How to Survive Grad School While Working in Nonprofit

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I’ve heard that some people take a break from working for a few years to get a graduate degree. Not me. For two years I worked full time and attended grad school full time. I also got engaged just a few months into my grad program, and planned a wedding that took place the week after I graduated. I was a maid of honor and bridesmaid for two dear friends. When I say that that time was a whirlwind, I mean that I don’t think I actually got a haircut. That whole time. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you survive grad school while working in nonprofit.

You can’t do it all

By year two of the crazy, I compartmentalized my life into 3 spheres: work, school, and relationships. I came to terms that I could do well within 2 of the 3 spheres at any time – but only 2. I was not so great at one of those every day. My goal was to kill it at two of those things at any given time, and rotate. Some days I would forgo reading for class so I could spend time with family. Some days I just wasn’t my best self at work because I had wedding brain. But I didn’t get fired, and I didn’t fail out of school, and I somehow managed to remain engaged and with a friend or two, because I gave it my all when I could.

Sometimes you have to ghost

I hurt people’s feelings by being unavailable all-the-time, and boy did they let me know it. And that’s okay. It actually surprised me how little some of my friends and family members understood and cut me some slack during those years. In retrospect, that may have been one of the hardest parts of being a grad student. But I knew it was temporary, and that I would make up that time with those who mattered most soon enough. So let it go. You made the decision to prioritize your career for a few years, you’re working your tail off to do it, stick to your guns when you just can’t make time for people you love.  

I took breaks

I have mastered the art of self-care. As busy as I was Monday through Saturday, Sunday was Maria Day. Books were put away, and I took a much-needed break. I took a few short trips, and plenty of mental health days. Some of my grad school friends would get regular manicures and massages, had workout routines, and prioritized a night out now and again. There are enough hours in the day for self care. Always. I stand by that.

I had lots of support

I cannot begin to tell you how supportive my husband was at this time (and always). He did more than his share of chores, edited literally every paper I turned in, and was an incredible listener and soother when I needed it. Having a family member, roommate, friend, or significant other (you really just need one person) that can commit to supporting you while in grad school makes such an incredible difference. With Erik, it felt like a team effort.

While I was accepted into one of the top MPA programs in the country, I chose Baruch since it had a cohort model. It was one of the best decisions I made for my career, soul, and sanity. My cohort of 17 students took every class together for two years. Not only did we help one another bang out stats assignments, study for finals, and brief unread readings, we supported one another to get through a very chaotic two years. While outside friends and family didn’t always get it, we got it. That camaraderie is powerful.

But it went further than that.

I was getting a masters in public service, so my cohort was filled with some of the brightest and fiercest public servants in New York City. My grad school colleagues championed issues ranging from special needs, criminal justice reform, education equity, women’s rights, child welfare, and so much more. We created a safe space to tackle really tough stuff, including privilege, racism, and sexism. I’m not going to say these conversations were always comfortable – but they were so important. I am a better public servant and person because of it. My grad school cohort really are family to me. For life.

I must add that many people in my executive masters program were also raising or caring for other humans. I salute you. Really – I admire you immensely.

If you survived full time grad school and working, or other busy seasons in your life, give us some tips in the comments.

Maria BryanComment