1. Grandinetti, Maria PhD, RN, CNE
  2. Luckowski, Amy PhD, RN, CCRN, CNE


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CONSIDERING RETURNING TO school in the spring semester? Balancing graduate coursework with family obligations and a full-time job can be challenging, so we've compiled our best suggestions for surviving the journey to your graduate nursing degree.


Our story

We initially met and became instant friends in one of our first PhD courses. Other than one online doctoral course, all other courses in our selected program were in a traditional classroom-based setting. We continued to work full time in nurse faculty positions throughout the program, taking evening courses once or twice a week and full-day courses over the summer months. Our employers were accommodating to our course schedules. Maintaining balance in our lives was difficult, but we knew that only a few years of school would lead to an advanced nursing degree that would elevate our nursing practice for the rest of our careers. Together, with the support and love of our families, we achieved our academic goals. Here are some tips we learned along our journey that can help you earn your graduate nursing degree.


Find the right program and institution

With so many different academic programs offering varied formats of teaching and learning, it's easy to be confused about which program is right for you.


After determining the program of study you want to pursue, take a close look at the mission, vision, and philosophy of the institutions you're considering. Be sure that these coincide with your personal goals and expectations for your graduate coursework.


Next, decide to enroll in an on-site, hybrid, or blended teaching and learning program. Completely online programs are now also an option. Think about your preference for learning; do you prefer face-to-face interactive learning, or are you a self-motivated learner who'd prefer taking courses in an online format? You alone are the expert in deciding what learning platform is best suited for you.1


Hybrid learning will require competence in the use of technology, access to dependable computer hardware and software, including equipment with video and sound capability, and a steadfast Internet service.


Take into consideration your ability and desire to commute to campus, and determine if this commute is a reasonable one. If your decision is to commute, you must have a reliable means for transportation during all seasons.


Affording your degree

Determining how to pay for your education is just as important as deciding which program to enter. Let's face it, higher education is expensive! But financial aid and student loans can make it more affordable.


Be a detective. Determine if your employer provides professional development benefits. These may include full tuition reimbursement or sharing of employee tuition costs. If you're required to return to school without employer reimbursement, this may be considered a tax-deductible work-related expense. Consult with a tax professional for guidance. Also investigate online educational resources that provide information about scholarships and grants for students.


Make sure to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form from your selected school. Eligibility is often based on ability to pay, age, gender, ethnicity, or an agreed-upon commitment of employment or service after graduation.2


Suitability for these benefits varies and may require, for example, making the commitment to work in a medically underserved area after graduation. Smart inquiry and planning can help make returning to college more affordable.3


It's all about balance

As you start applying to graduate schools, share your professional development goal with your employer. At times, the curriculum may require flexibility in your work schedule. The support, understanding, and accommodations made by your employer will give you a sense of relief that your source of income won't be compromised while you're a student. Save a few vacation days for the times you're overwhelmed-and especially before a paper or presentation is due.4


Try to integrate work and school. If you're on a committee at work, volunteer to research a topic you can use for a school-related project. Bring the new knowledge you're gaining from your school coursework, into your work environment too, such as a quality improvement project.


Organization is everything

As you start preparing for your first day of class, invest in a reliable calendar in either paper or electronic format. Many stores sell academic calendars that are ideal for the busy working student.


Also take advantage of any orientation to the library that the school offers so you can learn how to access all the online journals and other resources available to you.


Buy your textbooks as soon as possible and review the syllabus before the start of class. In your calendar, write down all your readings and assignments for each week. Start working on the big projects, presentations, and papers ahead of time whenever possible. If the class is online, schedule time to be on the computer daily.


Schedule checkups

Plan on scheduling medical, dental, and eye appointments before starting school. Because you'll be reading a lot and spending long periods of time in front of a computer, get your vision checked in case you need new lenses or reading glasses. Follow up with routine appointments as recommended.


Limit time wasters

It's a good idea to limit the time you spend on social media; delete accounts that might divert your attention from your studies. You should delete your favorite online games, too. Limit the time you spend watching television and browsing the Internet. Hobbies may need to be limited or put on hold, to be resumed only on semester breaks.


Staying fit and healthy

Exercise is a great way to relieve the stress of school. Lifting weights, running, biking, and learning yoga are all great! Consider purchasing a book stand for your treadmill, as walking is a great way to pass time while studying.


Enlist a friend or family member to be your exercise partner so you're more likely to keep your commitment. Routine workouts will likely help you sleep better and give you more energy to read, write, and study.


Don't neglect to take occasional breaks from your routine. Give yourself a day free from schoolwork and do something fun alone or with your family.


Keep friends nearby

You'll need a good social support system at home, work, and in class. Although you'll likely have less time to spend with friends when you return to school, keeping them nearby is important. Let them know in advance that you appreciate them, and plan to see more of them during holidays and other school breaks. Develop a school buddy and share e-mail addresses and phone numbers.3


Follow your dream

We couldn't have made it through the ups and downs of our doctoral program and life without each other. Whether it's a friend, colleague, or family member, you've got a support system to help you reach your dream.


Although it can be a challenging experience, a few years of sacrifice is a fair trade-off for an advanced nursing degree. You'll be rewarded for your efforts at work as you take personal pride in your newly acquired knowledge and skills.5




1. Kramer LW. A personal reflection: graduate study challenges and strategies for success. Dimens Crit Care Nurs. 2007;26(4):158-159. [Context Link]


2. U.S. Department of Education. Federal student aid. 2016. [Context Link]


3. Morgenthaler M. Too old for school? Barriers nurses can overcome when returning to school. AORN J. 2009;89(2):335-345. [Context Link]


4. Altmann TK. Registered nurses returning to school for a bachelor's degree in nursing: issues emerging from a meta-analysis of the research. Contemp Nurse. 2011;39(2):256-272. [Context Link]


5. Kalman M, Wells M, Gavan CS. Returning to school: experiences of female baccalaureate registered nurse students. J N Y State Nurses Assoc. 2009;40(1):11-16. [Context Link]