Friday, 16 January 2009

The Benefits of Part Time Studying for Graduates

Studying is good for your level of happiness. This is probably because it is constantly challenging your definition of happy as you wade through countless lectures, tutorials and deadlines that you thought you had put to rest at your graduation ceremony, but it is still good for your level of happiness. Let me climb back onto my soapbox and tell you why it is a good idea for you to study again alongside a day job.

Why should you?

Starting with the very obvious and easy to understand reason first, it will give you new skills, new experiences and a new qualification. Even at the very least, it will give you one of those three. Some career paths may open up to you once you’ve done a little bit of extra studying, including some that may not be initially obvious, and you may find that employers will see extra training that you’ve done, or are in the process of doing, after your graduation and think “hey, this one isn’t lazy! Let’s talk to him and find out what he’s all about”. I don’t totally agree with doing things for your CV alone, but it is undoubtedly going to be a pleasant side effect of studying.

Secondly, I always find, the more I have to do, the more I get done. Part time studying forces you to do a certain amount of things in your spare time, which means that the remaining spare time you have is a lot more focused. You’re much less likely to spend an unfulfilling evening watching rubbish that you dislike on television if those three hours have become more precious to you and your spare time slightly more scarcely available.

The main motivation behind my part time studying was for the sake of my sanity. My brain wasn’t getting much of a work out during the day and there wasn’t much to occupy my mind in the evening either, as I would inevitably find myself burnt out after work anyway and vegetate in front of the TV or a computer. This is similar to the point above, in that studying gives you something to focus on and refines any other spare time into spare time that you use as opposed to waste. You might have also found yourself in a situation whereby every day feels like a grind and that your job covers the same ground a lot. I quite like my job, but that doesn’t stop it from being a repetitive mind-masher that eventually turns your brain to sludge.

Finally, studying part time is good for the ego. It means that you’re able to say when people ask that you work in x company by day, but by night, you study to become a lawyer/doctor/IT consultant/superhero. This will, if you are anything like me, make you feel better and reaffirm to yourself that you are going somewhere and not stuck in a dead end or boring job. Whereas you shouldn’t boast, you should allow yourself to at least take a little pride in your efforts.

What should you do?

You should do something that you enjoy. I absolutely loath that piece of advice, so allow me to clarify: You should do something that interests you and that you can see yourself sticking to, or you should do something that you’ve always wanted to try. Before going to university, everyone used to say to me that you should do something that you enjoy, but really, I don’t know how you’re meant to know what you will enjoy once you get to university. I enjoyed Music, English literature and Theatre Studies at the time, but I knew that three years of studying would kill either one of them for me and at the same time I knew I enjoyed History and suspected that this would be more likely to survive three years of studying, hopefully allowing me to enjoy it even more over time. As it turned out, I was wrong and three years of studying smashed any positive feelings I had for History into kindling instead. The point is that I thought I would enjoy History and it turned out that I didn’t, and there is no way that anyone could have told me that would happen, nor was there any way that I could have known. People have told me I will hate law, but so far I haven’t experienced even a glimmer of negativity about the subject. You will never know if you enjoy something or not until you try it, but a lot of the time you will have a rough idea, so go with your instincts. Essentially, don’t start an intensive medical degree if you can’t stand the sight of blood, or an IT consultancy training program if you can’t stand the sight of wires.

As a graduate, chances are you’ll have a choice of places. Most places say that a 2:1 is preferable, but don’t lose hope if you don’t have that as they will often interview you, if not just give you a place anyway. With part time courses in particular, it is much easier to get a place in a college than it is to get a place for a degree after A levels. The cynical view is that they want your money and the realistic view is probably that….well, they want your money. I know that I applied for a place on my course at BPP way beyond the deadline and about three weeks before term was due to start. My place was confirmed almost instantly and I only have a fairly pedestrian academic record.

What to avoid

A lot of places give you funny qualifications. Training is big business and there is a lot of money to be made, which means a lot of people are trying to take money from training programs that really aren’t worth it. Do some research into what you’re signing up for. A lot of IT training appears very suspect in that it masquerades as a job interview process that advertises on the job training with no prior experience necessary. I applied for one of these thinking it was a genuine job opportunity and was given a telephone interview that seemed perfectly legitimate until they started talking about course fees at the end of the call. I would be instantly suspicious of anything that doesn’t directly advertise itself as training.

Also, in a similar vein, avoid anything that promises to make you lots of money very quickly. If it’s too good to be true, blah blah blah you’ll be ripped off and end up selling your soul and your home will be repossessed and you’ll die alone with cats and the cats will eat you if a fire burns down your house (that has already been repossessed) etc. Some training courses claim they’ll guarantee you a job after you’ve finished as well. This could also not be as good as you may think it is as they could easily dump you in a dead end job and tell you they’ve done what they said they would.

In general, it would be best to go for something that is being taught from an institution with at least a little bit of a positive reputation. I’m not suggesting you should only settle for Oxbridge style quality, but anyone that is in a position to study part time should be able to do better than “Learningz4U, location: Back room of Euston station.”

When should you? When should you not?

Make sure you have at least some spare time in which to study. Of course, having said that, it may not take up as much time as you would suspect, as I’ve mentioned above, the more you have to do, the more you get done and once you get into a routine and so long as you set a little time aside every now and then, you can get through all manner of work that is required of you each week.

