We recently had a follower request this topic, so it moved right up to the top of my list. She, very astutely, pointed out that thinking about taking this on sparks lots of fears and worries. How will I manage to do this? Is it possible? When will I find the time? How do I find a program that’s right for me, my budget, and my schedule? Am I taking on too much? How do I even start? It’s easy to become immobilized by these questions.
I’m here to tell you it’s possible, walk you through the steps as I see them, and try to (hopefully) take away some of the fear associated with it.
I recently was talking with one of my mentors, a woman I met in a local women’s giving circle here in Annapolis, MD. She said, “When I was younger, and I had little kids, I went back and got my PhD, so I completely empathize with what you are going through right now.” I stopped her right there and said, “When you were younger, it was even harder, so, knowing you succeeded makes me feel like I shouldn’t be complaining and I can make this happen.”
Back in the day, there were not as many local universities with programs for working people or moms. Back in the day, there were no “online programs” let alone online programs that allow you to set your own study/class schedule at your leisure. That smart and successful woman had drive 45 minutes each way, 3 days a week, to sit in a classroom for 3 hours and then, find time to do her homework in between taking care of her children all day.
I know another woman who did this exact same thing, too: My amazing mother. My mom managed to complete her masters in this exact same fashion when I was 5 and my sister was 9, after she had recently become divorced, was working full time, and had full custody of us kids. I’m here to tell you: that isn’t my life – it’s easier now because there aren’t nearly as many obstacles.
(This is how I envision these two bada$$ ladies I mention herein.)
So, what is my life like while I am in the middle of my CFP (Certified Financial Planner) courses and studying for my exam at the end of the year? First, let me clarify. Yes, I work full time. Yes, I make time for my children and husband. And yes, I sleep. (I love sleep. So if you know me, you know that I will not sacrifice sleep for, well, anything. Except my kids, of course).
The day is something like this: I wake up around 5:15 am and get the kids ready for school/daycare and leave the house by 6:40 am (My husband leaves for work at 5 am, so I have morning duty!). Everyone is off to where they need to be by 8 am, and I am in the office by 8:15. Most days, I leave the office around 5 pm, get home, eat dinner, spend time with the kids (and help with homework), do bath and bedtime, and that’s when school starts.
Save for the occasional evening when I have a client meeting, a board meeting, or a nonprofit event to attend, this is generally how it goes. After the kids are in bed, I settle into my home office in my PJ’s, open my computer, and attend my class. I spend between 1-2 hours, 4-5 nights a week doing this. I’m in bed by 10 to 11 pm. On the weekends, I do extra studying, work on my software business, and catch up on client admin items, but I try to keep this to 5 hours maximum so I don’t miss out on fun time with the kids.
So, you ask, how do you even get started exploring going back to school? Here are my suggestions:
Figure out what the end goal is and work backwards: Take some time to figure out who you are, what you want to be, and what your strengths are. I tell my kids a new variation of that old phrase: “You can be anything you want to be.” My new variation is: “You can be anything you want to be if you find something you love that you are good at and work really, really hard to be successful.”
Almost no one keeps doing something they aren’t good at and/or don’t enjoy. It’s easy to work hard at something when you like it and you’re rocking and rolling! Additional education for yourself is no exception.
Find someone who is doing the type of work you want to do, and then get in touch with them and ask to interview them to figure out what degrees and certifications they have. Ask them what their life is really like – on an average day, an exciting day, a boring day, and a challenging day. Successful people will give you their time to help mentor you in this way, I promise. Try to picture yourself in each of these situations and follow your gut. From there, make a plan, starting with the next level of education required to start down this path for yourself.
Find Your Program & Be Honest With Yourself About Time: Not all types of school are created equal. Undergrad is different from a masters degree. Certifications are different than masters. PhD’s and MD’s are different, too, of course. The amount of time you are required to dedicate to each of these varies incredibly. Yes, finding a program is about accomplishing your hopes and dreams about what you want to be. It’s also about being honest with yourself about how much time you can reasonably dedicate to the program. Do your research here. Talk to program coordinators for those programs you are interested in and decipher the amount of time required to make this happen. Make a chart to compare those educational programs which are interchangeable to get to your career goal.
For example, if you want to be a therapist, and you could either have a masters or a PhD. If you want to take care of patients, you could get an MD or be a PA. Compare the time required for each on a chart and spend some time thinking about it. It will help you make a decision.
