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  • Ali Boston

Three lessons I learned from going "back to school" in my thirties

Going back to university after years in the professional world can feel daunting, but it can also help you understand yourself and gain clarity about your goals and needs, writes Ali Boston.

A woman with her back to camera wears a backpack and checks her phone in a busy city center.

At thirty-one, I quit my job, moved from Oslo to Munich, and became a full-time student again to study for a Master’s. It was a move that had seemed relatively simple – I’d always known I wanted to do a Master’s at some point and had been saving up the funds for years. But I hadn’t appreciated how hard it would be to go back to studying full time after being a working, tax-paying citizen for almost ten years. To make the most of my time as a student, I had to do some serious self-reflection, swallow a lot of pride, and get comfortable with being a beginner again.

There’s, of course, a big caveat here: I was lucky enough to have a job where I could save money each month. I didn’t have a house, I didn’t have kids – there were few barriers to me studying full time. Awareness of this was actually one of the things that encouraged me to finally take the plunge and apply for a Master’s when I did – there was a now-or-never feeling. Obviously not everyone is in the position to study full-time for two years. But thankfully, there are more and more ways to study alongside a day job, in whatever way or time commitment works. No matter your situation, I hope that some of the things I learned from my “full-immersion” studying experience can help and inspire you.

A career is a journey, not a destination

“What do you do?”

“Oh…I’m a…student…”

It was harder than I expected to tell people I was a student without feeling the need to follow up and explain that actually I’d already been working for almost ten years, that I had a pretty good job before, that I wasn’t a failure – I was just doing something different.

People I met often found it hard to understand why I needed to study if I had already established myself in a good job. It was hard not to listen to these questioning voices and wonder myself whether I’d got it all wrong and made a big mistake in taking a career break to study again. I didn’t go back to university because I wanted a complete career-change or to start over again. I wanted to go deeper into topics I’d come across at work and enjoyed. I didn’t know where the study would lead me and what I’d end up doing at the end of it. I had worked hard for years to give myself the luxury of exploration. It was difficult to remember that. There was definitely a temptation to jump on the first concrete and tangible job I could do next – after all, there was a deadline on how long my savings would last. But deep-down, I knew that the age-old interview question – where do you see yourself in five years? – was flawed, implying that the only way to build a career is upwards.

I’ll admit, it hasn’t been easy to ignore the pressure to have a fixed destination in mind when it comes to my career. But I’ve been heartened to see that there are lots of influential people out there talking about alternative approaches to career paths now and providing helpful resources. The team at the Amazing If with their "squiggly careers” resources, as well as Emma Gannon’s The Multi-Hyphen Method are two examples that have helped me immensely.

Three people study together at a park bench.

Grades are the enemy of learning

Few things beat the buzz of getting a good grade when you’re a student. But I soon realized that good grades are as addictive as any drug. As soon as I got a set of good grades for my first papers, I began competing with myself, trying to make sure I maintained my perfect average. It was a familiar feeling; after all, I went to school in the UK, where children are graded in nationwide exams from as young as seven.

Grades might be helpful for teachers, but they can be constraining for the learner. Trapped by my perfect average, I couldn’t afford to take risks. I chose the topics I knew were safe and would get me good grades. I gave up the subjects that I knew I would struggle to do well in, like statistics. A focus on results in a learning environment creates the idea that a person is either good at something or they’re not. This devalues potential, growth, and hard work. The media’s obsession with “overnight” success stories only reinforces this idea further.

I still find it hard not to focus on results. But I have been trying to take a different approach to the learning I continue to do now that I’m no longer studying full time. Something that has helped a lot is to set learning goals that aren’t connected to a formal grade. For example, I’m learning German and my ultimate goal is to speak eloquently. It’s a long term goal and in order to reach it, I need to spend a lot of time speaking – and that means often speaking badly – in order to practice and become more proficient. If I was worried about what kind of grade I was going to get every time I opened my mouth to speak German, I wouldn’t ever say a thing and I’d never reach my goal.

It's hard to live by this learning in a work context. Time can be short and we’re often focused on results. But being able to try something, fail at it and, importantly, learn from that mistake is essential for innovation in organizations.

A woman with her back to the camera browses a crowded bookshop.

Not everyone is made for the 9-5

At my desk, my laptop open, a cup of tea next to me, the sun just up and silence – that’s me in my zone. Having control of where and when I studied, I realised how much more effective I was working first thing in the morning. In the afternoons, my energy waned and I used that time for reading, creative thinking, or collaborative work with other students. Research into circadian rhythms has uncovered how important understanding our bodies’ natural cycle of energy is for knowing how to make the most out of our brain power – something that a typical working day at the office isn’t always optimized for.

I also realized how oppressive open-plan office spaces can be. Without the feeling of someone looking over my shoulder, I felt free to be creative and write. The quality of my work increased dramatically.

Both luck and life needs meant I was able to go freelance after graduating with my Master’s, and so I’ve (mostly) been able to keep a level of control over where and when I work. But the narrative is changing within workplaces too. One of the upshots of the pandemic is that flexibility has become almost a cultural norm and certainly an employee expectation at varied types of workplaces.

A laptop and coffee at a table at sunrise.

If you’ve never thought about it, I highly recommend you set aside some time to reflect on your energy levels at different parts of the day. When do you prefer to do focused work? When do you like to have meetings and work with others? What small changes can you make to your working week to create space for your changes in energy?

Aside from these three lessons, studying again reminded me how rewarding and fulfilling learning can be – especially as an adult when you get to choose what you learn and how you learn it. There are so many different ways to continue learning now outside of formal education – whether through apps or online courses, YouTube or on the job.

How about you? Have you taken on any major learning commitments as an adult and if so, what have your experiences been?


Ali Boston writes about the worlds of work and technology (fictional and non-fictional). She began her career in communications, before going back to university to study for a Master’s in Politics and Technology. Since then, she’s been working on projects that help realize an inclusive and sustainable future of work. She lives in the Italian mountains with her fiancé, and loves cross-country skiing and stand-up paddling (neither of which she is proficient in).

Photo credit: Unsplash and Shutterstock


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