Working full-time while in higher education: It's tough but doable


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The Independent Online

The challenge for today’s student is to be able to find a job while at university that not only benefits them financially but that also reflects well on their chosen degree and career path.

The student loan system guarantees graduates a safe passage through university, but the harsher reality of having to repay this debt as soon as one begins to earn looms just around the corner.

Where a majority of students prefer either not to work at all, or to work part-time to earn some money on the side, there is a new generation of students beginning to get to grips with the trials and tribulations of balancing a demanding full-time job with a degree.

When I started higher education almost three years ago, I was acutely aware that work would become an inevitable part of the student life I was about to adopt. Despite my eagerness to work my way through a three-year PR degree, I immediately realised that being a self-supporting student in London with a part-time job was tougher than expected. Being an EU student, the tuition fees were covered by the The Student Loan Company, which still left me with an average of £15,000 of living costs a year to take care of.

The student handbook strongly advises all students to work no more than 15 hours a week so they don't compromise their degree. However, I soon discovered that finding a full-time and decently paid job proved to be a much easier task than any part-time job with suitable hours.

Assuring my future employers that I could cope with full-time hours was a good way to get their attention, so they'd even consider me as a serious candidate in the first place. It was not easy to sacrifice breaks and holidays to show work that I was serious about my job, but gradually it became easier to negotiate a more flexible and study-friendly schedule.

Working in the service industry is a natural choice; I feel I have learnt much of what I know about society from the food its people eat. Studying public relations, I was always fascinated by restaurants where London’s movers and shakers would be part of the regular scenery.

Hence I decided to walk through the doors of The Ivy. It just so happened that they were in need of someone to take a waiting job with immediate effect. It  was a combination of  luck and being at the right place at the right time, but it took a lot of dedication to stay employed there. Instead of being star-struck, I admired the discretion of this culinary institution; how the staff knew exactly how to be proactive when needed and how to keep distance when required. It was a great challenge to keep up with extremely driven individuals and to work myself on the same level as everyone else, especially with my degree  being a big part of my life.

Eventually my ambition drove me onto a further challenge, that of becoming a Maitre d’Hotel in another London top restaurant.

The London high-end restaurants I have worked at until now have all been  canteens for the PR industry and there are many parallels to be drawn between the two. Like in PR, a crisis in a restaurant can happen at any time and you need to be ready to react to any kind of setback. It takes constant awareness and understanding of people and their reactions that makes customers so loyal as they are.

Naturally, walking the fine line between the professional and student life is what I have preparing myself for all these years but it has still put a lot of pressure on my personal life. That said, pressure can be the best form of motivation a student can have and working full-time does not necessarily contradict high results. While the experience of working triple the recommended hours is beneficial in the long run, it also offers an instant benefit for the standard of living.

I feel comfortable in my North London flat, shared with only one other person, and the financial control over my own life as a student gives me the confidence I need. Furthermore, the professional confidence I have gained over the past few years  will undoubtedly provide me with a headstart on the job market as a prospective graduate. Having learnt a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses is why I recommend this to anyone who finds himself questioning whether a university degree is a journey worth embarking on.

My current job combines every aspect I love about restaurants and helps me further understand how people react and behave, and what will motivate and annoy them. Sharing my experience feels particularly relevant right now: by the time I will be graduating, I have found a job I love, that is also a stepping stone towards my future career. My experience shows that full-time working students are not an urban myth.

Ingrid Valk is a third-year student in University of Westminster. Follow her on Twitter here.