Find the school that fits your lifestyle – the great news here is that there are more reputable online programs available now MORE THAN EVER. This includes undergrad programs, masters programs, certifications and more. My online program is through one of the most respected institutions for financial certifications in the U.S. I am allowed to log in to my courses at my leisure to do the work, with videos of the instructor doing the class available on demand, and I have a network of classmates available for me to interact with virtually when I need it. I didn’t think I would be someone who would enjoy an online course, so if you feel this way too, I highly suggest you ask to take a sample course with a program you are exploring so you can get a feel for this. More great news – online courses are usually more affordable than those you’ll go to a classroom for.
(This is me when I think about all of my student loans – but not to worry! Read on.)
Figuring Out How To Pay For It: It’s also just not about time – it’s about finances, too (Hence, part of the reason my besties tagged me to do this topic!). Most people don’t have the extra cash laying around to go back to school. There is absolutely nothing wrong with student loans – A student loan is an investment you are making in yourself. You are making a bet on yourself that by getting this additional education, you will have the capability to achieve more and earn more money. From this additional money, the thought process is that you believe you will be able to pay your loans back AND MORE. So, like I said, take some time to figure out who you are, what you want to be, and what your strengths are. But also take the time to do research about how much more earning potential this additional schooling will afford you.
Remember those people you interviewed earlier? Go back to them and ask them questions about earning power (general compensation information for the career of your choice) and the time-frame to get there. Do your research. It’s almost always worth it to take out the loans, and knowledge about these sorts of things is power.
Once you have an idea in your mind about additional earning potential, you can project future loan payments against your current budget and feel confidently that you can pay them back over time with some left over! You may be thinking: “But, Margo, life isn’t all about making more money. What if what I love requires more schooling but it doesn’t pay more than I making now?” My answer to that is: “That’s perfectly fine. Just realize, if you are taking out loans, you will need to make sacrifices in your budget/spending to pay for your loans later if your new education doesn’t afford you more in income.”
Set Small Goals and Celebrate Them: Now that you’ve chosen your program, gotten your loans (if you need them) and started your education, keep your eye on the final prize, but also do yourself a favor and set smaller goals along the way. Small goals are absolutely the key to my motivational success. I finished a course? My hubs brings home a small bottle of champagne and we toast. I finished two courses? I take a month off to spend lots of evenings with my babies so I can recharge. I’m halfway through the program? We take a weekend getaway. The average time it takes to complete my program is 18 months. It will likely end up taking me 2-2.5 years, and that’s okay. I don’t have to be the quickest at this, I just have to get as much out of it as possible and cross that finish line.
Be Easy On Yourself: This is not about a sprint – this is about the final goal. Need to take a break? Go for it. Just make sure you have a plan about when you will dive back in. Put it on your calendar. Keep yourself accountable, and allow yourself to breathe.
Use a Timer: Remember when I said I dedicate a certain amount of time on evenings and the weekend? You can bet I use a timer. When that timer hits, I stop. This helps me avoid burning out.
Find a Creative Outlet: For me, this is the blog. Writing here helps me take a brain-break. Brain-breaks are pretty necessary when you are trying to do a lot of intellectual things. I do financial analysis and strategy as well as investment management all day. I do software design/development when I’m not doing that, and then I study when the kids are asleep. Sometimes my brain needs rest. I have heard other people like to color. I haven’t done it myself, but maybe I need to try it! For me, though, my favorite creative outlet is writing.
In life, nothing great ever happens to you without some measure of risk and hard work. However, just because something is hard work won’t mean you won’t enjoy it. I think part of the issue nowadays with people avoiding hard work is that they assume it won’t be enjoyable. I find this to be a strange phenomenon because I haven’t encountered it in actual practice – ever.
The busier I am, the more I get done. This has always been true for me. Obviously, however, I am making some sacrifices (Hence, why my treadmill is so lonely). There are some people who can still work in time to exercise every day, but I am not that kind of superwoman. However, nothing is permanent, friends, and I have plans. When the program is over, I plan to dedicate as much time and attention to my treadmill and Christiana’s suggested fitness app as I have been to my CFP program the past 2 years.
Also, I have to believe that I am setting (what I hope to be) a good example for my kids. Every night my son asks, “Do you have to study tonight, Mom?” Later in life, when I tell him he needs to study, I will have shown him that I set the example of what it takes to get the most out of your education and that dedication is the way to make things happen.
Right at this moment, I just finished making some flashcards for my Investments class. My 2 year old daughter was sitting on my lap while I was writing them, and coloring on an extra index card with a green colored-pencil. She was certain to stop to watch me and hold the pencil in the same way I held my pen. These moments make it all worthwhile.
If I can go back to school with a full-time job, kids, and a major need for sleep & fun, then I assure you that you can do. All it takes is for you to be thoughtful about it and make the leap!