you might contribute to at work. Somewhere towards the end of my degree, I knew I was not performing well at work, compared to what I had achieved months earlier. Part of it was because my mental health was struggling, and that may very well have been because I didn’t take care of myself. I’m ashamed of not having been able to bring my best self to work. What I learned throughout this whole process is that, sure, you can disappoint the people around you, but it hurts the most when you disappoint yourself.
It’s normal to be passionate about everything you are doing – as I was, but I can’t deny that I should have slowed down, I should have taken a step back and reduced the amount of work I was doing. About six months from the end of my degree, I had a conversation with my mum about how I was starting to burn out (even though “burn out” were not the words I used) and get really fed up, and that I didn’t want to finish my degree. We talked it out, and she encouraged me to continue because the remaining six months was just one major core subject, and that I’d come so far. (I think she was also convinced that it would be a better qualification. I wasn’t sure about that.)
I knew that if I got into the Masters degree straight away, without being accepted into the GradDip first, there would be no way out. I wouldn’t be able to just stop halfway and ask for a GradDip. Knowing that, I feel like it had been in my heart that I wanted to finish the whole degree. So I think I convinced myself that I had just encountered a hump in the road.
My declining mental health and the stigma at the time
I absolutely need to address issues of mental health in this post, because even though there is far more awareness about mental health, there was not much back in 2012. Struggling mentally was still taboo to talk about. I had been somewhat open about it on my blog, and I was on antidepressants for some portion of the two years of my Masters degree.
I didn’t talk to my parents a lot about my mental health and how I was feeling. I didn’t have a counsellor, therapist or mentor figure, and until I wrote this reflection, it didn’t occur to me that having one might be useful. It might have helped me more.
I had started to wean off my antidepressants in August 2012, and by August 2013 I mentioned in my blog posts that after coming off antidepressants I was feeling much better and my emotions felt more “real” and regulated. But that’s not what I remember when I think about my mental health. I think about the last six months of study – August being well in the middle of that six months – and how I was actually rather demotivated by it. I only had one subject, which was a major group project that could only be done after all your core subjects were complete. The group work was not hard, but I believe I struggled because I was unmotivated.
I was going through a rough time with some friendships and relationships, including a toxic one that was more of a distraction to my life than it should have been. This affected my motivation a lot. I probably brought it all on myself, but I didn’t take control so it ended up affecting other parts of my life including work and university. It was during the last six months of my degree that I feel I struggled a lot. I think it started by feeling stress from university, and then resorting to going out to concerts for a bit of fun and emotional release (and to do my photographing occasionally as well).
I had my first panic attack in June 2013; I wrote about it in my post titled I don’t want to study anymore either but I remember being extremely frightened for my mental health after that. I was completely alone and I had been up late working on proofreading a 93-page group assignment because I offered to. The title of the blog post is concerning, but it was written after I published a post titled I don’t want to eat anymore – I was experiencing polyphagia/hyperphagia (excessive hunger or increased appetite) that was making me physically ill. All in all, I was not well, physically or mentally.
As I was coming off the antidepressants, too, I was really struggling with my sleeping patterns and getting tired at random times throughout the day, even falling asleep at my desk at work once. I was losing the motivation to continue studying because of the workload, but at the same time I truly believed that I was just exaggerating how bad it was. I always took a step back and made myself realise that it wasn’t that hard: I wasn’t struggling for time, I was able to organise meeting up with the classmates in my group, I was still enjoying work even though I was tired. I was just going through a rough patch. I believed it was a hump in the road and I could have gotten over it.
Still, I never talked to my family nor a professional about my problems and I could have benefited from more support. I believed I was superwoman – something my mum has always reminded me that I’m not. My mum likely saw me struggling and continually gave me the reminder, “you are not superwoman, everyone has a limit”, and that I could not do everything at the same time. In a way she was letting me know that it was OK to take a day off work, but in my heart I knew I was a workaholic even though I didn’t want to admit it. I know my mum to be a bit of a workaholic too, so when I was stubborn and insisted on going to work, I don’t think she retaliated. I also believed it was weak to take a day off for mental rest, and even though I was somewhat open about my mental health on my blog, and my boss knew about my blog, I was not comfortable discussing mental health with him in person at all, even though we got along well and could chat about a variety of other topics.
I guess I thought I was superwoman enough to deal with my problems without sacrificing anything else. I was persistent and I was determined, but somewhat to the detriment of my mental health. I didn’t realise this at the time. Had I been more mature, I might have treated myself better and spent more time on my physical and mental health – but I am also saying this as someone seven years older, who has advocated for mental health awareness and openness because I have acquired more confidence in myself to talk about it. As with many other things in this post, it’s hard to know if – and how – doing things differently might have changed certain outcomes.
If I had to re-do it differently, how would I do it differently? What could have made it easier?
There is not much I want to discuss here because I don’t regret what I went through. But there were some things that could have made it easier. The first is the flexibility of work. If I had the courage to ask for more flexible work hours, and if I knew that was an arrangement that was quite possible while working as a developer/engineer, I would have asked. But I was still at a junior level and didn’t feel like I was entitled to this flexibility. I hadn’t yet gained trust. This would no doubt be easier in my current position, where I am more mature and responsible in my role at work, and have enough trust to be able to work flexible hours if I needed to balance that with studying. This would also extend to working from home. I wasn’t in a good position to work from home, and my home environment at the time wasn’t very comfortable and I had no good desk setup.
