‘The hardest years of my life’: How Simon survived the relentless work-study struggle

Simon Wood held down a full-time job as a paralegal during most of his full-time post-graduate law degree. “They were definitely the hardest years of my life,” he says. “It was quite a juggle, but I managed to make it through by having that set-up, the three semesters that RMIT offered.” With the increasing timetable flexibility and on-line tuition now offered by universities, determined post-graduate students can find ways to both manage a full-time work schedule and take on a substantial study load.

Now 32, Wood graduated earlier this year, and he has already begun the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice required before he can be admitted as a solicitor. The diploma course can take three months full-time, but he has decided on part-time, which will take six months. He plans to continue working.

Wood also has a media and communications degree from RMIT but before he turned to law, he earned a living playing in bands. Then Covid hit. “I came to studying law fairly late in the piece compared to a lot of my peers,” he says. “I was a musician all through my 20s, which wasn’t a particularly viable way to make a living during a pandemic, so that spurred me on to revisit my interest in law.”

He began the law degree in 2020, during the pandemic, and in 2022 he left Melbourne and went to the Northern Territory for a three-week internship with an Aboriginal legal service based in Darwin. Three weeks led to six months which became a year, and Wood finally stayed in job.

He had to drop back to working four days a week during one semester to cope with the study load, but for most of the latter part of his degree, he worked full-time. “It’s a good job,” he says. “I’m still able to learn a lot and get some practical experience in this role while I’m still studying.”

‘I still hold a number of positions’

Sara Chica-Latorre divides her time between working and studying full-time at Canberra University’s Research Institute for Sport and Exercise. A doctoral candidate, she also teaches a course in anatomy to undergraduates at Canberra University.

Originally from Colombia, Chica-Latorre has lived in Australia for 13 years and she has a Bachelor of Science degree from ANU and a master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from Canberra University.

“I’ve had quite a number of positions and I still hold a number of them,” she says of her working schedule. “When I started my PhD, I was a Canberra Institute of Technology trainer and assessor, or teacher. I was teaching nutrition and some subjects in fitness, specifically for students doing their certificate 3 and 4 in fitness. I’m still doing that, but I tend to do it in the second semester.”

She also maintains her private practice as a dietician, now catering for the general population and focusing on weight loss. At the same time, she is concentrating on her doctoral thesis, on menstrual cycle symptoms of female athletes.

Balancing her shifting mosaic of work and study commitments can be “very difficult” Chica-Latorre says, but she expects to finish her doctorate by the end of next year, at the latest, and she then hopes to find a post-doc position in Europe.

‘I’m able to catch up a little bit more on weekends’

Katie Petchell, 44, has a full-time and extremely busy job as the head of Guildford Grammar’s prep school, yet she manages to pursue a Master in Business Psychology degree in her spare time.

“I feel like I’ve been studying for the best part of 12 years,” she says, which she adds is largely because of the difficulty of balancing a demanding executive position with study.

She has just started at Guildford Grammar in Perth, but she was also studying in her previous position in a smaller school, taking on a Master of Education at the University of Western Australia. She exited that course late last year with a Graduate Diploma in Health and Well-being in Education. She says she wasn’t daunted by the course study-load, but she didn’t relish knuckling down to produce the required thesis, and she preferred to switch to a course that “gave her joy”. She can always go back and finish the Master of Education course at a later date.

The flexibility of her current Business Psychology course makes managing her study-load possible. The course is offered by the University of Newcastle, thousands of kilometres away and in a different time zone. Petchell says she studies in her own time, often setting aside Sunday afternoons to absorb the online lectures and workshop material.

“Obviously it’s a juggle,” she says. “The fortunate thing is because I’m in education, there’s a real intensity during the term. But while I don’t get the 12-week holidays that teachers get, the pace is a bit different during the school holiday period. I’m able to catch up a little bit more on weekends because I’m not as exhausted by the working week.”

The ability to work at her own pace has made it all possible, “The wonderful thing, post-Covid,” she says, “is how unis have really catered for people who work, or who can’t be there.”

The Sydney Morning Herald