Sunday, 28 April 2013

Dollars and Sense

This week on the Non-Traditional Student Blog, Elizabeth Sheppard wrote about the increasing number of mature students in the USA, and how universities there are doing more to support their mature students.
More and more schools are catering to nontraditional students, who are often older and going back to school after a break. I have seen Nontraditional Student clubs, special advising, and more choices in class times in the last five years or so, and I believe this trend will gain traction in the years to come.

Schools are offering more financial aid for older students too.
How different the situation here in New Zealand! The government has cut financial support for older students, and in doing so has sent a clear message to the publically-owned universities that they should be prioritising support for school leavers. At my own university, recent staff cuts have seen the loss of the dedicated adult student advisor who, among other things, ran a mentoring programme for mature students newly returned to study. While some individual departments still offer support for their mature students, you’d never know it from the university’s website – the only link I could find referring to adult student support just took me back to the generic student support page, squarely aimed at the 18-21 bracket.

A quick survey of the other universities shows a similar pattern. A few still offer dedicated support for mature students, but judging from their websites, the majority don’t even know we exist.

And really, who can blame them? In times of reduced budgets, it makes sense to cut support to a minority group (especially one that doesn’t have any special funding attached to it) in favour of providing more support to the majority. The government see more economic benefit in assisting school leavers who’ll have 40-odd years of working life ahead of them once they graduate, compared to a mature student who’s edging closer to retirement age.

But doesn’t that ignore the fact that it’s a rare person these days who hasn’t changed career and retrained multiple times over the course of their working life? Long gone are the days when you could assume your degree would stay relevant to your job forever. So shouldn’t the government be encouraging older people to go back to university and retrain to ensure their remaining years in work are as economically productive as possible?

Unfortunately that logic doesn’t seem to have occurred to the current government. But there’s a slight glimmer of hope from the Opposition. MP for Wigram Dr Megan Woods recently wrote:
Recent changes to the student loan scheme have meant post-graduates are no longer eligible for the student allowance while over 55s were stopped from accessing the student loan in 2011. The post-graduate cuts will likely result in many of our most talented students heading overseas to carry out research. If we lose them, we lose their skills and expertise at the very time we need more qualified people.
 Let’s hope she can convince some of her colleagues of the value of older students!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

What it's all about

This time last year...
I was at graduation this week.  No, not graduating myself, but as a staff member helping out.  It did mean I got to wear my regalia though, which I'm always so proud to do (even though I was surrounded by academic staff in their PhD robes, and I've just got a little BA - I'm still really proud of my efforts in getting that BA!).

I've probably attended well over a dozen graduation ceremonies during my time working at the university, and I still love it.  As a member of the non-academic staff, it's a wonderful reminder of what we're all here for - our work isn't just about paperwork and form filling, it's actually about helping young (and not so young!) people to get an education.  Seeing the students who I've known since they were nervous first years step up on the stage to receive their degrees is an amazing feeling.  So too is seeing the pride on the faces of their families as they watch them.

And of course, as a student myself it gives me a wonderful feeling of anticipation, imagining that in just a few years I'll be attending my own graduation ceremony.  I think back to how I felt the day I graduated with my BA, when I couldn't stop smiling all day because I was just bursting with joy and pride, and another three years of hard work suddenly seems so worth it.  I can't wait!

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Talking to your employer about study

Employment shouldn't be a straightjacket... (ok, I admit it - the real reason for this image is I couldn't find a picture of a juggler)
Unless you're lucky enough to have a wealthy significant other willing to support you, chances are you're going to have to work at least part time while you're studying.  And if you're the main breadwinner for your household, then study might have to come second to full-time work.

That's certainly the case for me, but I've found that juggling part-time study with full-time work is perfectly possible - it just takes (like most things in life) a bit of planning and good communication.  Of course, I have a slight advantage in that I work for a university, so my employer is naturally sympathetic to me wanting to study, and in fact subsidises my fees.  But I still have to face many of the same issues around juggling work and study that I would with any other employer.  And the main thing I've learnt is to keep my employer informed.

