Going the distance: The realities of learning while you earn

Natasha Chowdory shares some home truths on balancing working full-time with studying for a degree

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The Independent Online

Becoming a librarian requires you to have a Masters. To get onto a course you need 6 months of experience and (as a distance learner) to be working in the field. As a full title it’s known as Information and Library Studies MSc. For me, a 26 year old woman with little bar travelling for experience, it was either a) do the course full-time and quit my current job or b) keep my current job and take three years to do the course part time. Given how long it’s taken me to get a job that I can firstly do and secondly enjoy, I figured I’d take the latter choice.

So in a nutshell, what have I learned from my distance learning course?

Give up your social life

A Masters is hard enough but doing it via distance learning is even harder. Give up any semblance of anything other than working and studying and possibly going to the gym. Even exercise will be sacrificed towards the end as spending an extra two hours proofreading an essay could make all the difference between passing and passing by a respectable margin.

Sleep is an option not a necessity

Really think about how much sleep you need. I’ve managed to function on seven and a half hours a night on 14-hour days. Fitting in studying with working full-time isn’t a 70/30 split - it’s more like 50/50.

Your tutors will not appreciate that you have a full-time job

They say they do/will but they won’t. The timing of assignments and 'chats' on Sunday nights will prove that.

Distance learners aren’t accounted for

I get emails from the university about campus events. I’m a distance learner? I couldn’t give a fig about the upcoming fashion show happening at blah street on such and such a date. Alas, I can’t turn the emails off. We’re lumped into the same category as full-time learners and 'other students'.

A lot of the materials are designed for classroom participation and discussion. But as a distance learner there are some things you do need help with. That help is not very forthcoming. As if the course was taken, mixed around a bit and dumped in distance learning, without much thought as to how some items might translate. You will feel like you’re playing catch-up all the time.

The people on your course are NOT your friend

You will exchange comments with them via the aforementioned chats and various forums. Do not be fooled. These people are not ever going to talk to you about anything other than the course. No new friends here folks! You aren’t really encouraged to talk to each other in the first place (although when you read through comments on the forums you probably won’t want any of them as friends).

People won’t get it

"Oh so you’re a distance learner, with the Open University?" Not really, no. It’s not 'one module per time period'. It’s essentially what it says on the tin - you are working and studying full-time at the same time.

Other gems include: you won’t be able to see your boyfriend/girlfriend, your family will beg you to leave your desk every now and again, your idea of a good time will be not being anywhere near your computer. Skin will go downhill, bags under the eyes etc. People who have fun and go out during the week will make you cry, but not for too long because you could be using that time to study or sleep.

Distance learning is not a decision to enter into lightly. Make sure you have a support network that can look after you when you have the bad days and be open with communication - tell people when you have assignments due. Take time out for yourself because your university sure as hell won’t let you take it.. Set reasonable goals. When I started I was all "Yeah! I’ll get amazing marks."

Now I’m more like, "Please God just let me pass".