The journey to medicine is no longer the straightforward path it once was. There are hundreds of different avenues for achieving one’s dream of being in medicine, and more often than not, that means an individual is working while attending school. But even with this change, the pressure to have the best grades or best test scores is still there. So how does someone manage working and attending school?
In my own journey, before entering PA school, I spent two years working as a CNA while attending school full time to finish my Bachelor’s degree. The experiences I gained from those two years are unparalleled and have made me into the person I am today and the future provider I hope to be; I would not change them for the world. With that being said, attending school full time while working full time was incredibly challenging and overwhelming, and there were definitely moments I questioned my sanity. I struggled to learn how to time manage and balance the two halves of my life. It’s one thing to know who you are as a student, and to excel in that role, but when you add the stress of working it turns into a totally new ballgame. But, by the end of my time as a CNA, I felt as though I finally had figured out the secret to having a healthy work/study balance.
Separate the two parts of your life.
I learned the easiest way for me to excel in both school and as a CNA was to give each my whole focus. So, on Monday through Thursday, I went to school. I focused on studying and understanding what was going on in my classes. I went to office hours, made outlines, read chapters, did all those things that made me into a good student. I made sure to do all my assignments for the week before the days that I worked rolled around. Once Friday hit, I set school aside. I focused on working and getting through my three 12-hour shifts in one piece. I found that the more I did during the week to ensure I was staying on top of my classes, the less stressed out I was while working, and the easier work became for me. I went from being exhausted from work and scrambling to study, to being able to rest and relax after work.
If you can separate your schedule like this, where you either go to school or go to work that day, do it. Our brains are wired to focus on one thing at a time, and compartmentalizing your life like this will allow you to excel in both work and school.
Always keep flashcards on you.
While I did my best to separate the days I worked from the days I studied and went to school, my one study allowance was flashcards. Flashcards are the easiest way to review material on the go. Being able to flip through terms and definitions while on my breaks allowed the stressed-out student in me to feel like I was still studying, without impacting my ability to focus on work. I kept these guys on me everywhere I went, from restaurants and waiting for food to the bus on my way to class. Sure, I might have looked silly at times, but it kept me from feeling like I was ignoring school and it gave me an extra boost for being able to remember what I learned during the week.
Make a calendar and stay on top of updating it.
Keeping the chaos and due dates of school straight while remembering the days you work can be overwhelming, especially if you have more than one class or work more than one job.I ended up using a huge desk calendar and then color coding my classes and work schedule. It made it simple for me to look ahead and keep all the things that I needed to straight in my head. Find a method that works for you, and stick to it.
Stay healthy and listen to your body.
Getting sick or feeling run down is going to affect your ability to do well in both school and at work. Missing class leaves you scrambling to catch up, and let’s be honest, most of us don’t have that many sick days at work. Your goal is to prevent illnesses before they happen, not to try to react to them once they start. You need to listen to your body - eat healthy, exercise, and get the sleep you need. This is easier said than done, but there are a lot of simple ways you can accomplish this.
Take the time to pack your own meals; there are so many meal prep websites out there, and most of these recipes are easy enough. Bonus: you save money doing this instead of eating out.
If you don’t have time to go to the gym, take the stairs instead of an elevator. Go for a 15-30 minute walk at night to clear your head. Find something that is fits into your schedule and makes you feel better.
When you feel exhausted, go to sleep. Make your bed the place where you sleep and get rid of all those distractions (like the TV, books, electronic devices). Get on a schedule, and you’ll be surprised at how much better you sleep.
Part of the reason why I ended up trying to separate my work and school life was because my body was unhappy. I was constantly exhausted, feeling stressed out, and I kept getting sick. I learned that after work, if I listened to my body and ate and then went to bed so I could get the full 9 hours I needed, I felt so much better for the rest of the week. Once I started listening to the demands my body made, I was amazed at how much better I got at balancing my time.
Create a support system you can reach out to.
The people I worked with during my two years as a CNA ended up becoming a second family to me. They were there for the days I was feeling overwhelmed by school, and helped me celebrate good grades. Without having them to support me, I don’t think I would have lasted as long as I did doing both school and work full time. I also made friends in my classes who were always willing to explain things to me if I felt confused, and who knew I was there for them if they needed help.
So, find people to turn to when you need help, because asking for help is something you’re going to need to do. Find people who understand what you’re going through, and are there by your side when things get messy. There are always going to be those people who belittle you for following your dreams, and some days it can be so incredibly hard not to listen to them. If you find that someone is saying these kinds of things a lot, consider taking a step back from them and instead surrounding yourself with someone who supports you.
Most importantly, remember that while going to school and working at the same time can be challenging, this is just one part of your life and reaching your dream is worth all the struggle.
About the author:
Erin Moore PA-S is a Medelita HIP Ambassador and PA student at the George Washington University; before school, she worked as a CNA for 2 years while getting her B.S. in Health Science at the University of Florida. She spent two years working at UF Health in Gainesville, FL before beginning her journey in PA school. In her free time, Erin enjoys watching Netflix with her cat, running, and cooking. Check out her blog at StethoscopeAndSparkle.com!