It was about 2 a.m. when Kate Premo looked out the window of her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side and saw that every other window in the neighborhood was dark.
She was up typing market research for a project due for the graduate program she had just started. And in a few hours, she would have to go to work.
That was last semester, and she remembers thinking, "What have I done?" But then she consoled herself with the knowledge that there were at least 33 other people in the city -- her classmates -- who also had full-time jobs, were trying to earn a graduate degree part time, and were probably staring at their computer screens at that hour as well.
It's the beginning of the semester for many of our colleagues who work full time and have decided to head back to school for a part-time graduate program. And there are more of them than usual going back, or at least thinking about it, because as the economy slows, many people realize another degree and additional skills can be bonuses when pink-slip time comes around.
How do these new students balance full-time work, which can include off-site meetings, projects and long hours, with part-time school, which includes intense projects, class time, readings and more?
Well, says August Schomburg, director of graduate programs for the Kogod School of Business at American University, "they certainly need to have very good time-management skills."
That's what Premo, who is about to start her second semester toward a master's degree in strategic communications at Columbia University, has started to figure out. Now that her first semester is over, she has learned what may have to go, what schedule she should try for and how her boss will react to her extracurricular life.
"I absolutely had to change my schedule," she said. In the beginning she went to the gym every morning at 5:30 instead of in the evening. But she learned that if she went to the gym just a few times a week, that was enough. She and her friends are now reduced to e-mail, and that will have to do for the time being. And she and her husband "used to go out a lot to movies or dinner. Now we have to hold on to the weekends for movie time."
And then there is that pesky thing called work. Premo works as director of communications in the New York office of Annapolis-based Niermann Weeks, which sells home furnishings to designers, and she has tried to make the transition easy not only for herself but also for her boss. She tried to save up personal days, then looked ahead in the semester and thought about when she would have a large school project due.
That way, she could talk to her boss early in the semester to let him know that she might take a personal day later, near the project deadline. He felt better prepared, and she could work with that schedule in mind.
There were times when she had to miss school because she was on travel for work, and there have been times when she asked that her job be flexible because of school. As much as she could, she "was very careful that the things I was doing wouldn't impact work as far as the schedule goes."
Another thing she did to help ease the schedule was to choose something for her school's term project that she could take back to the company. She and her classmates were asked to develop a communications plan for an organization. She picked her own company, as the instructor encouraged students to do. And because she was doing that project she changed the way she worked during the day. "It helped me see things that I might have gotten into a rut with," she said. In addition, she said working on the project was like having her own consultants -- her professor and classmates, who provided feedback. "And since the employer is helping me pay for school," she said, "it's a good way to give back."
Her boss benefits from the projects that she puts into practice at work and from feedback given by others in the class. She has also recommended some of the books she read to her boss. "We've both been able to use things I've done in class."
Trudi Baldwin, the director of Columbia's program, checks with her students periodically to ask if they are able to balance everything. "I think many of them have given up a night life. . . . They now realize that even if they don't bring work home [from the office], they have to start class work," she said. Of course, she added, some of them do wait until the last minute and cram all weekend.
On the school's application, students are asked how many hours each week they work. "If someone works 60 hours, it's likely that's the low end of what they work. The program demands time," Baldwin said. And those who say they work 60 hours a week? Their applications are put toward the bottom of the pile.
Taking on a part-time degree program in addition to full-time work is a challenge, she said. "Some of them definitely struggle." If she notices some struggling more than others, she will suggest they pare down from two courses to one per semester. "I know that means they don't finish the degree in the time frame imagined, but it's important they have quality work and don't jeopardize their job."
If all goes well, Premo, 32, who is in her fourth year with Niermann Weeks, will finish the degree in a year and five months. Not that she's counting. "I love it. One of the things I like best is I'm learning so much from fellow students.
"Everyone brings something others don't."
Premo admits there are quite a few people who have had to listen to her as she cried about the tough schedule, but those friends also helped her realize it's okay to let go a little bit.
"I had pretty unrealistic expectations. I cried to a friend that if I didn't get all A's, it's not worth it. But my friend pointed out that B's are not all that bad." After that, she relaxed a little bit.
She ended the semester with two A minuses. A compromise that she is quite pleased with.
Amy Joyce will host a live video Web chat Tuesday from 11 a.m. to noon at washingtonpost.com.