• Sat. Dec 2nd, 2023

Balancing work and study is a strain on poorer students

ByCalum Lithgow

Sep 16, 2016

I worked various temporary jobs whilst a typically impoverished student, struggling through five years before beginning a fully-funded PhD programme that ended the incessant scramble for money. As an undergraduate I worked long and hard every summer, seeking jobs starting immediately after exams and finishing just before lectures resumed.

My proudest timesheet stated that I’d worked every day in July. No breaks, no mercy. One week I racked up 74 hours. In this way, I avoided working during term time, dividing my attention between university and a job, wasting hours invaluable for study and coursework on earning enough money to get by.

The problem with this strategy is that working so heavily over the summer means missing out on prized opportunities. Other students returned each year with stories of internships with esteemed companies, or university research projects, or managing shows at the Fringe, or trips involving some foreign charitable enterprise or other volunteer work.

These students had fabulously padded CVs while mine remained boring and comparatively empty. We are told that it is not enough to announce proudly at a graduate job interview that you have a degree. They will simply say so what, everyone we are interviewing has a degree, what else have you done?

Despite superficially being an equal opportunities endeavour, obtaining a university degree is arguably harder for poorer students. Ideally, my summers would have been spent on projects and internships then preparing for the year to come, getting a running start on an attempted first class degree. If I had been rich I might have succeeded, and had an expansive CV to accompany it too, but I was not and I did not.

By fourth year I decided to break from my previous strategy and take a weekend job. The plan was to save money so that I could do a summer internship or something. I also joined a sports club and a society (The Student, obviously), which helped fill my CV too.

Predictably, those choices resulted in my worst academic performance of any year, easily the lowest grade average of the five.

However, even with the benefit of hindsight I have no regrets. Poor exam results aside, my plan worked and I managed to do a summer research project with the university.

This was great experience but a massive pay cut from my normal summer occupation, and I started my fifth and final year significantly more impoverished than usual. That summer project essentially led to my PhD though. Without a doubt, it was worth sacrificing some income for the opportunities it bought.

On the other hand, my weak fourth year meant that I really had to focus on good grades in my fifth. I quit the weekend job and was completely broke for most of the year. I borrowed money from every source I could tap and eventually applied to the university hardship fund…twice.

Again, no regrets.  If you can potentially scrape by then my advice is to do the optional extras, the internships, projects or volunteer work. Avoid paid work in term time, concentrate on your studies, get involved with clubs and societies, then deal with the consequences later. You are only at university for a few short years; you have your whole life to mitigate the financial fallout.

Employers know that well-off students have an easier time doing this, so if you do not have that advantage then remember to highlight your struggle to balance work and university. All the careful planning, strategic sacrifices and conscientious time management is quality, character-building experience in itself. Turn that disadvantage into an asset.

Image credit: Flickr/ dun_deagh

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