Studying for a career change while working and raising kids


If you were to enter the workforce today, figures from the Foundation for Young Australians suggest you’d have up to 17 different employers and five separate careers by the time you retire.

All these career changes mean you’ll have to learn new skills, potentially by heading back to university.

But before you decide to take the plunge and commit to doing a degree later in life, you should know the road isn’t easy.

Older students who study part-time only have a 50-50 chance of completing their degree, research by the Grattan Institute has found, with many older students finding it hard to balance study with other life responsibilities.

Cathy Stone at the University of Newcastle researches the student experience, and she says those who do well at uni later in life learn to be “selfish”.

“People have to think, ‘How am I going to quarantine time for myself to do this?’,” Dr Stone says.

“They do come up with all sorts of creative solutions.”

Here are some just some of those solutions from people who are in the middle of their career-switching journey.

Do your research, try studying with others

A blurry figure in the distance seen between two library book shelves full of books illustrating studying as an older student.
Image As a student who’s trying to juggle other responsibilities, you might feel isolated, but there are ways to forge connections even if you have limited time to engage with campus life.(Unsplash: Banter Snaps)

Cassio Da Silva, 31, has already been a jeweller’s apprentice, a removalist, a furniture salesman and currently he installs TVs and speakers into restaurants.

He is also halfway through an electrical engineering degree, the first study he’s attempted after a decade in the workforce.

“There were courses that sounded like what I wanted, they had great names, but when you look at the actual units of study, they weren’t what I was after at all,” he says.

Cassio had an an interest in renewable energy, but he found a lot of courses were policy heavy and light on the practical side of energy.

Eventually he found an engineering degree that allowed for a strong focus on green energy. If he hadn’t taken the time to do his research, he says his studies could have been derailed before they began.

“Students going to study later in life generally don’t start with a lot of confidence, they can feel like a bit of an imposter,” Dr Stone says.

“That can make them reluctant to put up their hand for help.”

Photo of a study group smiling together at a desk. Groups like this a great way for students at university to share tips.
Image Study groups aren’t just about swapping notes, they’ve also been shown to help improve your ability to stick with study and complete your qualification.(Unsplash)

Succeeding at university without an academic background hasn’t always been easy, but Cassio says what made it easier was studying with others.

“You don’t freak out as much,” he says.

Many institutions offer “peer-assisted study session” programs, which match you with mentors further ahead in their studies. It’s completely free and it’s pretty easy to find out from your university about how to get involved.

Keeping an eye on the future

A photo of Cassio Da Silva smiling, he is a student going to university so that he can change careers.
Image Cassio says it’s important to keep an eye on the prize during your years of study.(Supplied: Cassio da Silva)

Cassio is determined to use his studies to set himself up for a new career. To make sure he was on the right track, he sought out a mentor in the industry.

“I always thought that I wanted to get into power storage,” he says.

“But my mentor said to me, ‘You know, you’re pretty good with people, maybe think about picking up a project management angle to your degree’.”

Being able to talk to someone in the industry who could spot what skills would be valuable was a huge help, explains Cassio, and he recommends asking your university about any industry mentorship programs that are available.

Brushing up on high school is easier than you think

Donna Douvartzidis was a legal secretary for 10 years before she decided to quit her job to focus on raising her kids. Having barely passed year 12, she had never even considered a degree.

“Only the privileged, the smart, went to university,” is how she describes her attitude before she decided to give it a try.

But this didn’t put her off. Donna, 44, surprised herself by earning a new university admission score over 90 per cent after taking a high school bridging course.

There are all kinds of bridging courses that can bring you back up to speed on the high school basics.

You might not need to do any kind of high school bridging depending on your circumstances, but Dr Stone does recommend investigating short courses on essay writing and researching. Some universities even offer them for free.

Put boundaries in place — and tell people about them

But getting in was only part of the challenge. Donna still had to get through the course.

“I needed to know that I could support myself and my family if need be,” she says, adding that the idea of returning to secretarial work wasn’t the answer.

Women do face different challenges to men, Dr Stone says, and one of the clearest ones is they often feel more pressure to care for friends and family.

“Women, in particular, struggle to be more selfish,” she says.

“They find it difficult to be focused on their needs rather than the needs of others.”

Donna managed to set up just the kind of boundaries that do what she needs to get her study done.

“I advised friends that during the study term I was out of bounds,” she says.

“You still love them, and they are important to you, but for now university is your top priority.”

Online study opens doors, but comes with risks

Many students who are studying later in life choose to study online. The internet has made university a possibility for plenty of people who never thought it was an option.

Online students are more likely to be older, less academically experienced, under more time pressure and have more external responsibilities such as full-time work and family.

“I never had financial support from my parents or anything, so I felt like I had to work,” Daniel Benjamin, 22, from Geelong says.

A student studying for university at night in a dark room, a desk lamp is lighting only his face and his notes.
Image Studying at home, without on-campus contact can exacerbate the problems part-time students deal with.(Unsplash: Steven Houston)

After leaving high school he started full-time work, and after a few years decided online study was his best chance to further his career.

“The uni definitely made efforts to make things easier,” he says, citing online forums and discussion groups.

But within the first few weeks, he knew things weren’t quite right, especially when he compared notes with friends who were studying in person.

“Whereas on-campus students are still able to casually ask their tutor a question after class, I had to deal with brief, impersonal email responses that didn’t really address my questions in any meaningful way,” Daniel says.

Dr Stone says this is a familiar story, with many staff she spoke to saying online students were “under-emphasised and under-resourced” by universities.

Only 46 per cent of students who study online will graduate, according to Department of Education and Training figures, compared to almost 77 per cent of on-campus students.

Despite this, Dr Stone does say there are great online courses out there, and if you’re thinking about online study, there are things you can look for to find a supportive course.

“Contact student advisors and ask what support they have specifically for online student,” Dr Stone says.

“And ask if there are any guidelines to lecturers about how often to talk to students. Make an appointment to speak to a course coordinator if possible.”

Daniel has switched to part-time on-campus study so he can get the study support he needs. He says he’d take the initiative more if he studied online again.

“I think I’d be more proactive about it,” he says, explaining he wouldn’t rely on the institution to foster connections with tutors and peers.

The changes in our economy mean that reskilling is becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity for Australians.

There are challenges in trying to reskill part-way through your working life, but there is plenty to be learned from the experiences of other and by putting your hand up for help when things become difficult.



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