The art of time-bending 1: working student survival guide
I am writing this entry for those of you who were crazy enough to suddenly enroll in graduate school while maintaining a full-time job. Again, this is dedicated to all my students who have approached me or messaged me on Facebook.
First, let me apologize if I gave the impression that taking your PhD/master’s while handling a full-time job was easy. It certainly was no walk in the park. But I have to admit that it was actually kind of fun. The most important skill I learned from it was the art of time-bending.
Time-bending isn’t any great mystery, by the way. It’s just a technique harnessed over 11 years of combined higher education and industry practice. I started as a teenager, so you could say I’ve been doing it for quite a long time.
Anyway, I hope my list of suggested actions will be of help so that the next person who asks me if being a working student is worth it will be redirected to this blog entry. Let’s begin.
1. Health is wealth.
Before you even embark on this endeavor, I will have to warn you that it poses a lot of risk. When I was a producer for Anino Games and a PhD student at the same time, both areas were giving me a lot of stress. For my PhD thesis, it was mostly self-inflicted. I put health in #1 because this is the key to being an effective time-bender. If you get enough sleep (which I didn’t because I was handling 4 different timezones), eat balanced meals and drink lots of water — and I mean LOTS, as in 3.5 liters of water a day — then you’d be generally okay. Sleep was problematic for me so I moved conveniently close to both Anino Games and the Makati Medical Center. Those commuting hours are not only hazardous to your health (imagine if you happened to ride a shuttle that’s driven by a road maniac and your heart threatens — for a good two hours — to jump out of your mouth), they’re also harmful to your schedule as a working student.
2. Your calendar must be with you at all times.
I used to chug liters and liters of coffee just to get that Starbucks planner at the end of the year. I also had a set of colored pens to mark all my tasks, what day I should work on them, and how much time I should allot for each. I saved my stomach from acid overload when I bought my first smart phone, which was a Samsung Galaxy S. I sync’d this with my Google Calendar. I was very obsessive about my schedule, to the point that I barely had a social life during the peak of my PhD studies. Now that that’s done, I made room for a social life on my calendar.
3. Prioritize which one is more important to you.
This one was a no-brainer for me. Ever since I decided to get into graduate school, the choice of work place had become secondary. Before she decided to take her PhD, my mom couldn’t understand why I would always resign whenever I get promoted to a very high position and she cringes whenever I’d apply for a starter position in the next company. A person with no gift of discernment or imagination would immediately assume that I had no career direction. (Would I be a managing director, an associate dean or a producer if I had no career direction? Thank goodness my mother just thought I had no ambition; she never thought I had no career direction.) It was practical for me to go for jobs that wouldn’t put the same amount of strain on me as my school did. Being in a powerful position means taking a lot of responsibility.
The fact of the matter is, career didn’t mean as much to me as education did. I could be a director one day, a game tester another day. But being a doctor is a title no company can ever take away from me and it has benefits that would get me through retirement.
Another truth: it’s rare for a company to be truly loyal to its employees. At the end of the day, companies will conform to what keeps their best interests. It’s rare for an employee to be recognized globally for his or her contribution to a company. If you were good, you could be the company’s best kept secret…unless you were the CEO or some other top executive who gets interviewed a lot. (This is why I admire Proctor & Gamble because they actually named their scientists, both PhDs and MDs, on their Olay Pro-X website.)
For this reason, I stood by my answers to the PhD entrance interview question that was asked of me: “What if your career and your studies clash?” I was dead serious when I replied with, “Then I will resign, if that’s what it takes.” (Thankfully, that never happened.)
Now, it’s a different matter entirely if you were a family person but still mean to pursue graduate school and a full-time job. Your full-time job could be your priority because it is what helps keep your family alive. Which leads me to my next point.
4. Choose a company that values what you value.
I think by now you would understand why, despite the stress levels and challenges of game development, I love my previous company, Anino Games. They gave me a chance to prove myself. (I was actually quite stupid enough to request for 5 projects that entailed handling 4 different time zones, but I think the challenge paid off.) In return, they were nice enough to allow me once-a-week leaves. Of course, I offered to work longer hours from Mondays through Thursdays so that my Fridays could be spent on quality time between me and my thesis.
