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Generally

There's a question which asks is it possible to get a PhD while working full time? The responses to this were essentially "yes but say goodbye to anything except school and work" or "only if you're a prodigy".

My first question then: can I complete a Master's degree while working without killing my social life? Browsing the course names gives me the impression that at least 10% will be review from my undergraduate degree.

Specifics

I'm interested in deepening my knowledge in my area (software/computer science) and am in NYC, where Columbia U would be a great option for this. I have completed an undergraduate degree and since a PhD seems like a stretch, I am considering a Master's degree.

My job has a 40 hour work-week but has flexibility with timing.

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    As a supplement to the answers, I'd like to say that MS/MA degrees designed for working professionals often involve little or no research. If you plan to apply to PhD programs in the future, you will want to beef up your research experience as much as possible. – setholopolus Jan 14 at 3:51
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    I have a follow-up question.. why? I'm a software dev and I'm not sure that an MA or Phd increases earning potential relative to time and money invested in said degree...? – Cloud Jan 14 at 10:37
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    @Cloud: For the sheer joy of learning. – Daniel Jan 14 at 16:05
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    I graduated with a Masters in Software Engineering from the University of Texas at Dallas. It was a program aimed at professionals. Most of my cohort consisted of working professionals, about 5-10 years into their careers. It required 7 full Saturdays and 3 full Fridays per semester. My employer required that I take those Fridays as vacation days. Some of us were old. I was well into my 50s when I started - so it made little obvious economic sense. However, I was laid off 18 months after graduation and found a job 2 months later. When I got bored, I found another job (15% raise) – Flydog57 Jan 14 at 20:56
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    I did both master's and Ph.D. while working full time. Each degree took a long time. – Bob Brown Jan 14 at 21:51

12 Answers 12

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A lot of people in the US do this, actually. Some places have enough evening classes at the MS/MA level that it may not disrupt normal work hours. But it takes a lot out of the rest of your life, of course.

It is easier in a field in which you can complete the degree without research, say by coursework and/or creative writing.

But if you can afford to spend three hours a night in class for a couple of nights a week and also do the required other work then it can happen on a reasonable time scale. And NYC has a lot of options.

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18

At least in the US, there are often masters programs designed specifically for people with full time jobs. Often people attend these programs with support and even funding from their employer. Classes are mostly at night. Your work schedule may permit you to take normally scheduled classes, however.

Unlike a PhD program, you also often have the option to draw out your studies a bit, and trade a longer time to degree for a bit more sanity in your day to day.

As with most things, you'll have to check the specific policies of a program you are interested in.

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    I did one of these, it was a 3 year degree with 2 three hour lectures per week (depending on the lecturer either 2 evenings or 1 evening and Saturday afternoon). You could complete it in 2 years if you did the summer semester. It was a huge amount of work, I would only recommend it if you really want the degree but for me it was worth while. – David Waterworth Jan 14 at 21:47
  • @DavidWaterworth The people who I know have done similar have typically done it in more like 4 years, probably the same total work that you are describing, though, just spread over more total time. – Bryan Krause Jan 14 at 22:02
  • yes 2 years was incredibly intense. It was basically working and studying full time. It was only worth it because of the future career prospects (it was a quantitative finance masters) – David Waterworth Jan 14 at 22:07
  • @DavidWaterworth Yeah, a 2-years masters is pretty standard for a full time degree, in the US anyways, for most subjects. I'd expect it would be a lot of work to complete that degree at the same time as full-time employment. – Bryan Krause Jan 14 at 22:11
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I have completed 2 Master's degrees online with a full time job and 3 children. It is very possible. I did spend several hours a night on homework. I did that several times a week. I did have time to spend with my family as well. It does require a lot of time.

Ask yourself this: In 2 years, where are you going to be? It will be 2022. Regardless if you enroll or not, it will still be 2022. So, go ahead and enroll because you might as well embark on something challenging. The nice thing is that unlike certifications, degrees do not expire with time. Hope this helps. Good luck! Go get it!