If you're thinking of starting study alongside your work, your natural instinct might be to hide that from your employer - after all, what will they think?  Will they think you're looking for a new job?  Will they think you won't be putting as much effort into your work?  Well, yes, that might be exactly what they'll think, which is why it's important to talk to them.  And face it, unless you're going to night school or taking a correspondence course, you're going to need your employer's cooperation sooner or later anyway.

So as soon as you start planning your study, meet with your manager* to talk through your plans, and the potential effect of your study on your work.  Some important points to discuss:

  • Lectures are often held during work hours, so how will you manage that?  If you have a choice of lecture times, discuss with your manager which will fit best around the times you're most needed at work. Could you move your lunch break to match the lecture time, or maybe shift your working day earlier or later by an hour or two?  Can you work late to make up the time you're at lectures?  (Don't forget to factor in travelling time between your workplace and the campus.) Do you have to attend every lecture, or are some available on-line? 
  • Will preparing for exams and assignments distract you from your work? (Be honest!) Can you book annual leave for a day or two leading up to major assessments so that you can use that time to concentrate on study and leave your mind clear for work the rest of the time?
  • How does your course calendar line up against the work calendar?  Will you have any times when big assignments at work coincide with big assignments in class?  Is there any flexibility on either side to avoid that?  Perhaps you could plan to hand in your essay two weeks before the due date to free you up for the busy time at work?  Or perhaps your manager can assign you to the project that'll be happening during the university vacation?  Make sure you show your manager you're willing to be flexible and work with her/him to address problems before they happen.
  • What benefits are there to your employer from your study?  Will you be able to apply any of the skills you're learning to your job?  Think about not just the direct application of your major, but also the secondary skills you learn along the way - for example, the research and writing skills you learn while writing essays will help you write better reports at work, while being around students gives you an insight into the youth market.
  • Most of all, be honest with your manager about your long-term plans and goals.  Are you studying in the hope of getting a better job?  Don't be afraid to let your manager know that, but also to let them know what the time-frame is.  Good employers understand that their employees have ambitions (after all, very few people go into a job hoping to stay in that exact same position for ever - everyone wants to advance one way or another!) and that they'll likely want to move on eventually - their only concern is whether you're planning to leave next week or in ten years.  So let your manager know what you're aiming for, and how long it will take you to get there.  And reassure him/her of your loyalty to the company in the meantime. 
At the end of the semester, meet with your manager again.  Let her/him know how you did in the course, what transferable skills you learnt and how you've applied them to your work, and how you've managed to juggle the competing pressures of work and study.  Then  discuss your plans for next semester, and go through the above points again to make sure s/he's happy with how you'll handle the juggling act this time round.

*Note: this all assumes you have a fair and reasonable manager.  Only you know how your manager is likely to respond, so only you can judge if this is the best approach for you to take.  If you think you'll have problems with your direct manager, it might be better to have the conversation with HR or another manager, or find some other way to negotiate the balance between work and study.

Have you discussed your study with your employer?  Were they supportive?  How have you balanced studying and working?  Let us know in the comments.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Getting to it

She's cute, but she doesn't make for a good study companion
Sorry this post is a little late, but after that lovely lazy long Easter weekend, I just couldn't get myself motivated last week.  So what better topic to write about than motivation?

How do you get yourself motivated to do coursework?  What gets you hitting the books when you'd much rather be hitting the couch?  There's the big picture stuff, of course, the long-term goals and dreams you'll be able to realise when you finally get that degree, but I find they're a bit too vague and distant to really get me inspired when I'm tired and just can't be bothered working.

What works in those situations is different for everyone, of course, but for me I've found three things are key: the time, the place, and a plan.  Once I've got those in place, just getting on with it becomes easy.

