Balancing on the thin line between being a successful student and a hard-working employee is a skill worthy of admiration (and envy). As students, we are forced to adapt a very degree-orientated approach to our studies. We are under constant pressure from the department and the faculty to get on with our studies, graduate and change our degree-orientated lifestyle to a career-driven one. However, at the same time those of us who are lucky enough to have a job are under a similar pressure from our employers, who place trust in us to do our jobs well and conform to a work ethic, which is very often in conflict with that of our studies.
In some cases, it is the job that gives us leeway in trying to conjure a schedule which could fit our curricular and our extra-curricular activities. When a student applies for a job, it’s taken for granted that they can work best during weekends and evenings. However, with the wage settlements active in most of the jobs with positions for students, those are the very hours that supply the best pay and, thus, are also very much craved for among any non-student employees as well.
Since, as a university student, you aren’t in any binding contract to finish your studies in any certain time-period, it’s easy to give into the pleasure of receiving a fat pay check every month, at the expense of your studies. The problem of balancing, as mentioned above, comes into play as soon as you realise that even though your studies aren’t governed by any legality, the whole idea of being a student is to graduate some day (preferably soon) in order to start a career of choice, which would otherwise (i.e. without your degree) be impossible.
So the dichotomy behind student life is working enough to supply yourself with whatever commodities you deem necessary to support your chosen way of life and studying enough to, eventually, receive a degree and steer your ship to better horizons. Some people have it easy, having worked long enough to be able to dictate their own schedules, but others have to work long summers, in order to accumulate savings that will support them for the rest of the year.
In Finland, struggling with the dichotomy is a tasking job, thanks to KELA (The Social Insurance Institution of Finland). KELA offers a monthly study grant to all students. It’s considered “free income”, since it’s not a student loan. In order to be eligible to receive the study grant, a student can work only so much during a year. The limits are ridiculously small, and if you wish to receive the full nine month study grant, you can work little or none at all, making it a difficult job to find an employer who’d want to hire someone to work for only a couple of days per month.
The study grant is also very small, meaning that living solely on it is a difficult job, requiring the student to compromise on basically all aspects of their life: the food they eat, extra-curricular activities they engage themselves in, trips, etc. The problem, as I see it, is that because KELA has such a strict limit on how much a student can work, they don’t accumulate enough work experience, a necessity that all employers look favourably on, no matter what degree(s) you hold.
The student is thus left with a handful of choices: live solely on the study grant, working little to none during semesters and a little bit more during the summers; work a little bit more, cancelling the study grant for an appropriate amount of months (in order to increase the amount that one can work); and cancel the study grant altogether, meaning more work at the expense of your studies. In my view, the first option is for those who are unwilling to compromise their studies at all. The possible result is that they graduate faster but with little work experience to show for. Naturally, not all students come from a background of school-to-school, but might have worked for years before beginning or resuming their studies. But I think that completing your studies while working at the same time is a show of character that many employers find agreeable. The second choice is for those who’ve found a job that gives the student a chance to manipulate their shifts and work schedule in order to preserve the harmony between accumulating work experience and still having the strength and energy to complete their studies with success. They enjoy a wealthier life than the former group, but the months they’ve cancelled the study grant for only remind them that even though it’s a small sum (the grant), it’s still “free money”. The third choice is for those who like to work and earn a nice, fat, monthly pay check. They might have to drop a few courses because of low attendance, but they’re getting heaps of work experience, and they’re sure that it will make up for the lost time.
My personal view is that every student should, at some point in their studies, belong to either the second or the third group. After talking to many employers (in interviews and just regular chit-chat), I found out that having a good résumé is vital. The job descriptions don’t speak on your behalf, since having worked in a fast-food restaurant for five years might not tell that much about your skills, say, in a high-tech job, but it will be a testament of your character. And I’m sure that regardless of degree type, when two people with equal academic qualifications apply for a job, the one with more work experience is ahead when choosing the future employee (of course, personal characteristics come into play too, but for the sake of argument let’s discard them).
At least in the University of Helsinki, I’ve noticed that work experience is something not adequately emphasised to the future BAs and MAs. Recently at least the Faculty of Arts has implemented several different “working life experience” courses in their syllabi, but these amount next to nothing in the long run. I understand that universities don’t have the resources to mother the students in their search for a career, but I wish they’d try a bit harder. KELA comes into play too, since their ridiculously strict limits on how much a student can work (in order to still be eligible for the study grant) demoralise anyone wishing to work, study and receive the grant at the same time.
From personal experience I can say that even though working and studying at the same time is a tough job for many, it’s rewarding in the long run. Even the sweatiest job is still a job. Since studying involves a personal contract above all else, it’s up to you how devotedly you wish to complete your studies. My solution was to work really hard for the first four years, naturally neglecting my studies somewhat, and then to hit the school bench with double force. I believe it’s paid off, because with my previous work experience I was able to make a better settlement with my employer about the hours I work, and with the new vigour I have towards graduating, I’ve attained a level of motivation that will surely help me through the rest of my studies.