Not all companies are like this. Many recruiters who have no idea what it’s like to go through graduate school will raise their eyebrows at a resume that indicates you are studying. Some will question your intentions. Are you going in there to do some research about them (and eventually publish dirty secrets they may want to hide, hehe)? Or are you going in there to eventually build your own company and be their competitor? Or will you be a pain-in-the-ass know-it-all who will argue with the company’s founding members when you don’t agree with their policies?
What’s important here is that it helps if the owner of the company values education as much as you do. Anino’s CEO supports education so much that he constantly asks some of our developers to teach. I’ve also been sent by the CEO to help out government institutions, such as Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), draft game development curricula that would be used nationwide. The company also worked with the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and CHED to create the educational game Jan-Jan: The Jeepney.
And when I’m at the peak of my stress levels? Well, the CEO’s wife, who also happens to be the CFO, is a door away. She listens.
5. Divide your work week into 4-day chunks, your work day into 4-hour chunks.
I’ve already explained how Anino allowed me to work 4 days a week so that covers the 4-day chunks. Now let’s look at what you can do with those days.
If the nature of your job is the type that will not easily budge, then school will have to adjust. I had a classmate who was a lawyer and an HR practitioner and she took 12 units of course work. Man, I constantly took 9 units of course work per semester and it was enough to drive me nuts! In fact, my former boss (before Anino), Dr. Paulino Y. Tan, told me I was indeed crazy for taking on 9 units of course work and a full-time job. I started suffering from ulcer and a host of minor health problems that later became major. Needless to say, that classmate of mine who took 12 units of course work got burned out pretty quickly and she opted to leave the program for the sake of her sanity and health.
Ideally, you’re not even supposed to be working when you’re going through grad school. But because you are stubborn, may I suggest a load of 3-6 units per semester? Remember, that’s already 3-6 grueling brain-breaking hours on top of your 40-hour work week. 4-8 hours, if you add the time it takes for you to digest one session. Don’t even get me started on the number of hours you spend on readings, writing papers and working on projects. If you want to graduate on time or earlier, taking the maximum number of allowable units is not the way to go. What you can probably do is take another 3-6 units of summer classes to make up for it. This is basically what it means to stagger your units across the academic year.
When you’re in the office, the same principle can be applied. Assign two major tasks for the day and work on the minor annoyances next. That is, if your brain can still handle it. Divide these tasks into 4-hour chunks. Anything that demands more than 4 hours a day should not be shared with another task on your calendar. I requested the same thing from my lead developers: don’t promise me 4 grand tasks for the day. Name only 2 that you can do because I never want to over-commit to a client or a publisher.
Between those 4 hours, give yourself at least an hour’s worth of a break on top of your lunch break. Unplug. Spend that time outside of your office. I used to take walks in the park after lunch instead of playing DOTA with my office mates because I needed a break away from everything electronic. If you can insert 15-20 minutes of power napping, do so. I found that these activities recharge me in ways I can’t easily count. I also call this rest session my “brain break”.
This is also the reason why I don’t believe in working for more than 8 hours a day. It makes you inefficient because you’re exposing your brain to unnecessary fatigue. While I did work longer hours from Mondays through Thursdays, I made sure that I balanced the weight of each task on my calendar.
To wrap things up, there’s one important thing that I need to mention. This path also entails a lot of personal sacrifice. It’s different for each individual so I cannot easily elaborate on this. If you’re a parent or a child who takes care of his/her parents, family is non-negotiable. In my case, I’ve missed a lot of gatherings, events and dropped many of my hobbies in the name of my thesis. For you, it could be something else. So be prepared for this eventuality.
That’s about it. I hope this write-up helps. I’m actually coming up with Part 2 for those people who are not necessarily working students but are also juggling many obligations all at once.
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