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    Kudos for so much successful post grad work with such a full life. Respect! – Bohemian Jan 17 at 0:23
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It's doable (I know someone who did it) but expect it to be hard. You can compare it with your current job - a full-time Masters student might work 40 hours a week. If you do it part-time, you might have to work 20 hours a week. Added to your day job, that's 60 hours a week. Can you cope with that? Some people undoubtedly can but for others it'll be very stressful, especially since you'll probably have to keep it up for months if not years.

... but it's doable.

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6

Yes. It is definitely possible to do Masters or PhD degree while working. I did that comfortably.

I wish you success in your pursuit of learning.

I achieved M.S. degree in Software from a great university while doing a demanding job in a New York based company.

These 3 factors have helped me achieve the degree without hassle:

  1. The Manager was convinced that what I am learning will be beneficial for the company's business. Hence, I did not have an objection for pursuing higher studies.

  2. A Senior colleague who had achieved the same degree provided guidance and mentoring.

  3. Fellow colleagues got inspired by the stories that I shared about those who got better pay after completing the degree.

Had I not had the approval and encouragement from the Employer, colleagues and friends, I would not have been able to achieve the degree.

Thanks to them.

I could achieve the degree and also pay back with these returns:

  1. Better value and more efficiency at work
  2. Sticking with the company for a long time
  3. After completing the degree, I became a mentor and helped a few others advance their careers.
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  • This is an interesting answer because your employer seems to have been enthusiastic about it - how did you bring up the idea to them? – Shayaan Jan 15 at 1:49
  • I explored my company's HR policy on encouraging higher studies and professional ceritifications. I also talked to some senior colleagues who had already pursued studies while working. Support from all these sources helped to get the idea accepted enthusiastically by my manager and team members. – Gopinath Jan 15 at 23:29
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As other answers have mentioned, it is not just possible to complete a master’s while working full time, but there’s a whole assortment of great master’s programs designed specifically to accommodate career professional students.

In the industries I’ve worked in, primarily aerospace engineering and defense, it’s a prevalent part of the culture that early career people will sometimes choose to pursue a master’s while working. Many of my peers and I are currently following (or have recently finished) that path, so I can share what I’ve learned from our experience.

Schools/Programs: It seems you’re already looking into programs that are local to you. That’s often a great choice, but another route worth considering is an online program which doesn’t require you to be physically on campus. The idea of an online program can have a negative connotation to some, but an online master’s program in engineering from a university with name recognition is often indifferentiable from a degree gained while studying full time on campus. One example I can think of is a master’s at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, which you can complete without ever setting foot on campus, but the degree you receive is identical to that of any other master’s student. I’m sure there are a number of other programs like this

Time Scale: As others have mentioned, the time it will take you to obtain a master’s this way will be significantly longer (prodigies aside). However, in all programs I know of you can mostly set your own pace. Many of my peers have found that taking 1 class a term is plenty of additional workload and taking any more can be overwhelming. That being said, if taking 1 class a term it can take 2.5+ years to complete the degree, even if you choose to take a summer class or two. Regardless of the pace you end up choosing, I highly recommend starting out with 1 class the first term, so you can learn how to properly balance work and school before feeling immediately overwhelmed.

Value: How much value you will personally gain from the program is difficult to judge, but it’s a crucial exercise before you commit to years of school. Some key questions that you should ask yourself are:

  1. Why do I want to do this? (e.g. do I think it will help me land more promotions at work, make me look more prestigious to my colleagues, do I just really enjoy learning in an academic setting)

Once you’ve answered that question, think about these:

  1. How much will this help me advance in my career? (e.g. I’m partway through my program and I’ve reached the position that newly graduated master’s students are hired into in my company. Doing my master’s for the promotion would’ve been a poor choice for me)
  2. How much will this additional academic learning benefit me over additional time I could spend learning on the job? (e.g. a number of my peers in EE/CS are now pursuing their masters in order gain expertise in machine learning. This has resulted in them landing projects at work they may have not gotten otherwise. It’s helped them break into a field that was otherwise mostly closed to them. If they had studied the same field they work in every day, the calculus for the benefit would be different)
  3. How much do you enjoy academic studying? (Hopefully you have at least some enthusiasm for it, as it’ll be a significant part of your “free” time for a while)

Pursuing your master’s while working full time is a fairly accessible and not uncommon route. How much social life you have left over and how much benefit you get from the program depends largely on how you choose to accomplish this goal.

