Full Time Work and an MLS: Will it Work for You?

Like any graduate program, library school is a big time commitment.  Whether your program is online or in person, full time or part time, there’s just no way to get the education you need to be a librarian without putting in a significant chunk of your life.  But if time isn’t something you’ve got in spades, is it reasonable to think you can work full time and still do your degree?

My answer: very often yes, but it depends. Many of my classmates work, many are parents.  I have to travel once or twice a month for my full time job. Everybody has a life, and most MLS programs get that. That doesn’t mean that every MLS program is going to work with every full-time job though. So how do you go about answering this question for your own life?

First, how much time do you really have?  Take an inventory of all of your needs and responsibilities, and estimate how many hours you can reasonably devote to an MLS program per week without being completely overloaded. Be realistic: there are only 168 hours in a week. Assuming you sleep between 6-8 hours each night and work between 40-50 hours a week, you’re left with 62-86 hours in which to commute to work, commute to class, feed and bathe yourself, feed and bathe any children you might be responsible for, take care of pets, run some errands and perform basic housekeeping, maintain some semblance of a social life, exercise occasionally AND do all your reading and other coursework.  Every student and every class is different, but I find that I need about 10 hours a week for each of my two classes per semester, less if it’s a light week and more if I have a big assignment in the works.  If you don’t have the time, you‘ll have to adjust your schedule or adjust your timeline. No shame in part-time.

Next, understand that this is going to take a lot of organization and a lot of self-discipline.  Any graduate program requires these skills, but eliminating weekdays from 8-5 makes them even more crucial. You’re going to need to plan your study schedule and then stick to it, no distractions. I normally take about 30 min every Saturday to figure out exactly what needs to happen that week, and then I make a multi-column list showing tasks for each class, what miscellaneous chores need doing, and any travel I have for work.  This is my script for the weekend and each night after work. If I’m really busy, the list sometimes gets broken down by day and timers are involved.  Do what you need to do.

You will also need to be able to defend your study time from friends and family.  I’m not saying they’ll intentionally sabotage you, but it can be hard for a non-graduate student to understand that sometimes you really can’t spare two hours for brunch.  I was a frequent offender here before I started my own program, as my SO will confirm. Don’t think you can divide your attention either. If you have kids that are too young to take care of themselves or a pet that needs constant attention, then you’ll need someone to keep them occupied while you get your stuff done.  It’s not selfish; it’s the reality of grad school.

If after your self-assessment you think you’ve got the personal time and the willpower, take a look at your job and think about how friendly it is to employees in school.  Are your hours flexible?  Can you work from home one day a week to cut down on commuting time?  Can you get some classwork done on your lunchbreaks? Will your boss accept it if you can’t stay late because you need to go home and write a paper?  On that note, will your boss be supportive of your degree process in general?  I realize that you might not have the choice to leave a job that’s not welcoming to your degree plans, but you can consider your potential trouble spots and how you’ll address them. If you get continuing education funding, it’s also worth your time to find out if you can apply it to your tuition.

Your next move is to find a program that will work with both your professional goals and your life as it exists now. Not all programs are created equally, so shop around a bit before you apply and find one that seems to fit your needs.  If you need to, contact the school directly and ask them if the program is doable for a full-time worker.  Things you should look for are plenty of evening classes (this is really common), an option to mix online and in-person classes, and the ability to drop to part-time or take semesters off as needed.

You might also consider a fully online program.  Online programs don’t suit everyone and they sometimes get a bad rap, but most programs are taught by the same teachers as the in-person classes and carry the same workloads and expectations. If you go this route be sure to determine if the classes in your prospective program are synchronous (designated meeting times when everyone needs to be online together), or asynchronous (just get your assignments and contributions in by the deadline).   One caveat: many “all-online” programs do require an internship at some point which you may or may not be able to do online.  This is not a bad thing (especially if you don’t work in a library setting) but it’s not something you’ll want to be surprised by in your final semester either. Not all internships take place during standard working hours so you might be able to get your time in on evenings and weekends, but it pays to start thinking about this ahead of time.

