Top tips for combining study and work

When you start your first job you will be studying and working. What is the best way to structure your learning? How can you make the most of your apprenticeship but make time for your studies?

Here are some time management tips to make sure you have a good work-life balance

If you are on an apprenticeship scheme you may well have to study for qualifications in your spare time, either in the evenings or at weekends, in order to achieve your career goals. It can sometimes feel hard work and can be lonely, especially in the current climate where you may be working from home, or in the office for only a few days a week.

Studying for your qualifications, however, opens up huge opportunities and potential for exciting career paths, promotion and improve remuneration. So  it is important to remind yourself why you are studying and what you hope to achieve in the future. Balancing your studies with your job can be tough at times, which is why we have put together these top tips for balancing work and study.

Find the right work space and prioritise the tough tasks

Jonathan Scott, Tax Partner in Newcastle upon Tyne at Haines Watts, started out as an AAT Apprentice and said that whilst he was studying, he tried to remove as many distractions as possible such as his phone, television and work.

“It is helpful to make a working space either at home or at work whereby when you are in that space you can solely focus on studying,” he says. “Having this dedicated space helped get my mind into the right zone to learn, free from distractions from home or work. During this time and in the specific space I could give my study the focus it needs.” He also recommends identifying study areas you are unsure of and expect to take a longer time to grasp.

“I made sure that for the areas during my apprenticeship that were more difficult, I was able to allocate and spend more time on trying to learn and understand. If possible, ask your employer for exposure on these areas at work, so you can put the theory into practice.”

Use as much material as possible such as past papers and questions. Practicing questions and papers develops good exam technique but also demonstrates what an examiner is expecting. Having good exam technique and knowing what an examiner is looking for allows you to manage your timings during an exam, manage the points you are trying to make and ensures you reach the end of the paper, he says.

Find study groups and support networks to help motivate you

“Staying motivated throughout an apprenticeship can be extremely difficult, even more so since the pandemic has moved more business to home working,” Jonathan Scott says. “Reaching out to others that are also studying can help with the isolation but also help if there are areas of the course you may be struggling to understand. Creating study groups either virtual or in person can help motivate each other and break up the studying when it can feel this is all you are doing.”

Make time for your home life as well as study and work. Having this balance ensures you can focus when needed on study but you do not feel as though you are having to miss out on everything outside of this study bubble.

“During my apprenticeship, a lot of my friends were at university and therefore there were times when I felt like I was missing out,” he says. “I was able to keep myself motivated by speaking to other apprentices who were in similar positions but also focusing on the goal of what gaining the apprentice would mean to me, the doors it would open for my future.”

Plan how you will manage work and home commitments

Creating your own unique study plan to fit around your work and home life is key. “Set aside specific time to focus on studying whilst spacing out each of the different modules so that you can digest, understand and practice,” he says.

Utilising a study plan will ensure you leave yourself sufficient time between learning a new area, revising this and practicing questions prior to the exam, especially if you need to revisit a certain area should this become more difficult to grasp.

“Building in contingencies for when work or home life may encroach into your studies is also essential – even the best-laid plans need to be able to change,” he says.

Be productive and focussed in the time you have available

If your time is short, focus on making your available study time super productive, says Chloe Burroughs, a Graduate Ambassador for the Open University and author of The Return to Study Handbook. Put your phone in another room so that you can concentrate fully on your work.

“Remove distractions before you study and focus on the priority tasks that will move you forward. If you have more time available, use this to prepare further for your exams. “To set deadlines, you need to break down your tasks to get from now to your exams, and then assign them dates. Reward yourself each time you stick to a deadline.”

Find out what extra support is available at work

This might be extra study leave, flexible working, or mentoring from a more senior member of staff. Ideally, you should ask about this before you join an organisation, so that you know that you will be supported during your journey to becoming fully AAT qualified.

The amount of support you receive will likely depend on the organisation you join, says Amanda Augustine, careers expert for TopCV.

“It is about their culture, how structured their corporate and departmental onboarding process is, the number of people working in your group, whether or not they have formalised training programs for recent university graduates, and so forth.”

Work smart and use your time effectively

The important thing is to use your time effectively, says Nathan McGurl, founder of revision aid The Study Buddy.

He advises that you draw up a plan and timetable to give purpose and direction to your studies. “Sometimes staring into a really big task can seem really overwhelming,” he says. “When we can’t see past the enormity of it all, can start to feel unachievable. Instead, divide up the tasks you need to do into smaller sections.

Analyse how your study plan is working

At the end of each week, spend some time reviewing what is working well and what needs to be adapted. If you haven’t achieved everything you wanted to, don’t beat yourself up – this is no time to be judgemental if things haven’t happened exactly as they should have. Anything that wasn’t done simply

“Is there something that should be changed for next week?” Nathan McGurl says. “Perhaps energy is low on Wednesdays, in which case don’t schedule revision for then. It won’t always be necessary to adapt the plan, sometimes we just have a bad day.”

Make time for downtime

If you’re feeling anxious about your studies, it’s common to experience guilt about taking breaks. However, devoting every spare hour to work is likely to make your anxiety worse.

“Our brains aren’t designed to absorb information for hours on end,” he says. “Mental well-being is reliant on having a good balance, so ensure that your study plan factors in time with your friends and doing things that you enjoy.”

Stay positive about your progress and achievements

Think about your long term goals and how your AAT qualifications will be invaluable in your future career.

“An AAT qualification can be translated to any career field,” says Karl Eastwood, COO of Global Lingo, a leading translation and language company.

“Aim high, because with your AAT qualifications nothing can hold you back in terms of achieving the career you wish for. Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs which specify that you need a degree, because your knowledge will show through in the interview. AAT gives you a good grounding in stepping business skills which are transferable to other roles and careers.”

4 tips for balancing work and study – from young AAT qualified accountants

  1. Choose your study area carefully

Get a quiet space to study and find different ways to study to keep your motivation high says Emily Coltman FCA, Chief Accountant, FreeAgent. “Listen to podcasts and AAT study briefings.”

2. Think about what time of day is personally most productive for you to study

“Some people like to study before work and get up early, but I needed my sleep,” says Caitlin M Davis, Audit Associate at Grant Thornton UK LLP. “I found it better to spend a couple of hours in the evenings working.”

3. Use what you are studying to help you progress at work

If you work full time and you are learning about what you’re actually doing as a job, you can consolidate your study by putting it into practice when you are at the office, says Jess Brindle, finance manager of Social Chain, a digital marketing company in Manchester.

4. Talk to your employer about flexible hours

It may be possible to change your working day so that you start early and can fit in extra study early in the evening, says Ellie Garratty, an assistant account with Mazars, an international audit, tax and advisory firm. “I finish at 3pm, have a break for an hour and then I begin study from 4pm,” she says. “I’ve been well supported by my manager.”

Further reading:

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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