How I Balanced a Full-Time Job and Completed My Master's Degree in Just Two Years?

My Tips and Lesson Learned

How I Balanced a Full-Time Job and Completed My Master's Degree in Just Two Years?
Photo by Shubham Sharan / Unsplash

I appreciate all the compliments from the community, and it's obvious from the number of people who have reached out to tell me how much you enjoyed reading about my college and university experiences in the first and second sections.

To the newcomers, welcome!... my name is Muzammil, and I just finished my master's in Information Technology.

This article captures all of these lessons learned into four practical pieces of advice that you may apply to complete your degree. It's important to remember that you may use this framework for other projects or businesses you are already working on.

Let’s start 🙂

I first questioned how I should use what I had learned to create an action plan that would enable me to finally get the outcomes that I had always wanted. It comes down to two crucial questions that I have to ask myself:

WHAT do I want to do first? WHAT are my aspirations and ambitions?
Next, WHY do I want to do it?

Before starting your master's journey, you must ask yourself these important questions since this is the choice that will have the most impact on every aspect of your life.

Just start by focusing on the end result.

Imagine it, and you're already halfway there!

I remember that I always desired to study computer science in college, but  would always end up switching to something simpler out of fear that I wouldn't be able to balance my work and school.

Now that I think about it, this was the worst error I ever made, and I should have known better.

Looking back on my whole professional experience, every mentor and colleague has always recognized that I’m good with computer programs and problem solving.

I finally decided that I needed to pursue a master's degree in information technology since this is what I've always wanted to do and what I'm particularly good at.

I made my decision, and in 2020, I began my Master's program in Information Technology at Nova Southeastern University.

I was aware that, because I had not taken any computer science courses, I would need to work twice as hard to earn this degree.

This was fun and exciting!

1. Plan, Plan and Plan

High-Level Overview

I was staring at the computer screen and the program sheet while seated at my computer desk. I was carefully considering how I'm going to do this. I knew I had to enroll in ten classes. Thus, planning for the entire program is my first priority now.

I want to plan every single detail to ensure that I wouldn’t fall into the same traps or make the same mistakes I had in the past,  during my College years.

Well the real question is – How do you plan for school?

I figured that I could create a simple spreadsheet, to plan each and every class, the same way I tracked my finances . This is sort of like HIGH LEVEL planning where you see the entire journey and the final outcome.

Just like James Clear said: "Imagine the outcome you want to create."

So, this is what I did…

  1. I listed the WHAT, classes that I would take
  2. I organized the order in WHICH I would take these classes - it had to be in the perfect order (I didn’t know this order so I set up a meeting with my academic advisor.  She suggested the order, which helped me greatly.)
  3. I listed the WHEN I would take these classes- the semester these classes were being offered.

I realized from past experiences that I would enroll in a full load of classes and then officially withdraw from most when I felt overwhelmed.

This time around, I planned to take one class at a time. I made a commitment in my heart that no matter what happened in my life, I would only take one class at a time, and give it my full attention.

Then, in 2020, COVID happened!  Also, around this time, I had applied for a position and was hired! It was a remote job with a Saudi company called flyadeal. My work hours were based on Saudi time, 9-5pm, which meant my work day started at 1am! I worked, and went to meetings during the night, then worked from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the major project that I was hired to oversee. In total, I was working 12 hour days.

I would find time between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. to catch up on sleep.  I was putting in 40 to 60 hours per week since I was committed to this project and the deliverables. It was tough!

During the weekends, I worked on my homework and prepared for my class.

Here are seven basic steps for class planning:

  • Review your program and all class options. That's where you have to decide which courses you are interested in and what you want to learn.
  • Schedule a session with your academic advisor – to fully understand what courses you want to take and start mapping out the journey.
💡
An Academic Advisor is your new best friend. Call, e-mail and chat on a daily, weekly and monthly basis –he/she will help you understand the program core requirements and how to navigate each and every course in the best possible manner.
In my program, Laura helped me a lot in terms of planning for classes, answering any questions related to the specific course. Thank you, Laura!
  • Stay organized - create a Google Sheet to see all courses and plan when you will start each class, so you can visualize your overall progress each semester
Here is the sheet I created… 
Public_Nova MS IT Progress
Nova MSIT 2021-2023 No.,Start Date,End Date,Code,Subject,Term,Grade,Requirement,What will you discover and learn?1,10 May 2021,01 Aug 2021,ISEC 615,Fundamentals of Cybersecurity,Summar 2021,A,CORE,Cybersecurity Concepts2,23 Aug 2021,17 Oct 2021,MSIT 630,Database Systems - SQL ,Fall 2021,A,CORE…
You can download it in Google Sheet to plan for your classes :)
  • Research your professors on ratemyprofessors.com to find the best professors. I even went ahead and asked professors to share their syllabus even before I started a class. This way I was ahead of the entire class in terms of planning with getting the right books, assignments and most importantly the calendar with due dates.
  • Schedule your classes as early as possible –don't wait till the last minute
  • Review your daily and weekly schedule to balance work, school and family
🔖
On a weekly basis, allocate one hour for reading, one hour for writing/making notes and one hour to plan the weekly assignments/activities.
  • Always be aware of your limits and habits –both are crucial. For example, if you are working full time, like I was, and have to spend 40-60 hours a week then it's best you take one course at a time.

