How to Handle the Rigors of a Part-Time Master's in Computer Science: A Guide
Pursuing a part-time master's in computer science isn't easy. As Tufts University Professor and Chair of the Computer Science Department points out in the COMP 105 Programming Languages syllabus, "Our job as professors is to set you problems that are more challenging than you think you can handle... This learning process requires hard work, attention to detail, and a leap of faith." She adds that when students persist, "unpleasant feelings of confusion will be replaced by satisfying feelings of mastery." The catch is that most part-time master's in computer science students tackle those problems and must try to achieve mastery while working full time and shouldering a full load of personal responsibilities.
Many part-time Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs do everything possible to support students as they balance their professional, personal, and academic obligations. Students pursuing Tufts University School of Engineering's part-time Online MS in Computer Science, for instance, take live classes in the evenings but spend the majority of their time in the program doing self-paced, asynchronous course work. They can access course materials anytime, anywhere through the Canvas Learning Management System. And online students receive dedicated support from matriculation through graduation.
That kind of flexibility and robust support can make earning a graduate degree possible, but won't make it easy. There's nothing easy about going back to school for a computer science master's when you're a working professional with a busy personal life. The benefits of enrolling in a part-time master's in computer science program are numerous—e.g., high salaries and increased access to opportunity—but pursuing a master's is hard. Just how hard it is, to some extent, is up to you. You can't change your graduate school workload, but there are things you can do to make juggling professional, personal, and academic priorities feel less stressful.
'Part-Time Is a Piece of Cake' and Other Misconceptions
You likely chose a part-time master's in computer science program over full-time options because you have other commitments and because you wanted to continue working, progressing in your position, and earning income while in graduate school. Some people, however, are attracted to part-time graduate programs because they assume those programs are less robust and less expensive, or involve less collaboration and a more relaxed student experience. They're often surprised to learn that part-time MSCS programs are usually identical to full-time MSCS programs in every respect save format—distance learners even pay the same graduate tuition rates.
Paradoxically, the very same flexibility that allows you to continue working and meeting personal obligations while in school can make studying more challenging. The part-time computer science master's curriculum isn't more difficult, per se. Taking two courses per semester sounds like a light load until you consider that keeping up with synchronous classwork, asynchronous independent projects, and group projects may require 10 to 20 hours of work per week, which means pursuing a master's degree is a lot like working a second job. Add in family commitments, and it is all too easy to get overwhelmed or even burnt out if you aren't thoughtful in your approach to your graduate education. The key to avoiding grad school burnout while pursuing a computer science degree is to accept that it's a possibility and then do what's necessary to keep it at bay.
11 Ways to Achieve Work-Life-School Balance While Pursuing a Master's
Make a Plan But Don't Be Afraid to Change It
Time management is a must-have skill when you're trying to juggle work, life, and school. You will need to use your available time efficiently to meet your many obligations. At the start of each semester, mark all key dates on your calendar: live class sessions, exams, assignment due dates, and any other benchmark dates. If you notice schedule conflicts, deal with them as soon as possible, and be sure to set multiple calendar alerts to remind you of impending deadlines. At the start of each week, identify your professional, academic, and personal priorities so you can focus on and achieve your most important objectives. Amend your to-do lists as necessary and keep your expectations reasonable.
Give Yourself More Time Than You Need
If you've been out of school for a while, you will need time to rediscover your academic rhythms. Schedule extra time for course work and studying at the beginning of your first semester, with the understanding that you will soon work faster and with greater efficiency. It's okay to approach each week ambitiously but accept that everything you do may take a little longer when you're switching between work, school, and personal tasks. Don't try to cram too much into each day.
Find New Times and Places to Study
Ideally, you have a quiet office with a door and hours you can devote to your schoolwork. Realistically, you need to be comfortable studying anywhere, at any time. Get creative. Do you commute on the train or bus? Do you have five minutes before the day's meeting, or will you be sitting on hold for the next 10 minutes? Those are all study opportunities. Homework can be a family affair if you have kids and a table big enough for everyone. You can even review recorded live sessions while you're out on your morning jog.
Let Your Employer Know You'd Like Support
If your company has an official tuition reimbursement program, take advantage of it, and if it doesn't, reach out to HR. Some companies without written tuition reimbursement policies will still help fund continuing education for promising employees. Ask your manager if there are flex-time arrangements that can help you fit group study sessions into your workday or if you can commit extra time to school around exam time. If doing schoolwork at home is a challenge, there may be a quiet space (like an empty conference room) at your workplace you can use during off-hours.