I was also not in a position to move out of my parents’ place, but if I had the ability to work from home, it would have cut out some stressful rush-hour commutes, and on days when I didn’t have contact hours for university, I could have cut out about three hours of commuting.
I could very well have changed my working hours to be four days, or balance it out so that I had less working hours. I find that even working from 9:00am to 6:00pm is a big ask. I feel like I could easily have asked to finish at 5:00pm. I was passionate about my work and as a newbie to the workforce, I was also just excited about what I got to work on. I’m not necessarily someone who works well under pressure, but I am uncertain if working four days a week (instead of five) would have made a huge difference to how productive I was. I get the feeling I would have procrastinated on study and university tasks just as much on my day off.
Aftermath: The cost, the value, the “bragging rights”?
I need to reiterate that I don’t regret anything making the choice to continue working while I studied full-time. There were undeniably things I could have done better and I could have optimised the way I worked to make the experience less stressful, but I enjoyed the experience overall. I don’t look at how much debt I have and have any regrets or feel bad about it.
University is hard. I won’t sugar-coat it. It has a reputation for being useless and outdated, but I feel like only you can decide whether it will be the same for you. Degrees have been seen to be useless for someone’s career of choice. And it’s true, sometimes what you end up studying might be required for certain jobs, and other times you won’t need it at all. Sometimes people study what they enjoy, but go and start a career in another field. It’s a pretty personal thing. I’ve had many people try to tell me that my degree contributed nothing for my current career. Yeah, OK, so? Neither did algebra in tenth grade. But I enjoyed them both. I distinctly remember enjoying algebra a lot (even though I didn’t like anything else about mathematics). You be the decider of what your degree did – or didn’t do – for you, and the experience you got from it.
It’s also not everyone’s way of learning, which is fine. University is not the only way you can learn something. Community colleges sometimes offer what universities don’t. Specialised schools like performing arts schools and beauty schools, internships for services like tattooing and piercing, and online courses for digital marketing skills or graphic design skills – all exist and are other options. Some of them are affordable. Specifically referring to the industry I work in – IT/software engineering/“tech” as a blanket term – there are a lot of free resources on the internet to learn how to code. There weren’t very many when I was younger. There are communities online dedicated to creating resources and learning material for others. Unfortunately, a university degree is often required for certain jobs, even if the course content doesn’t contribute much to the skills required for the job. I think we are slowly moving away from this, but it is extremely dependent on the industry you work in – for example, it would make sense to have sufficient qualifications to be able to work in a medical field.
University is often expensive, which doesn’t make it very accessible, but other courses and content on the internet can be an interim step, if not completely replace what you would normally get out of a degree. I would have liked it if my degree was a little cheaper, but the cost made sense to me. I didn’t think much about it, although not having to pay it upfront probably makes a big difference to how you look at it. The cost doesn’t equate to the experience, because quite frankly, you can’t put a price on the experience.
I mentioned this in my decade in review post for 2010–2019:
I was a completionist, a perfectionist, and I honestly think I wanted the finish line without thinking much about the journey. Every now and then, I don’t think I deserve my masters degree because of the state of my mental health at the time, but then I realise a lot of people respect that I have one and respect the effort it took to study for one, and then I feel OK. 💗
I believe that. I might have been too hard on myself because most people would probably struggle as much as I did if they were in the same situation. But, again, I actually put the effort in, and I can’t deny that.
I think university can be particularly appealing for someone who wants to be a part of and contribute to academia as well. When I thought about pursuing a PhD, I was genuinely interested in contributing to academia and had a fair amount of ideas for theses I wanted to write and research I wanted to conduct. Not everyone has that kind of passion, and obviously, years down the track, even though I still like the idea, it’s not a priority for me. 😊
I used to brag to my friends with only a Bachelor degree that I have “two square hats”, that is, the hat you wear when you graduate. 🎓 I said that just because I was proud of myself for having put in the work. I never studied a Bachelors and Masters to be cool or to have more things to brag about on my resume. If I had done it solely for that reason, I would have been so ashamed of myself because I’m certain I would have felt nothing from the experience, or not even completed my degrees. With certainty, I can say that when it came to tertiary education, no matter what was put on my plate – whether it was easy, difficult, annoying, boring, something I already knew, something I struggled with – I always followed my passion. I definitely made mistakes, but it was useful to write this post to reflect back on my experience properly. Thank you so much to everyone who interacted with my tweet about this! 💙
If you asked me now, if I would study and work full-time, I think I’d say no (pandemic or not). I’m very passionate about what I do at work, and in my personal life in terms of exercise, fitness, and prioritising my physical and mental health. I have a good balance now. If I found a university course I felt drawn to, I definitely wouldn’t rule it out, and I’m sure I would find a way to work it into my schedule. But in my career thus far, I have also come across a lot of resources online that satisfy my curiosity and need for learning. It will keep me busy for some time. Plus, we all know that formal education is not the only way one can learn things. 🧠
If you read this whole post, thank you! I know it’s incredibly long. Even if you skimmed it or read parts of it or managed to read only parts of it… thank you for taking an interest in my journey. I hope it helps give you some perspective.
If you have any comments feel free to leave them on this post; or I’d love to have a chat on Twitter. Wherever you are in life, I hope you are always learning.
This was really interesting to read. I only ever tried studying part time whilst working and found that exhausting so I find it incredible how much you managed to balance at once. I admire your honesty about your mental health struggles , and your ability admit to immaturity, and how you have managed to turn things around for yourself. I really liked what you discussed on the value of degrees and i totally agree.