First, the time.  I work best with a regular schedule, so I work out a study timetable around my other commitments and try to stick to it.  I also really like to keep my weekends free of study when I can.  So last year I wrote two two-hour study blocks into my diary for straight after work on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.  I knew I didn't normally have anything planned those nights, and that straight after work I'd still be in productive mode so it would be easy for me to switch from work-work to study-work.  After a couple of weeks of always getting into study at the same time on the same days it became my regular routine, so instead of sitting there saying "I really should get on with that essay", I'd just say "Right, Wednesday 5 pm, time to get started."

The key things in finding a study time are to find a regular time that works for you (Are you a morning or an evening person? What regular commitments do you have? When are you least likely to be disrupted?), and then stick to it.  Be realistic about how much time you need to block out.  For me last year I found 4 hours a week was about right (with the occasional extra evening or weekend session when a deadline loomed) - I could almost always get everything done I needed to, while still leaving myself enough free time for home and friends - but, as they say, your mileage may vary.  In other years when I was taking easier lower-level papers I found two hours a week more than enough.  When I was taking a language paper, I needed more like 5 hours.

Next, the place.  To work well, I need to have no distractions around me.  So I always spend the first 5 minutes of my study time cleaning my desk and arranging the books and papers I need.  I find that physical clearing of the decks also works as a mental clearing of the decks - once my desk is ready to work, so am I.  It also helps to get rid of distractions of the human kind - much as you love your family, you might find it easier to work when they're out the way, so designate a room as your "office" (even if it's just a temporary designation for a room that has another name like "kitchen" or "bedroom" for the rest of the week) and ban everyone else from it while you're working. Or take yourself out of the house and work at the library or in a cafe - anywhere you can get a good uninterrupted couple of hours.

The other thing I find helps make a location good for study is the associations I have with it.  My favourite place to study is actually my office at work (I'm lucky enough to have building access outside office hours), because not only is it quiet and distraction free in the evenings, but it's a place I associate only with working, so when I'm in there my mental state is immediately productive.  If I sit in my lounge at home, on the other hand, I'm tempted by the TV and the books and the cats and getting a snack from the kitchen.  And if I'm actually so foolish as to sit on the sofa, all is lost - I'll end up falling asleep with a cat on my lap.

The last key to my motivation is a plan.  I like lists, and especially lists I can tick items off of, so the first thing I do when I get an assignment is to break it down into tasks and subtasks.  For example, writing an essay might be broken down into four main tasks: finding sources, reading, planning, drafting, and polishing. Each of those is then broken down further - for example, planning might break down into decide main thesis statement, list supporting arguments, structure sequence of arguments.  Once I've got my list of tasks, I work out roughly how long each task will take me (adding in a little wiggle room for unforeseen problems), how long I've got until the assignment is due, and divide up the tasks accordingly, so that I've got a complete to-do list that tells me what I need to have achieved by the end of each study session to stay on track.

Of course, I'll keep updating and changing my plan as I go along, according to how the work is going.  I might find more useful sources than I expected, so need to add in extra reading time.  Or I might have a particularly productive night and be able to start on some of next week's tasks early.  But having a plan in place means that as soon as I sit down I know exactly what I need to get done and can get on with it, without having to try and remember where I'm up to or what I'd been thinking about.

So that's my technique for motivation.  I have a regular time I always study, a place that's conducive to working, and a plan so that I know what I need to be doing.  That removes any excuse I have not to just get on with it, so that's what I do.

And if all else fails, there's bribery.  I keep a bar of really good chocolate in my desk, and promise myself a piece once I finish a significant task - reading a research paper, writing an essay draft, digging up x number of good references.  Of course, you have to have enough willpower to keep yourself to the original terms of the deal - no suddenly deciding you're allowed chocolate after every page :-)

What motivational tricks work for you?  Are you able to find time and space in your life to optimise your work habits?  Let us know in the comments.