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.

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