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So, You’re Going Back to School: Four Tips to be a Successful Adult Student

If there’s one thing I know – it’s how to be a student. 

On top of my 17 years of experience in K-12 education, I decided that becoming a professional educator was not going to be enough. Over the past 20 years, as I have served as a teacher, instructional coach, administrator, and professor, I also went back to school (three times) building my knowledge of the profession and making myself more marketable for future opportunities.

Adam Dovico
Adam Dovico

When I went back for my first graduate degree in 2005 (a Master’s in Elementary Education), I was in my second year of teaching and only 23 years old with no family or kids. Classes were at a satellite campus about 45 minutes from where I lived, so four of us drove there together twice a week for two years to complete the program. Somewhat fresh out of college, my writing and critical thinking skills were still sharp, which certainly helped in completing the workload.

I began my second program (a Master’s in School Administration) in 2015 while I was a clinical professor at Wake Forest University. Unlike the first time, I was now married and had two kids, ages four and one when I started. My wife was also in pediatric residency working crazy hours, so there was added pressure to make sure my ducks were in a row each week. We were fortunate to have a reliable babysitter who saved us many days when we both had obligations for work and school.

My most recent degree pursuit (a Doctorate in Educational Leadership) began in 2020 while I was working as an instructional coach. This program was designed to be in-person, but the bulk of my courses ended up being online thanks to the pandemic. My kids were older, and my wife had a regular schedule as a pediatrician, so some of those earlier challenges had passed. However, the pandemic threw wrenches into many of the traditional practices of going to school that I knew, so this program certainly felt much different than my first two.

Today, I serve as the Academic Director for the Master of Educational Leadership and Curriculum & Instruction programs at Wake Forest University School of Professional Studies. In that role, I regularly meet with prospective and enrolled students who are in a similar boat to what I spent a decade doing in my adult life – going back to school.

When meeting with students, I frequently hear concerns about being successful in the program because they have a job, family, personal commitments, and so on. I typically share my story at that point and let them know that I understand how hard it is to do it all. 

But then I also add that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, which is obviously not the case. It takes commitment, focus, and intentionality to go back to school. 

I also share my top four tips that I have gleaned over the years in my personal journey and in seeing how others have found success.

1. Determine Your Work/Life/School Balance 

By going back to school, you are adding onto your plate. There’s no other way to look at it. For some, this will be easy. For others, it is trying to find space in a crowded room. I have experienced both ends of the spectrum, but I always strived for that balance between my work, my personal life, and my studies. 

Of course, there are times where an unintentional imbalance occurs, but I have become more adept at what it means to balance my life and how to fix it when it goes awry. I have learned that there are times where I have to say no to things that I would not have previously: the outing with my friends, the extra responsibilities at work, or the additional article that I was supposed to read for class. 

When I realize that there is an imbalance in my life, I aim to recalibrate. I feel like balance is important because if you’re overly consumed with one thing, there are other things being ignored.

2. Stay Organized 

Organization is crucial in the pursuit of not getting overwhelmed by the many things happening in your life. While organization has different definitions to different people, I see it as the effort to make sure that you know what has to be done and coming up with a plan to get it done. 

For example, during the busiest time of my degree programs, the Master’s in School Administration, my wife and I sat down each weekend and planned out each day of the week to make sure we knew who was dropping off and picking up the kids at daycare, when we needed our babysitter, and what the meals would be each night – the question “what’s for dinner” came up a lot. 

I also made my own plan for getting reading and assignments done by finding spaces in the week where I had openings. By being intentional about when I was going to complete assignments, I was building accountability into my life. 

My wife and I also planned out family time, where neither of us would touch work and we would do things together. For some, this might feel too structured, and I get that, but when you feel like your time is limited and you’re squeezing another thing in, this approach can make it much more manageable. Every one of us has 24 hours in the day, so the only thing we can control is how we use it.

3. Lean Into Peer Support

There is something about going through something major together that brings people closer.  I truly believe that part of the journey in earning your degree has to do with the people around you. In each of my degrees, I found that the group of people I was with were a tremendous help in keeping me motivated, informed, and challenged. 

Looking back now, I see how important it was to have people around me each week who I could brainstorm with on assignments or simply talk to when I had issues. I aimed to be that person for my classmates as well. 

When you begin a program, take time to get to know your classmates. Whether you are in-person or virtual, there are ways to support each other personally, academically, and socially. 

And who knows, in the process you may end up finding a great network of friends. 

4. Monitor Your Input and Output

There is a very personal element that goes into the decision to return to school. Your choice has intention, and that purpose is what drives you towards your success. Personally, I returned to school each time to advance my career, and I knew that completing these programs would instill the knowledge and credibility that was needed to do that. 

Whatever your reason is, I encourage folks to put into it what you want to get out of it. As adult learners, professors are not going to micromanage your inputs, so your outputs are largely dependent on what you want to put in. 

I’ve witnessed people slide by with minimal efforts, and to no surprise, their outputs are lackluster and unimpressive. There are also those who go into the experience thinking they already know everything, so their inputs are closed-minded and short-sighted. Their outputs are often no better than where they started. If you hope to improve yourself by going back to school, be sure to express the habits, attitude, and work ethic that will produce what you hope to be.

As an adult, the decision to return to school is quite empowering. Most of the time, no one is forcing you to do this. You are making a conscious decision to do something that is difficult and time consuming. Self-doubt can creep in. 

I know it did for me, especially as I got older: Can I still write and study like I used to? Will I have the time to do this? Do I really even want to do this again? 

Each time, though, I said if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it well. I aimed to live by the four principles I have shared. While there were times I felt like quitting, I found myself pushing through thanks to my family, classmates, and personal drive to get myself to the next level. I look back now and am grateful I stuck with it, because I positioned myself to return to my alma mater, Wake Forest, to lead a new program that will prepare the next generation of leaders in education.    

If you are looking to advance your career as an educator and be a part of the Wake Forest community, please visit the School of Professional Studies and check out which program might be best for you. 

Adam Dovico is an Academic Director and Associate Professor of the Practice at Wake Forest SPS; he is an educator, leader, presenter, and author who specializes in school leadership, school culture, dynamic instruction, and relationships. To learn more about Adam and his work, visit his website or follow him on LinkedIn and Instagram.