A question of degrees: combining online study and work

Can career and education really complement one another? Birmingham Uni’s Dr Roshan Boojihawon lays out the benefits

Online learning is revolutionising higher education for working adults. Growth in the availability of quality online degrees means that busy professionals can further their skills without hindering their careers in the short-term.

For many, the ability to study from anywhere and at any time makes this mode of study a no-brainer. “An online degree was the perfect way to make the most of my time,” says Roberto Lionti, a current student studying the University of Birmingham’s 100% Online MSc International Business. “It allowed me to work while studying and, most importantly, work when I wanted to work, a distinct advantage over weekend or after-work university courses.”

There are plenty of benefits to consider, and Roberto certainly isn’t the only one reaping the rewards of online education, but what’s it really like to complete an online degree while working? Can work and study really complement one another?

The power to be reactive

While most of us have set working hours, it’s impossible to plan every day to the minute. Sometimes, circumstances mean work has to take priority at short-notice. A meeting could run over the allotted time, or maybe there’s a big deadline looming. These kinds of situations don’t tend to mix well with conventional courses, where lectures can take place at awkward times.

Many online courses make use of weekend lectures, helping students to keep working days completely separate. And, when a session is missed – as is inevitable from time to time – a recorded version is usually made available soon after to ensure that nobody falls behind.

By not missing any sessions, you’re able to keep up with the course and get the best return on your investment.

Instant application

When you’re studying to improve your career and professional capabilities, it makes sense to put yourself in a situation where the skills you learn can be applied quickly, rather than two or three years later. When studying alongside work, you’re able to constantly test the skills you pick up from lecturers and classmates in real-life scenarios, and then keep working to improve them. This is especially important in fields that evolve quickly, like business.

Helena Fiebert, another Online MSc student, explains: “I have gained a deeper insight into many aspects of an international business, able to not only apply theories in my work activities, but also analyse past events and decisions to better understand the motivation behind them.”

It was this insight that helped Helena apply for her job as an IT consultant at jewellery retailer Pandora, just four months into her course.

The same applies in reverse, too; an active professional life helps to give invaluable context to lectures and study sessions, especially when the people you’re learning with are in the same situation.

Benefitting from diversity

The remote nature of online learning means that most programmes draw people from varied backgrounds, rather than just those who live locally. As a result, students can network easily with other professionals from across the globe with similar interests – this is valuable not only in the long-term but also in current business roles, where international links are becoming increasingly important.

Course diversity can impact the learning itself, too, as Helena explains: “An internationally-composed classroom adds substance and inspiration from very different people and very different cultures. I find this enriching to the sessions.”

Gaining employer support

There’s nothing to say your employer must help in funding your further education, but they do stand to benefit from the skills and knowledge you gain from an online degree. Keep an open conversation about your studies and see what support might be available – even if it’s not financial help, you could be given extra time for taking the time to study too.

Dr Roshan Boojihawon is Senior Lecturer in Strategy at the Business School, University of Birmingham