It's nearly 11 p.m. Although the rest of my family is already fast asleep, I have just got home from night school. Like any study night, classes ended at 10 p.m., but it has taken me about an hour to reach home. By the time I get settled for bed, I'm going to be completely exhausted.
People always say to me, "Why do you make life so difficult for yourself? You should be enjoying yourself more." I understand their perspective. After all, I already have a basic degree from the prestigious Nanyang Technological University. To many, that ought to be enough, especially for a woman. A woman should not aim too high, they say, otherwise she might end up on the shelves. Even my mum says that, too.
However, I beg to differ. Times have changed, and I ought to think more realistically.
With Singapore advancing towards a knowledge-based economy, the demand for multiskilled individuals is increasing. More than ever before, a basic degree cannot take you anywhere. Now, it is just the starting point, and you will have to continue building up from there to keep up with the times and stay relevant. But it is tough, because it means that after spending about 2 decades in basic education and getting that prized degree, you will still have to continue learning throughout your work life.
Nobody obliges us to continue studying after graduation. Yet, many of my generation's young graduates are bound to realize, after a while on their jobs, that there is a great deal more to learn in order to keep up with the increasing demands of their professions. For that very reason, many of us choose to continue learning through part-time courses and distant education even while still paying off college loans--that is, if we can afford it. Undoubtedly, it is no fun juggling work and study at the prime of your career when you need to constantly outperform others to prove yourself.
For me, privately pursuing a postgraduate degree has been a mad rush every week. Three times a week, I have to dash off to night school as soon as I knock off from work at 5:30 p.m. Forget about dinner. The most I can manage is a quick bite of a sandwich bought on the way from the office and gobbled down with bottled water as I speed through rush- hour traffic. Reaching school before the class begins is not the only challenge, though. After classes, there are projects that require research and group work. This means staying out even later and spending most of my weekends with my teammates, scouring through libraries and research collections to take care of the various assignments.
Friends often ask me how I juggle the stress of studying with the demands of being a full-time technologist. Certainly, being able to manage my time is key. I constantly identify time needed for essential tasks, make lists, and prioritize. My personal organizer, which details all my activities to the hour, is my tool in keeping my schedule in check. It ensures that I don't overlook anything that I have to do. Other than that, I keep my tasks in perspective and explore ways to work more effectively.
Yet, my family and friends often find it hard to accept my incredibly busy routine. To them, I have no life! My parents worry about me all the time. They fear that I may collapse one day! True, the problem of burnout is very real. But, unfortunately, this is something that many in my generation have to live with if we want our careers to progress. We are faced with the necessity of upgrading our skills and knowledge continuously so that we can move forward in our chosen fields. There is no other way. Of course, studying when you are holding a full-time job is demanding and even daunting. But if you approach things systematically, it should be possible to juggle your work and study roles.
Oftentimes, support from your employer is crucial. I consider myself fortunate because I have always managed to wriggle my way around. On days I have to attend night classes, I usually get off on the dot by 5:30 p.m., so that I can reach my school in time. Of course, there are problems, too. For example, during examination periods, I am not always granted the extended leave I ask for to prepare for and complete my papers peacefully. The company's priorities always come first. Although I work diligently and ensure that I deliver, there are still times when my boss feels that I could have done better if I wasn't burdened by my other commitment. So, my personal pursuits can easily become a bone of contention, even with my co-workers.
For those who wish to continue their studies while also working full-time, having supportive colleagues is very important. Employer's and co-workers' indifference and pressure can have a tremendous negative impact on your efforts--a course mate of mine had to quit her studies midway through because of her employer's lack of interest and support. When personal effort is hostage to such stress, it is very hard to succeed. And in such cases, the education endeavor can even backfire badly on the career prospects of the individual.
Sadly, our existing work culture does not always facilitate employees' personal academic development. Some changes in the corporate mindset are needed to accommodate and help working students cope with the dual responsibilities. Until that happens, though, it will remain difficult for individuals to juggle work and study. But for those who are determined to beat the odds, what they gain in the end will be well worth every sacrifice and effort along the way.