I would recommend part time studying only if you have a job first. Also, it’s a good idea to see if you can work full time and still have energy to do it. I was able to get enough experience so that I can, if necessary, work on autopilot, leaving me more energy to do the studying in the evening. If you have a highly demanding job, or if you’ve just started a job, it would be better to wait until you feel you would be able to manage what is essentially extra work on top of what you already have to do.

Be aware that if your life is full, part time study could completely knock you out. If you have a hectic work life, a hectic family life, children, other commitments that you don’t want to lose, other projects, second jobs, or anything that is dominating your time, part time study will finally break you. The window of time doesn’t have to be massive, but it does have to be there!

My last suggestion is an absolute no-brainer. Studying does cost money, significant sums of money in some cases and basic extortion in others, but even the lowliest evening class will cost money. Therefore, going back to my first point here, working is an absolute must. Studying just for the sake of something to do during the day is a tremendously bad idea, as is studying in order to stay away from work. Although it’s a short wander away from the subject, a lot of people I know have done masters degrees after their bachelors, purely because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. This really just puts you in even greater debt and doesn’t always advance you as far as you would have thought. If on the other hand you desperately want to do a masters degree, you’re passionate about the subject or your particular career path demands it, then that is a different matter. My flat mate is applying to do a masters degree for decent reasons and he will undoubtedly get a lot out of it.

How will it affect your life?

Studying will for the most part make you happier and give you a little more fulfillment in your life. It will also make you slightly more stressed out most of the time and will make you think really hard about whatever stupid advice you took that lead to you doing it in the first place and might possibly encourage you to start practicing voodoo on any relevant advice givers.

The major downside of it is one that I’ve already touched on and that is the cost. You will have to cut back a little and set aside more than usual to pay for it, which can be incredibly daunting if you are already in debt from a pre existing student loan or something similar.

The only other major thing that is a little unfortunate is that you will find yourself with a few more commitments during the week that you have to honor. This of course will vary depending on what it is you’re studying and where you are studying it. I am fortunate enough to study at BPP where they provide you with all the lectures on DVD and give you a USB stick with all the lecture slides on at the beginning of the year, which means if you can’t attend one of the lectures, you can catch up with it at home. This of course reduces the set-in-stone commitment level of set hours a week and is an absolute gift to anyone who has an even slightly variable weekly timetable.

What I do and how it has helped me.

If you think I’m a tedious bore, feel free to stop reading (although how you’ve made it this far already I don’t know). This is just to show you that I’m not completely plucking these ideas and opinions out of the ether.

I graduated and spent about two months out of work, desperately-yet-not-trying-too-hard searching for a job. I then got a job in a call centre selling insurance. After three months of that, I got a job in the same company administrating the sales and processing applications and doing a lot of paper work. Five months after that, I had worked out all of the subtleties of the job and I was critically and dangerously bored and needed a change. Instead of a change, I started my part time law GDL conversion course at BPP. I chose the conversion course because it was something I had always considered doing, with law being something I was particularly interested in and because it was something that a lot of people had suggested I would be good at. I am now about three quarters of the way through it and due to finish this year.

The course has given my brain something to do, it has given me an overall goal, it has made me more productive (even with huge periods of non-productivity, I’m still better than I was before), it has introduced me to new people, it has given me something interesting to put on my CV, it has given me a huge number of interesting things to talk about and think about and it has obviously taught me a huge amount about our legal system. If nothing else, this course has kept me going whenever I’ve felt a bit down and given me something to focus on, giving me direction and an idea that I can get somewhere if I work hard enough. It doesn’t matter if I don’t eventually train as a lawyer, the course has already paid for itself ten times over.

I’m not saying that I’m a model student, a model employee, a model friend, a model individual, or a….model….but part time studying has improved my life and lifestyle no end and made me feel a better person for it. I can’t stress enough how much I recommend trying it.

To Conclude

The truth is that life is a lot like studying, but without the leniency in time limits. There will always be deadlines and things you need to work for and learn and develop so you should abandon the notion that once you’re done studying, you’ll never have to do it again. What you should bear in mind though is that the second time round, in a different environment and with a different ethos, it can be a lot of fun and you will find yourself appreciating the act of studying a lot more. It’s now no real mystery to me why mature students at university always got their work done and put the hours in; it was because they had a different way of thinking, and it was almost a frivolous hobby for them, whereas for the rest of us, “student” was our label, our attitude and our profession.
Part time studying is not for everyone and I’m not saying everyone will be as happy with it as I am, but it’s worth a try and might just revolutionize your life.

Additional Notes:

I attend BPP professional education in Waterloo for my conversion course in law and can genuinely sing their praises. Apart from them forgetting that I’d paid one set of my course fees, I have absolutely nothing negative to say about them. I know that they also do courses in accountancy and actuary and I can only imagine they do these courses just as well (especially accounting: they get free coffee and everything).
Although they are technically rivals of BPP, I have also heard good things about the College of Law, but I can’t give them a personal recommendation.
There are several universities and colleges across the country that specialize in evening classes and part time courses. In central London, I can also offer a recommendation for Birkbeck College as I know a few people who have done things there and say they’re pretty consistent, but elsewhere it’s worth digging around and seeing what is on offer.

The law training is starting to kick in now as I feel myself compelled to write: I am not to be held responsibility for any regret, loss of sleep, sanity or sensibility due to any perceived misrepresentation of the benefits of part time studying.

Any requests for parts of my hair for use with voodoo dolls will be considered on a case by case basis.

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