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3

I did this myself, but I've seen lots of people failing. There are a lot of hints and compromises you should think about:

What helped me:

  1. I've earned many credits from "isolated classes", which I took before actually enrolling. Time is critical when your are not exclusively dedicated to an academic program. So work a lot before the clock starts ticking (i.e. before enrolling) and don't let yourself lag behind schedule once the countdown starts.

  2. I was dismissed from work to attend regular classes, but did not take work hours to work on my thesis or class activities.

  3. I often took a full day every weekend only to study/work on my thesis. Other than studying on workdays.

  4. I was lucky my advisor was okay with meeting with me outside working hours, I did went to his place rather than his office (that is something many people would be uncomfortable with though).

  5. The program had difficult admittance exams, but I had seen everything on grad school. I worked with topics covered in most classes I've attended, and made my thesis on the same topic of my graduate thesis, which was the specialty of my advisor. All of these are measures I considered would put the program on "easy mode" for me. While it was still far from easy, I know a guy who failed to deliver a thesis within deadline because among other reasons, he wanted to work with something completely different than what he did on graduation, took no classes on the relevant subjects and his advisor was not from the exact field.

What you should be concerned about:

  1. You will have setbacks. You need to leave room for failure to occur while not being catastrophic. I've known a guy whose thesis depended on an experiment, which required a few custom materials. The company that sold him one of these materials screwed up its composition (and the guy was able to notice and prove it later on). Basically, this meant that a very important experiment had basically failed due to execution error, but by then he had no time to wait for new materials and no results to compose a master thesis.

  2. You will likely need to cut-off some hobbies. People often feel like learning something new and thus decide to do a master's program. These same people often decide it's a good time to also learn a new language, or start playing some musical instrument, and doing both at the same time might be a bad idea. While you should not stop physical activity or simple hobbies like going to the movies, there is a limit to how much you can effectively learn and focus on your daily life. And doing a masters while also working full time already pushes you close to this limit.

  3. It does take a toll on social life. I've spent a month without seeing my girlfriend while preparing a pre-thesis. At some other point I had very limited time to see her because other than studying I also needed physiotherapy five times a week. People understand this up to some point, but both you and them will be frustrated by the situation (this depends a lot on the type of people you relate as well).

  4. You may be out of the academic environment, but you should try to put yourself in it. I hadn't had the opportunity to attend a single thesis defense or a random seminar while I was enrolled in the master's program. People often talk and exchange useful information on daily life and on social events. Often students spend work hours at the university rather than at home, which makes them and teachers much more accessible. But if you spend work hours at your full time job, you are out of this circle. So you'll miss on the information, tips, culture and so on that makes the academic program a tad easier.

  5. Vacations are not (primarily) for traveling anymore. While I did took days from my work vacations to travel and enjoy myself, it happened that I had classes during vacations, and often spent a lot of time working on my thesis or class assignments when on vacation. From an outsider opinion, I've seen people fail their master's while working due to what I believe was a "vacations are sacred" mindset. If you think you'd be okay by skipping classes when on vacation and going traveling to forget everything about work and studies, then you've just increased the difficulty settings by two levels.

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  • (3) and (5): agreed. Social life takes a beating, and vacation time dries up quick. – Cloud Jan 15 at 21:54
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Yes, it is possible to do a masters while working full time. The trade-off is that it takes a much longer time to get a degree in many cases.

I know that at least one university in the UK offers such courses, as my father was the Distance Learning Coordinator for the Civil Engineering department. There is a short article about what Civil Engineering Distance Learning they offer published on their website.