Success is a result of thorough planning.

Sure, there will be professors who are challenging, but keep in mind that their goal is to teach you and help you realize your true potential.

On the other hand, there are professors that actually inspire,  you find yourself eager to gain more and more knowledge from them because they can inspire such wonder in you:

"Oh my goodness, this is awesome! I can do this!"

These professors are not only inspirational, but they also transform your heart and perspective and create an environment that makes learning easy. With this perspective, you can accomplish just about everything in life, including goals that you previously thought were unreachable. I was very  lucky to have had a professor like that, who truly changed my life. More on this next week.

For now, let’s continue to the next step, i.e., Preparation.

2. Prepare, Prepare and Prepare 

Low-Level Daily Activities

After creating a high level plan and visualizing how I will go about doing it.

Just put the high-level strategy out of your mind for now and concentrate on the daily tasks. One day at a time is a smart strategy.

As James Clear said - “deconstruct it”

I was excited when I enrolled in the first class because I realized I was following my dreams.

In order to do better this time, I decided it was time to prepare for each and every day—no shortcuts.

Here are seven simple steps you can take to prepare yourself:

  • Print the syllabus with due dates
  • Create folders for your classes (here is the format I used but it's up to you)
📁
Program Name > [No] [Course ID] [Start + End Date]

You can add standard subfolders like below

  • Introduction (You can write your introduction in advance and use it for all of your other classes, which will save you one more task for upcoming classes. Of course, you'll need to make a few small changes, but it still works.)
  • Syllabus
  • Books (if available electronically in a PDF format)
  • PowerPoint Presentations
  • Midterm exam
  • Final exam
Here is a sample structure that you can see…
  • Plug all weekly due dates into your Google Calendar
  • Add a reminders for each assignment to be completed
4-days before the due date
3-days before you must have a final draft ready
This will free you up to concentrate on finishing the task ahead of time rather than waiting for a last-minute rush that would add unneeded stress and anxiety.
  • Reading all materials ahead of time and researching for each topic
✍️
Review and make notes of what has been covered in the class and anticipate what’s coming next week.
  • Writing detailed notes for each topic to fully understand it
  • Print a weekly calendar with due dates and place a copy on your laptop to be a constant reminder and don't forget to review monthly calendar to get ahead of projects and assignments and plan accordingly

In short, I prepared for every single day and made sure that I focused only on one day at a time, this allowed far better results than I ever anticipated.

3. Practice, Practice and Practice 

Practice simply means TAKING ACTION

After planning and preparation, it’s time to practice to master the learning objectives and achieve the overall goals.

Practice simply means TAKING ACTION.

Studies have shown that practice promotes deep learning.

Because I didn't practice, I failed my college programming courses in the past.

I didn't understand the value of practice until I took a database class with Professor Mary Harward. She was among the very best professors I ever had.

Instead of concentrating on the midterm and tests, she was more engaged with completing the exercise and ensuring that students practiced and learned the fundamentals.

Because I was practicing in my labs, as she taught us basic SQL, I understood it right away.

Thanks to Professor Harward, I realized nothing in my life was impossible, if I simply set aside time for practice. This was the biggest breakthrough of my life. More on this next week.

4. Progress Tracking give you momentum 

Planning, preparation, and practice are not enough... One must also measure progress.

💡
“Once you start tracking your goals, you’re able to see the small, day by day progress that you might not otherwise notice.” – Betsy Ramser Jaime

Monitoring your progress gives you momentum.

Teddy Mitrosillis said recently: "Doing what it takes on a daily basis -- over a long period of time -- is hard." View his fantastic tweet below.

You could use fancy tools, but I like simplicity, so I used a Google Sheet to pretty much track everything.

Public_Nova MS IT Progress
Nova MSIT 2021-2023 No.,Start Date,End Date,Code,Subject,Term,Grade,Requirement,What will you discover and learn?1,10 May 2021,01 Aug 2021,ISEC 615,Fundamentals of Cybersecurity,Summar 2021,A,CORE,Cybersecurity Concepts2,23 Aug 2021,17 Oct 2021,MSIT 630,Database Systems - SQL ,Fall 2021,A,CORE…

In Summary:

Effective planning, preparation, and practice are the foundation for success, and measuring results shows overall growth and progress.


I hope that these simple tips will give you a clear framework and direction for completing any college or university program.

Plan, preparation, and practice will enable you to make the kind of progress that you dream of, so why not give it a try and let me know how it goes?


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