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20 May A RETURN TO STUDY PART 1

For many professionals continuing studies present an opportunity to develop professionally and personally. Whichever the level of study you undertake, there is always an amount of planning and sacrifice involved. I was aware of this when I decided to pursue a post-graduate course, but my motivations initially made me ignore these two important points. As I take you on a small journey through my experience, I will also touch on the experiences of my fellow colleagues on the course, as well as friends and family who have pursued further education. I will briefly expand on my motivations; talk about choice, then I will discuss four aspects of further study, the challenges and the reasons. My hope is that these topics will provide you with some inspiration, some encouragement or confirmation of a similar experience. It probably also explains my enthusiasm whenever someone either asks me about or tells me they are on a course.

Motivations

I had always wanted to pursue a further qualification primarily because I have always viewed academic development as being key to my professional development. I had been fortunate enough throughout my career to have received on-the-job and professional training to add on to my already existing academic credentials. Honestly speaking, I had come to the point in my life where I thought, ‘I feel I need to do something, but what?’ I thought about that ‘what’ question for a long time. A friend of mine came to the rescue. She was working for a government department in the UAE, but was at that time on course to complete an MBA with a well-known University based in the UK but with classes here. She in turn had been inspired by a mutual friend who had taken up a creative writing course with a US university, which was completely different from what his day job was. To cut a long story short, our creative writing friend had been spending less time socializing with us, while the MBA friend still socialized but was hardly ever around during weekends. A bit off-putting, but once they started talking passionately about the pro’s and the cons, I got hooked. I became more motivated to start my further studies especially with their encouragement and their confidence in my ability to do it.

Choices

Both my friends were studying mainly class based courses, which suited me well, but I had to make a choice based on convenience, international recognition, the subject and the all-important finance. In an unrelated discussion with work colleagues, I discovered numerous online courses with various educational organizations. I heard about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which are offered by hundreds of providers including the likes of Harvard and Princeton, which were essentially free, more on these later. There were some choices of blended learning, with a percentage of online work and some classes requiring classroom attendance, affordable, but personally, my preference was a class based course.

The choice of studying at an internationally reputable university or institution, for the right amount of money and for a subject I was interested in, was probably the most difficult decision. Add to that, the need for the qualification to be relevant to my career. However after exhaustive research on the internet, some frank discussions with colleagues and family, I took the plunge. I additionally had to overcome the daunting nature of the task to actually start, as in: turn up, sign up, register and pay a deposit.

Four main aspects

There are four main aspects to consider while undertaking further studies. The obvious one of course is the actual studies, i.e. the time required for research, reading, assignments and discussions. The other two are work and family or home life. The last but not the least is your social life. You may add others if you need to, as the aspects of studying do not always fit into neat boxes. For example another of my friends, completed a TESOL course while training for a marathon, making time for her family and being a corporate manager for a major airline. She told me that ‘balance’ was the key. Well balance? Easier said than done. She did however break it down into parts for me.

The way I understood it, I needed to budget my study time. I had to have a clear idea how much time was needed to read literature in soft and hard copies, research and complete assignments. Above all I required a routine. What I discovered was that even though I set aside time weekly, I had to then budget time additionally for group discussions and online forums, which were considered in the semester marks. I had to put in place a backup plan just in case I was unable to use the allocated time because something unexpected came up. In other words I had to give myself more time than I had anticipated because of the unforeseen. Most importantly, I had to constantly reassess my priorities. I soon found out that I had to know myself well enough to know my limitations and the habits that would stop me from achieving my goal.

She suggested I have a rough study plan, with mini goals, after which I could celebrate and congratulate myself as I went along. In my case this was usually a slice or two of cheesecake or some slabs of dark chocolate. She recommended deadlines, but not just deadlines for the sake of deadlines, but to realistically achieve objectives and tasks. I wanted to go a step further and over-planned as the university provided a detailed programme of study, but I found it frustrating when things did not go according to the plan. I got sidetracked on the internet, TED talks were the main culprit, and found myself looking for and finding things to do in order to put-off completing tasks.

That said, she had told me that I needed to communicate with my employer, if they were agreeable to it of course, to ensure I had the time and the support. What helped me through was the nature of my job and an employer who was nothing but supportive. For other people who are not as fortunate as I was, the difficulty of juggling work life, study life and family life becomes even more complicated. That is not to say it is any easier when you have the support of one or the other, it just then requires much more organization. Having a free and open relationship with your employer, like I mentioned above, allowed me to keep them in the loop about my progress. I was able to show them how they would gain from my further qualifications, which in turn helped me show how serious I was about progression and enhancing my career. Furthermore I could actually prove during the duration of the course how much more of an asset I could be with what I brought to the table.

I learnt that having a good relationship and communication with your tutors, lecturers or teachers helps. Not in a teacher’s pet fashion, but making sure you get feedback on your progress, ask questions, and give feedback on the activities and tasks you enjoy. Participation and contribution of resources, events and names of individuals and organizations you think will benefit your classmates, course-mates or teachers will put you in the forefront.

I made sure I communicated with my family, both immediate and extended; and friends, so that they knew I was studying and had an idea of the sacrifices we all had to make. By this I don’t mean just at the beginning, my MBA friend reminded me of the need to constantly remind people throughout the course. It also meant at times choosing a place where I could study without interruptions. In my case an extra bedroom, meant I could go into my own space. For her it meant going to her local Café Nero, Tim Hortons or Starbucks, but it also meant being able to shut out all the white noise and all the things going on around her. For our creative writing friend, all the activity was not a distraction, in fact it inspired his imagination. He was fortunate in that he could work from home if he needed to, as he lived alone, but he said he found it harder to concentrate at home than away.

When people say your social life is dead, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. It does mean that you will have to make difficult choices in terms of whether to attend that birthday party, that event or that concert. It also makes a difference between being forthright, having the courage to politely say ‘no’ to invitations, or making excuses and leaving early on one hand; and falling victim to guilt when people say ‘We never see much of you nowadays’ on the other. Nevertheless, if you plan well and are good at sticking to plans, then there is no harm in making time for a social calendar, limited or otherwise. It is probably more important to have that as an outlet for the stress, in addition to getting you away from the coursework, assignments and pressure. To get themselves away from all the above-mentioned, my TESOL friend had the marathons and an active social life, our creative writing friend spent less time socializing and my MBA friend was limited to socializing on week days. I had the occasional event but found it hard not to switch off completely. The TED talks I mentioned before were too much of a distraction at times, but at others were a welcome one. Apart from the inspirational stories it also gave me ideas and reinvigorated my creativity.
To be continued next quarter when LJ considers the challenges and the reasons why we should all continue to study.

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