Working Full-Time in a Graduate Nursing Program? Students Share How They Balance School and Their Careers

"It requires a full commitment and a lot of understanding from your support network, your friends and family, and your workplace," says Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) student Sam Park.

At the end of the workday, most of us with 9-to-5 jobs are ready to unplug and zone out. Some people, however, opt to add graduate school on top of their bustling full-time careers in order to expand their professional opportunities.

While it may sound impossible, it’s actually quite workable for many USC Online students, who readjust their schedules to allow room for classes and assignments. 

Although they wouldn’t say balancing the two commitments is simple, they would certainly label it rewarding. 

Consider Tobias Brown, who is studying to become a family nurse practitioner in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. Brown was originally drawn to nursing because “other than the typical ‘I like to help others’ response, there are so many benefits to the field. It’s a highly respected job. Many individuals trust us with their care, and it’s an honorable duty,” he told USC Online.

Brown started off his nursing career by becoming a certified nurse assistant — which he highly recommends as “the first step for anyone interested in nursing or the medical field” — and volunteering as an HIV tester and counselor. He was accepted into the accelerated BSN program at Azusa Pacific University at its High Desert Regional Campus, and after completing the program, he took a paid position doing STD and HIV testing at a small nonprofit in Los Angeles while studying for his NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). 

Once he passed the NCLEX, he became an HIV registered nurse (RN) manager at the same nonprofit and worked with patients in Skid Row and other areas of Los Angeles. Brown has since continued on with a similar role at a larger agency, explaining, “Although I really loved what I was doing, I wanted to push myself even further.”

Employer Support

“The next step in my nursing journey was becoming a nurse practitioner,” Brown said. “It was very difficult to navigate all of the programs to choose from. I ultimately chose USC because I felt that it would provide high-quality education and still be flexible with my working schedule. The online component of the program has allowed me to work and progress through the program without significant issues. So the flexibility of the program was a huge plus for me.”

Another aspect that inspired him to choose USC was “its emphasis on social determinants of health and its fusion to the School of Social Work,” which is crucial to Brown, who wants to continue to work with the LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive community.

“In addition to medical knowledge, providers need to be exceptionally sensitive to other outside influences that impact health. Housing, access to health care, socioeconomics and education are just a few of the things that have significant impacts on health and health outcomes,” he said. “I really appreciate the approach that USC has taken when educating its future nurse practitioners. I also feel that they have encouraged us to be advocates for change on both the local and national level. I’m confident that my learning experience at USC will help me be prepared to provide care to the most vulnerable communities.”

So, how does he balance his full-time job with classes? It’s all about figuring it out with your workplace, Brown said.

“I’ve been blessed to work for an employer that values me and my professional goals. This has allowed me to have a more flexible working week. When I don’t have clinical rotations in the program, I work in the clinic like a typical 9-to-5 job, with the exception that my lunch times are my lecture courses, which are typically two times a week. When I have a clinical, I only work three days a week. I work slightly longer hours on the three days to make up for the lost time. The weekends are reserved for rest and studying,” he said.

Despite the drawbacks of a busy schedule, there are also major upsides, which is why he opted for this path to begin with. It’s especially crucial for Brown that he maintain his source of income and benefits as he works toward his ultimate ambition: “Becoming an FNP and providing excellent care to our LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive community.”

“I feel like it’s an area that is severely lacking support,” Brown added. “LGBTQ+ people face so many barriers in primary care.”

An Air-Tight Schedule

Sam Park, another student in the online FNP program who has a full-time job, feels similarly lucky to have a flexible schedule that allows him to pursue both school achievement and a steady career. 

Park, who has spent years working in both inpatient and outpatient oncology clinics, wants to open a primary care clinic one day. To reach that goal, he’s optimized his schedule to obtain an MSN: “I work consistently every weekend — 12-hour shifts every Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, too. This opens up the rest of the week. I pack classes into Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

It’s difficult, he admitted, but by managing his calendar this way, Park, who has children, is able to get a little bit of time with his family and loved ones, even though some of the days are truly exhausting. 

When asked what advice he would give prospective students, he said, “The main thing is to know what you’re gonna get into, what it entails. It requires a full commitment and a lot of understanding from your support network, your friends and family, and your workplace. Make sure everyone is onboard.”

“It’s important that you work for an employer that values you as an employee and has an environment that allows for growth and advancement.”

Still, the balancing act is going well for Park, who doesn’t want “to lose hands on clinical contact by reducing work hours or by not working.” 

Ensuring he is getting as much in-person clinical experience as possible is a priority to Park, and achieving that makes up for the long days. He also stressed that his career is already benefiting from the program: “It is so much more in depth now. It is a lot more interesting to be a nurse when you understand better what’s going on with patients.”

Much like Park, Brown emphasized the importance of having a good community around you while attending a graduate program and working full-time, as he noted it leaves very little room for your personal life.

“Please remember you can not do it alone,” he advised incoming students. “You need to find people who will support you. This includes friends and family. It’s important to give your family and those in your support system the heads-up that you will be absent for some time. Those that really support you will understand and will be waiting for you once you are done.”

But it’s not just support from your loved ones that you need, Brown added.

“I also think it’s important that you work for an employer that values you as an employee and has an environment that allows for growth and advancement. If your employer doesn’t support your future goals, find one that does,” he stated.

The end goal, above all else, makes it worthwhile.

“We as nurses are often so busy with all of our tasks we forget to see all of the profound work we do for our patients. Helping a patient through a tough diagnosis or really empathizing with them and having them thank you for that is the most rewarding feeling ever. That’s what I love about nursing. No matter how bad of a day you have, at the end of the day, we are helping those in need and doing our part to make the world a healthier and happier place,” Brown said.

Still intimidated? Don’t worry too much: “It really is completely doable,” Park said. “Especially if you’re good about being on top of your schedule.”

Learn more about the online Master of Science in Nursing program today.