Working while you study is certainly not the easiest way to get your degree and it’s definitely not for everyone. But if you approach it with the right preparation and mental tools, it’s definitely a possibility.

9 replies

  1. I’m working full time and in the MLIS program at San Jose State University (slisweb.sjsu.edu), which is an all online program. I love the program and everything I’m learning, but, as this article so succinctly points out – it’s hard work. Sometimes I want nothing more than to enjoy a nice boring weekday evening, but even with the flexibility of watching lectures a my leisure and participating in online conversations whenever I can – it’s just not possible to relax a lot with the reading and actual school work that has to be done. That being said – I think it’s completely worth it, if you can work your life around the program of your choice.


  2. Alison I know exactly what you mean. I can usually allow myself one night of fun per week if I’m really diligent the other nights (and all day Saturday and Sunday), but there’s not a whole lot of relaxation or free time. Even the “fun” nights are usually preceeded by an hour or so of reading or discussion board activity. It amazes me that parents manage to do these programs while working, I think I’d drop from exhaustion.


  3. I’m going full time in my MLIS. This is my first semester and I just dropped a class because I can’t handle it. I’m working full time, working period, through school this time. I’ve done another grad program before, but I wasn’t working and didn’t have many other responsibilities besides that. This time is much different. I signed up for library school as a part time worker with 3 full empty days a week to get my work done. Between enrolling and starting, I switched to full time and now have a hard time balancing them. I figured the way to keep my mind sane and not drop the ball with anything is to cut back on school. I won’t finish in the 4 semester I was planning originally, but I plan to have some time for friends and family along the way instead of going full hermit. And that is something that’s important to me.


    • Much better IMO to drop a class and finish a little slower than rush through and not get the full benefit of your classes. The long-term “full hermit” does nobody any favors.


  4. I worked 60hrs/week (PT on-campus job, and FT night job at another university library) while in my first year of my MLIS, and it was ROUGH. But I managed to make it work through some serious organization and time-management. I made sure to carve out some R&R time each week to stay sane, but I missed out on a lot of social activities with my cohort. I ended up leaving my FT job due to the strain on my schedule, but even working only 30hrs/week this year, I often still feel over-extended.

    Working FT during an LIS program is doable with some organization, but make sure you understand what you’re going to have to give up (like, a social life) before you tackle the extra hours!


    • I also worked two jobs for 80% of my time in my program and full time throughout. It certainly helped that challenges such as a commute were never an issue for me (both jobs were ~1 mile from my house). Also, my family understood the situation and were very supportive, and my kids were older and could fend for themselves on some things. It also helped that I had a full time job that allowed for me to do reading during downtime. So I would say that while my situation was fairly unique, that shouldn’t imply that I didn’t find myself pretty much doing only work (job or school) for a solid 2+ years.

      Dana (and OP) are 100% correct: organization and time-management were absolutely key. I broke down all assignments and readings into pieces that could be done weekly and made certain to do at least SOME school work every single day. Even if it was only a few minutes, it allowed me some level of mental satisfaction and helped lower anxiety. Obviously, your approach and attitude are a big part of accomplishing anything.

      While I’m living proof that it can be done, I don’t know that I would recommend doing what I did. I feel like I could have absorbed more from the program had I given myself more time to consider the implications of what I was learning, as opposed to being mostly concerned with how I was going to complete the actual work. As others have said, you must be prepared to sacrifice almost everything else. Above all you need to be certain it’s something you really want to undertake, because it is a huge commitment.

      I also feel like it was necessary for me because the part-time job allowed me to earn valuable library experience and created networking opportunities that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. There was no way I foresaw myself successfully navigating a tight job market (to be kind) with little or no experience.


  5. My library school (Clarion) allowed me to do the degree in three years instead of two. Most people took two classes in the fall and two classes in spring in addition to two 6 week semesters over the Summer. Although the core classes all had to be completed on-site (which always took place over the weekend in a marathon session on Friday nights and Saturdays three times a semester), many were available online only which saved me a lot of hours being in class and allowed me to manage the coursework over the weekends a lot better.

    I really cannot imagine taking two courses per semester and working full-time. A lot of people did it but they were truly suffering.


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