‘I could have got a better degree’: readers on working while studying at university | Education

With tuition fees and living costs both on the rise, many students are taking paid work to make ends meet. We asked for your experiences of juggling university and the world of work. Here’s what you said.

‘I could have got a better degree’

I had a bad experience working on a zero-hour contract where the company would make us work 30+ hours a week. If you asked for less, they would give you three hours a week until you asked for more. This affected not only my grades but my mental health; I was stressed constantly, wasn’t looking after myself and I don’t think I was a nice person to be around during that time.

The best jobs I had were in retail and pubs. With pub jobs you can swap shifts with co-workers, which is great for deadline week. Retail is consistent; you can do overtime to up your pay, but you won’t be doing late nights and you know exactly when you’ll be working so you can plan when to study.

I think I would have come out of university with a better degree if I hadn’t worked, but I did come out with experience which has helped me when looking for a job.

Lisa, 24, undergraduate

‘Working at university was one of the best things I did’

I had various part-time jobs throughout my degree: shop assistant, bar work etc. The only employer that truly understood what it was like to be a student was the student union. They were completely flexible; you could move your hours around easily and swapping shifts was encouraged. They made sure they had enough full-time staff to cover exam periods. Working at university ended up being one of the best things I did. University advice centres can be useful if you ever feel worried or stressed about money.

Dominique, recent graduate

‘Universities should be more aware and better equipped to deal with this issue’

I was financially supporting myself through my degree so I didn’t have much choice. Other students didn’t often work while studying at my university. They would react to my situation with surprise and the university offered very little support. There was a distinct lack of understanding in the official guidelines and among staff, despite the fact that two of my jobs during the year were with the university itself. Universities should be more aware and better equipped to deal with this issue.

Ellen, 23, master’s student

‘I always felt like I should be doing something else’

Working students don’t pay much attention to work/life balance. No matter what I was doing, I always felt like I should be doing something else: when I was working, I was worried about studying enough; when I was doing homework and in classes, I worried about what was happening at my job that I needed to find a way to handle. It felt very much like I could pick two out of three: successful at work, successful at school, successful at just being a person.

Rainsford, 24, master’s student

‘I took a year out and worked full-time before going to university’

Balancing finance with study is, for me, the biggest challenge of university – far more so than any piece of academic work. I took a year out and worked full-time before studying. I don’t think I would have been able to afford it otherwise. Taking that time to work helped me realise my reasons for going to university and helped me better understand money management. If you are unsure about attending university immediately after college or sixth form, I would suggest entering the world of work for a year to help you decide whether the financial implications are what you are willing to undertake.

Kieran, third-year undergraduate

‘If you’re miserable, try to find something better’

The idea of a job that complements your studies is a bit of a joke really – it doesn’t happen. I’ve been bartending for the last three years and balancing that with university work and internships. Let’s be honest, getting home at 5.30am and having a lecture at 9am generally reduces your chances of attending the lecture by 100%. I realised, by the end of my first year, that this was unsustainable – it was like constantly living in two separate timezones.

Now I’ve got a job that’s much more reasonable; I go to university 9am-5pm, hop on the bus and eat my sandwich for dinner, then work 5.30pm until midnight and repeat the next day. Not ideal, but it means I can afford to go on internships that are self-funded, and also eat and pay bills. My advice? If you’re miserable, try to find something better.

Molly, 21, undergraduate

‘My tip is to start low and build your hours up’

Zero-hours contracts are easy to fit around studies as you can drop them around exam season, but I find the uncertainty adds unnecessary pressure and anxiety. In my contracted job, however, I found my manager was less than understanding, though my studies suffered mainly around coursework deadlines rather than exams, as my manager didn’t see these as such a big deal. My tip is to start low and increase. Begin with a few hours at work, find what you can balance with your studies and your budget, and adjust accordingly.

Naomi, 20, undergraduate

‘The social experience is disappearing because of the financial pressure’

Working had a significantly negative effect on my academic performance, but the unexpected additional impact is that often these jobs require flexibility to work evenings and weekends, which reduces your opportunities to socialise. It is a shame that some of the university experience – maturing as a person and developing a more well-rounded personality, particularly through meeting interesting people – seems to be disappearing because of the financial pressure.

Alex, 21, undergraduate

‘The distinction between “academic” and “non-academic” work is unhelpful and arbitrary’

As a part-time PhD student with a full-time job, I also took on some teaching at the university when it became available. It has become the norm for me to have a couple of jobs on the go at the same time as my studies. I don’t think the PhD thesis will be as good as it could’ve been, but that probably doesn’t really matter. I have gained a huge amount of valuable professional experience. I hope for continued variety in my professional life, with a place for my academic research. I increasingly feel that the distinction between “academic” and “non-academic” work is an unhelpful and arbitrary one – especially for someone who has always been working while studying.

Grace, 28, PhD student

‘Get a part-time job, even if you don’t have to’

Get a part-time job, even if you don’t have to. It’s not just your financial security that you’re working for; it’s the relationships, experiences and work ethic that money can’t buy. You’ll have to get a job some day, why not start now?

LT, recent graduate

‘I have friends who rely on food banks to get by’

Even as someone who doesn’t go out much or spends money carelessly, I simply wouldn’t be able to afford uni without having a part-time job. I am lucky in that I have a job I like. Lots of people aren’t so lucky. I have friends who hate their work. Friends who get paid below minimum wage. Friends who are fired without a reason why. Friends who barely get by every month, relying sometimes on food banks. It isn’t right.

Anonymous, 19, undergraduate

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