So, as a new university year begins, there are parents up and down the country preparing to take on the task of balancing study with parenting responsibilities. Some are parents to teens and older children, others have newborns and toddlers. Some aren’t even parents yet, but are trying to juggle the trials of pregnancy with studying for a degree. Whatever your situation, let me say first – I salute you. Let no-one tell you that you’ve got it easy – it’s tough.
I always feel a bit iffy doing a ‘top tips’ post, as I worry that my advice is
complete bullshit misinformed, but I feel fairly qualified to write this list. As regular followers of my blog will know, I finished university in the summer with a first class honours degree, and graduate on October 30th. When it comes to study tips for student parents, hopefully you’re in safe hands with me!
- Time Management. This is the one I go on about the most, because it is the most important one! You need to be in control of your time as much as possible. Set yourself ‘time targets’. You can vary them according to the size and intensity of the assignment. When I was writing shorter, 3,000-word essays, I’d do an hour of work, followed by a fifteen-minute break, and then another hour of work. For more intense work like my dissertation, I’d do half an hour, followed by a ten minute break, and then another half an hour. I would only do a maximum of two work sessions a day – if you’ve given yourself plenty of time to get the work done, this shouldn’t be a huge issue.
- Organisation. If time management is the most important tip, organisation is the second, and they go hand-in-hand with each other, really. I’m chronically disorganised, and always have been – it’s just a matter of finding the organisation system that works for you. A lot of people swear by academic diaries – these are no good for me, as I have a tendency to either lose it, or write in it for a week and then never check it again. I can’t recommend an academic wall planner enough – you can get them for a couple of quid on Amazon, and because they’re big and right up there on the wall, you can’t really ignore it. Write down all of your assessment deadlines, exam dates and other important deadlines to remember, and check it regularly.
- Don’t excuse yourself. Yes, you’re a parent. Yes, you’re facing extra challenges because of it – but don’t give yourself an ‘easy out’ because of it. The assessment boards won’t read your work and say ‘Well, in fairness this one is a student parent, so we’ll chuck a few extra marks their way’. Your work will be treated exactly the same as any other student, so if you want the top grades, you’ve just got to knuckle down and put in that extra work for them.
- Don’t work yourself too hard. I know it’s a bit of a contrast to point 3, but you’re not going to do anyone any favours – least of all yourself – if you work yourself to the point of exhaustion. Stress causes illness, and illness causes disruption to studies – the very last thing you need when you’re already dealing with the disruption parenthood causes. Know your limits, and everything in moderation – study hard, but play hard too, whether that involves going out, listening to music or just spending half an hour drinking eighty cups of imaginary tea that your toddler brings over to you.
Yes, I do speak from experience.
- Study at night. No, it’s not ideal. Yes, you will be tired. But trust me, you’re so much more productive when you’re not child-wrangling at the same time as writing a critical analysis on the expansion of the British railway system during the Victorian era. Toddlers have the uncanny ability to sniff out an ‘interesting’ piece of tech from fifty metres away, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve proof-read my essays to find random rows of gibberish, where SB has waddled over and smashed out a few lines of nonsense with her chubby little mitts. We developed a routine of putting SB to bed at 8pm (before her bedtime changed to 7pm), and then spending the first hour tidying her toys away, eating our dinner and watching something on YouTube, before spending at least the next two hours writing essays, learning lines or revising for exams. Sometimes, when it was particularly difficult to get SB off to sleep, we wouldn’t be able to start studying until 11pm, but it’s a sacrifice worth making for the good grades.
- Make the most of childcare. If your child goes to school, nursery or a childminder while you are in university, make the most of all the hours you pay for. For me, the temptation was there to dash across campus to the nursery as soon as my lectures were finished, but I had to train myself to be strict. The campus nursery was open until 6pm – so if my lecture finished at 1pm, I’d spend three or four hours in the library, studying or writing out essays, before going to collect her at 5pm.
- Give yourself time. This can come under ‘time management’ or ‘organisation’, but it’s so important it deserves a space to itself. The reason I got the grades I did was because I drafted and re-drafted every essay. I proof-read, and changed things, and wasn’t afraid to start all over again if the feel of the essay was all wrong. In order to be able to do that, you need to give yourself plenty of time. Start early – leaving it until the last minute might work for students with no family or work commitments, but it’s not going to cut it here. In first year, I could knock out a 2:1 essay in the thirty-six hours before it was due. By third year, planning an essay was like planning a military coup.
- Use your lecturers. I don’t mean “use” as in exploit them, but if they offer support, take it. If they don’t offer support, ask them for it. If you need an extension, don’t try and be a martyr – you’re at university to get the best grade you can, and if an extension is the only way of getting that, go for it. There’s no shame in needing extra time. People get extensions for having hangovers, for Christ’s sake – I’m pretty sure your parenting commitments are a valid reason. If your lecturers can offer feedback sessions, or a little extra help with the essay if you’re struggling, accept it!
- Academic Study Skills are your friend. Most universities will have an Academic Study Skills department, or something similar – a team based at the university, who are there to offer advice and feedback on all aspects of study and university work. They can also often advise on time management and organisation, so if you’re needing help with points 1 and 2 on this list, they’re the people to go to. The university has that department for a reason – if you’re paying nine grand a year to study there, you may as well get your money’s worth!
- Focus on the end goal. Whatever your career plan; whatever reason you’re studying – whether it’s for a career, or to go on to extra study, or just for fun – be proud of yourself. You’re doing something to improve not only your life, but your child’s life too. One day you’ll be able to tell them, “I got a degree at the same time as raising you” – what an example for them to look up to! Achieving a first in my degree whilst raising a child is one of my proudest achievements; second only to having SB. It is tough, and at times you’ll think “I can’t do it”, but push through. You can do it, and I promise – when you get that letter, telling you the grade you are graduating with, it will all be worth it.