Don't Hesitate to Seek Out and Ask for Help
Be proactive about asking for support outside of work. Talk openly with your partner or spouse about how many hours you plan to devote to your studies each week and how pursuing a part-time master's in computer science will impact the division of familial responsibilities in the short term. If you think you'll need extra help meeting personal obligations, reach out to friends and family before you get overwhelmed. Look into the cost of professional cleaners, lawn and garden services, and meal prep kits. And take advantage of any assistance your university offers. At Tufts, all online graduate students receive one-on-one guidance from the enrollment team, faculty mentorship, and career counseling.
Treat Learning Like a Team Sport
Going to school part-time doesn't mean studying in isolation. At Tufts, collaboration is built into the MSCS program, and many courses involve hands-on work best tackled in groups. Join forces with your classmates to meet academic commitments whenever possible. You might, for example, put together a weekly virtual study group or create a Slack workspace for your cohort where students can ask each other questions or share study tips. You may discover you learn as much from your fellow students as you do in your computer science master's classes.
Take Care of Yourself
Prioritizing self-care is tough when you have a lot on your plate, but it's worth it. Going to graduate school is a lot like running a marathon in that you can't do it well unless you're in excellent physical and mental shape. To perform at the top of your game at work, in class, and at home, you need to eat well, get a reasonable amount of sleep, exercise at least a few times each week, and find time for relaxation. Self-care shouldn't feel overwhelming, and a little is better than none at all. A brisk walk around the block, five minutes of meditation, and a salad at lunch will do wonders for your motivation and mood.
Accept that Short-Term Sacrifices are Inevitable
Pursuing a part-time MSCS will mean making some sacrifices. You'll almost certainly have less free time while in graduate school, and you may see less of your significant other. Don't try to attend every party, make it to every one of your kid's soccer games, and put in overtime at work while pursuing a master's. Make peace with the fact that you can't "have it all," and you'll have an easier time focusing on the task (or person) in front of you.
Take the Long View
You will get tired and frustrated while in graduate school, and at times you may feel like quitting. When you start to feel burnt out or question whether you have what it takes to earn a master's degree, think about how having an MSCS will impact your life in the future. Master of Science in Computer Science holders typically earn over $100,000/year, nearly twice the national median household income. A computer science master's can get you past the resume filters at high-profile companies like Google and Amazon or show your employer that you're ready to advance into senior management positions. Whatever your motivations for pursuing this degree, keep your eyes on the prize.
Build Plenty of Breaks into Your Schedule
Finding time to rest in your busy schedule is vital, whether that means taking a nap, going for a walk, or just staring into space. Taking regular breaks correlates with increased productivity and performance, improved memory retention, and enhanced focus. Even small breaks can have a powerful impact. Studies show that breaks as short as 40 seconds may improve your ability to concentrate.
Enroll in an Online MSCS Program
Online programs are time-savers, which is essential when juggling work, school, and personal life. Commuting to and from campus can take hours each week. Choosing an online master's program means you'll spend that time studying instead of behind the wheel. In Tufts' online part-time master's in computer science program, you can access most course content asynchronously, so you can study machine learning, programming languages, database systems, algorithms, software engineering, and computational theory while waiting for an oil change or a doctor's appointment—time that might otherwise feel wasted.
Is the Part-time Online MSCS at Tufts Right for Me?
There are three ways to consider this question. First, take stock of your career goals. Do you want to advance to the top levels of computer science? Do you hope to effect significant change in the way the industry operates? If the answer is yes, an online MSCS from Tufts can help you achieve those objectives. The School of Engineering's online degree programs are geared toward experienced professionals who want to gain the skills and credentials that will position them for new job opportunities, to be promoted within their current organization, earn more money, or pursue future research projects.
Second, consider how much flexibility you need. If you want to keep working while you study, a part-time, remote program like Tufts' online MSCS may be the best choice. Depending on your circumstances, it may be the only practical choice. When you choose the School of Engineering's 33-credit hour, 10-course part-time computer science master's program, you can meet your personal and professional commitments, keep earning as you study so you won't accumulate as much student debt, and apply what you learn in your MSCS program in real-time at your job. That's a powerful way to reinforce learning.
Third, think about whether Tufts School of Engineering's computer science master's is the right program for you, given your experience and aspirations. Do the classes in the master's in computer science program inspire you? Do your interests align with the research projects or specializations of professors and faculty members? The ideal Tufts MSCS applicant knows one or more programming languages; has studied data structures, computer architecture, and algorithms; and can articulate how the program will support their ambitions.
Ultimately, there are no 'typical' part-time students in Tufts' master's in computer science program. You'll take courses with both mid-career professionals who work in technology and tech-savvy business people who want to pivot into computer science careers. Your fellow students will be on different career paths in fields as diverse as cybersecurity and bioinformatics. What they'll have in common is the desire to learn new skills that will empower them to create innovative solutions for today’s digital challenges. If that's what motivated you to start researching Tufts' part-time MS degree in computer science, chances are you'll be a good fit for the program.