OPINION: Why Balancing Study and Work Experience Matters

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Full-time study is often regarded as the traditional route for higher education students, but is it really the best path toward a successful career?

On-the-job education refers to the process of acquiring skills and knowledge while performing the tasks and responsibilities of one’s job, instead of in a traditional academic setting. To give an example of the advantages this kind of education can provide, let’s examine the paths of two fictional individuals, John and Matt. 

John was unsure about his career aspirations. Thus, he followed the conventional route of enrolling in college classes, devoting all his time to studying for several years. After graduation, John secured a job in his field of study, but he soon realized that it wasn’t his calling. Consequently, all his time and effort put into learning seemed to go to waste. To make matters worse, he was now burdened with a large amount of student loan debt, leaving him with no choice but to seek employment.  

Matt‌ took a different approach. Although he was also uncertain about his future, he took a risk by participating in an internship that sparked his interest. Through hands-on training and experience, Matt advanced in the company, eventually finding a career he truly loved. He continued to learn and improve through part-time study while gaining practical experience on the job. This allowed Matt to establish a strong foundation for a successful and fulfilling career at an early stage, while John was still solely focused on academics. 

From this illustration, we can see several advantages of combining work experience with education during one’s college years rather than solely relying on formal education.

Here are a few reasons why it may be beneficial to pursue mentorships, internships or jobs willing to hire college-aged students while also receiving an education, rather than just pursuing a degree and looking for a job later on in life:

  1. It can help you figure out your interests.

Many students come to the realization after graduation that the field they studied for years may not be what they truly enjoy working in. The reason for this is that the learning process differs vastly from practical application in the workforce. To ensure that you find your true passion and what you excel in, it is advisable to try out different internships or job opportunities. This way, you can know for sure what you want to study. 

  1. It can help you avoid burdensome student loan debt. 

Studying full-time can be costly, especially at a prestigious institution. On average, college tuition in the U.S. costs $35,551 per year for each student. Unfortunately, federal student loan debt has skyrocketed in recent years, doubling from $18,233 in 2007 to $37,575 by the end of 2022. Balancing work and studies can not only help you lay the foundation for a future career, but it can also aid in paying off most of your educational costs, sparing you from overwhelming debt in the future.

  1. It can help you gain the experience you will inevitably need. 

It is a common misconception that after studying for many years, you will have mastered everything there is to know about your desired profession, allowing you to immediately secure a job with no prior hands-on experience just because you have a degree. This notion, unfortunately, is a fantasy. All jobs train their new employees, regardless of the number of years they studied prior to getting the job. All jobs are unique and have their own quirks and demands that have to be learned. Already having training experience in the industry can help you get an edge over other applicants and demonstrate your strong familiarity with the role, so you won’t seem like a newbie. 

Overall, there is nothing wrong with pursuing an education or a degree, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of gaining valuable work experience. For many college students looking to establish a solid foundation for their future careers, finding job opportunities in their area of interest is key. Employers highly value individuals who bring both theoretical knowledge and practical experience to the table. It’s possible to achieve both. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. So, don’t limit yourself to either education or work experience.