I think many of the other departments also offer part-time courses, although not all of these are Distance Learning so you will need to attend some classes on campus AFAIK. You can study some of my own degree there. Details of the Computer Vision MSc show that a one year Full-Time masters degree is expected to take around 5 years as a part-time module.

A fifth of the study time a year of a full-time course (one day a week) should leave you with some time to socialise and live a normal life.

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This is definitely doable, and I know because both me and my wife have done it (simultaneously in fact). And we had kids while we did it. And she was pregnant with and gave birth to another child during the final semester of both of our programs...I would not recommend aligning having a child with this (we didn't mean to, but life happens).

Look into executive masters programs - I was able to go through an executive masters of software engineering program which was designed for working professionals, and was able to keep my full time software engineering job. The classes were 2 saturdays and one friday a month, and most of the classwork was on your own time, so it definitely requires the motivation to work on your own without having regular classes. The professors were all fairly available for questions via email and stuff. Overall it was a positive experience for me I'd say, and was worth the trouble. Hold off on having kids until afterwards though....

As for social life, I do have to admit I had less free time during the program than I would have otherwise, but not none. I guess it depends on how much social time you desire, but one thing I would say is this depends a lot on the program. With my program, I was able to get a lot of the work done in and shortly after class, so I was able to mostly keep the extra time to class days. There were a few weeks each semester where I had a large group project due or was studying for a test where I would be busy every day in the week but for most of the project I still retained my evenings for the most part. I'd say overall my free time was cut in half on average (some weeks having mostly the same amount, some weeks being completely shot, especially around finals for instance).

You can do this with a standard masters degree (e.g. non executive program), as I know several people who are doing this, but I would really recommend looking for programs specifically tailored towards working professionals - I find that the courses themselves were better adjusted for real world application of the material and were more helpful for growing myself as a working engineer as opposed to some of the regular masters level engineering classes which I took as an undergraduate, which were much more academic in nature and not really applicable to my day to day as a working engineer.

Hope this helps.

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At least with regards to the UK - it's highly dependant on the institution and the demands of their program. I had a guy on my CS masters course who worked full time and due to the self-learning-centric course design, he managed to get away with making a deal with his employer in regards to flexitime and compulsory program obligations. He also practically lived and worked on campus.

I wouldn't personally recommend it unless you have a very fortuitous set of circumstances and potentially a flexible employer. I'd be worrying about the mental strain of doing both in parallel, least of all that it'd impact my social life. As mentioned, there are part-time masters courses available as well, but I don't know much about them.

But if you're set on it, definitely look into the prospective program and its demands before making the leap - perhaps even ask your current employer if accommodations can be made?

Personally I'd take the advice of one of this centuries greatest philosophers: "Never half-ass two things. Whole-a** one thing" - give each thing in your life the time it deserves.

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Depending where you are and who you work for, maybe your employer would be willing to let you do some of your course on their time? If it's relevant. They might even contribute to the costs.

This is not uncommon here (Germany), especially for PhDs, but then it has to be relevant and useful to your employer. In fact, our firm will offer to support you with advice and a sponsor, as well as leave and fees.

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I did this with a thesis-based MSc in Software Engineering. It was a terrible idea.

I worked full time (>40 hours/week) at a software engineering job. Since it was my first job, I also wanted to be good at it, so I put in more than 8 hours a day. I would then come home, eat, and either work more remotely for my employer or work on my MSc. Weekends were spent the same way.

A summary:

  • It does let you get a Master's without quitting a good source of income
  • It affects relationships with family/friends because there is almost 0 free time.
  • Meeting with your thesis supervisor is hard because you're always at work!
  • It is really hard to come home after a long day at work and to sit down and focus on something. Looking back at it, I think I could have finished my thesis a year faster if I didn't have to go to work.
  • It requires a lot of self-motivation and organization because any experimentation you are doing will be self-driven.

I would not recommend it if you can avoid it. I was mentally drained every day (slept well though!).

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  • Appreciate hearing this as it's a very valuable perspective, congratulations on getting your degree despite the challenges! – Shayaan Jan 15 at 7:15

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