Anticipating work-study challenges

Professor Christina Lee affirms that if adult learners plan ahead and are aided by a supportive school, family, or boss, they are in a good position to achieve their ambitions.

Studying while working full-time is no small feat. Yet many working adults successfully complete part-time postgraduate degrees in fields like business. How do they graduate with their families and sanities intact? How do they make time for homework when the baby is crying and the dishes are piling  up?

Professor Christina Lee, Director of MBA International at Monash University Malaysia, affirms that it can be done. If adult learners plan ahead and are aided by a supportive school, family, or boss, they are in a good position to achieve their ambitions. But first, they must clarify their goals and  understand the time commitment required to reach them.

Before you commit to a study program

“Before embarking on a program,” says Prof Lee, “it is important to know what your career goals are and if further education is necessary. Subsequently, you will then need to evaluate what kind of program will help you further your career most?”

With work and family commitments, the next important issue is deciding if you can commit to the program. It is advisable that you discuss your intention to pursue further study with both your employer and family, enlisting their support. After all, they will be the ones most directly affected by your  schedule.

Anticipating the “time crunch”

Generally, working adults who embark on postgraduate programs are aware that time will become an increasingly precious resource. And they are right: Prof Lee shares that the most common challenge faced by her students is lack of time. She has seen how evening and weekend classes become “a huge  sacrifice for the student and the family.” And outside of class, there are assignments to finish.

“Going back to school may be daunting for the adult learner,” says Prof Lee, “especially for those who have been working for a number of years.” It may take some adjustment to immerse themselves in lengthy articles, case study analyses, and making sense of theories. This requires  discipline, fortitude, and – you guessed it – time.

Unexpected challenges may occur too, according to Prof Lee’s experience of overseeing Monash’s MBA program.

For example, when there are group projects, synchronising group members’ schedules can be tricky. “I know many students use their annual leave to complete assignments or prepare for classes and exams,” she says. On top of that, work-travel appointments or client deadlines could cause  students to miss a class or two.

These are factors to anticipate before enrolling in a study program.

Choosing a supportive program

Professor Christina Lee

Prof Lee is invested in seeing students succeed. As program director, she recognises that the school itself has a part to play in that success. Through her experience, she has seen how administrators and academics can anticipate the challenges faced by working adults and provide help. “Preparing  students for the program and giving them an idea of the commitment required can help them mentally prepare for the year and effectively manage their time.

“The Monash MBA program prepares the adult learner from the very beginning. We provide a study schedule for the whole year so that students can plan their schedule well ahead of time. This significantly reduces the amount of stress involved in planning for work and family.” During orientation,  students are introduced to the Monash learning environment and library, as well as how to take advantage of these resources.

After classes begin, lecturers assist students who are unable to physically attend class. Email, Web resources, virtual attendance, and online conference tools enable students to catch up on lessons.

“The education landscape has changed, thanks to technological advances. All learners need is an appetite for knowledge and access to the Internet,” Prof Lee says. She adds, however, that “education provided face-to-face by a lecturer will continue to have an important place in our  system. The physical and social interaction between students and the instructor adds a crucial dimension to learning.”

Choosing an effective program

When choosing a program, prospective students should ask what the school can do to support working adults. They should also investigate a program’s teaching approach.

For instance, a good business course capitalises on working adults’ real-world experiences, using these as examples to better grasp theories, solidify knowledge, and find practical applications.

“We encourage students to reflect upon what they have learned and connect it to their work experience,” Prof Lee explains. Her program emphasises building on students’ actual experience from the workplace, which helps them see the relevance of what they are learning from lectures and  academic articles. Another benefit to this approach is that theory becomes easier to understand; studying becomes more efficient.

Critical thinking and engaging discussion are other elements of a high-quality program. In the Monash MBA program, students take a unit on critical thinking to prepare for the year’s intensive study. Students learn to enjoy and grow from a highly interactive class environment that gives them ample  opportunities to question and debate issues; they aren’t just memorising theory. The critical thinking unit also provides learning strategies that help students use time more effectively while reading articles or preparing case studies.

Enabling the success of adult learners

Apart from the student’s own ability to manage and pursue their life goals, employers and educational institutions can prepare a conducive environment for the work-study life.

Prof Lee believes that any society which seeks to improve its economic and social wellbeing must recognise that adult education is an important, valuable endeavour. She hopes employers and institutions will invest seriously in the futures of adult learners, which will in turn impact the immediate workplace  as well as society.

Employers could provide financial support, particularly if there are tax incentives that encourage them to send staff for further education through scholarships. Such tax incentives could depend on a condition that benefits the student – for example, the company would be required to provide study  leave. The study leave (e.g. 10 days apart from annual leave) must be used specifically for activities like school field trips, study tours, group projects, or exam preparation.

Meanwhile, educational institutions have a responsibility to produce a well-educated workforce for the well-being of society, shares Prof Lee.

“Educational institutions must ensure their programs are of good quality and meet international standards. Institutions which offer adult education should offer resources to help students with learning difficulties or time management issues, by providing easy access to counsellors and educators  who understand adult learning difficulties. Lecturers need to be realistic with their expectations and empathise with students when setting deadlines.”

Stepping up to the challenge

Ultimately, even with such support, the work-study experience can still be challenging.

Skills that will sustain students for the long haul include developing healthy sleep habits, setting realistic goals, and visually charting the weeks and months ahead. Students can choose to think of this as a good opportunity to develop first-rate time management. They can discover how to achieve focus  and balance in the midst of competing demands. The skills they practice in this season will prove invaluable for the rest of their lives.

Thoughtful planning in joint effort with a supportive family, school, and workplace will maximise the student’s chances of success and benefit all.

For more information about the Monash MBA program, please visit www.buseco.monash.edu.my.