Doing Your Masters Online? How to Adjust to Online Study if You Are Returning to College for an Advanced Degree

A master’s degree can really help you take your career to the next level, opening up more senior or specialist opportunities, and giving you some interesting new things to learn and work on. While in some fields like science and engineering, people tend to do their master’s immediately after finishing their bachelor’s degree, in other fields, like nursing and business, it is more usual for someone to undertake their master’s degree after a few years of experience in their chosen field.

This can make it quite difficult for a person to adjust to being a student again, especially if their life is very different now to when they first went to college – for instance, if they have started a family. However, with the prevalence of convenient online degrees now at the master’s level, and with studying from home being the most popular option at the moment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also likely that you will need to adjust to working in an entirely different way as you study for your online master’s degree than you would have done if you did your first degree on campus at a brick and mortar college.

Online master’s programs are available from highly regarded colleges for just about every professional field you can think of these days, including MBA programs, and RN to MSN online programs for nurses. Some of these programs are entirely done online, communicating with your tutors only via the internet, whereas others do require some short trips to the campus during the program where some hands-on training or the use of specialist equipment is needed. In either case, these programs are more convenient, more affordable, and allow you to study at times that suit you, whether that be full-time or part-time, and whether you have to fit it around things like childcare commitments or not.

Online degrees are also, at this point, just as well respected in industries and by employers, as degrees achieved the traditional way, and given it is likely that everyone who was attending college in the past couple of years will have done at least some of their degree online, online degrees are likely to soon become the norm in many fields.

There are certainly a lot of benefits to doing your advanced degree online then, but it can still be hard to adjust to this new way of getting an education if you have never studied this way before. Here we look at how you can set yourself up for success in your online master’s program:

Your Workstation

When you studied in the past, it probably wasn’t that essential that the area you worked in was set up as a proper ergonomic workstation. A simple desk and any old chair would generally do, as would studying on your laptop in bed or on the couch. However, when you are doing all of your studying at home, including listening to your lectures, having meetings with your tutors, and all of your research, writing, and revision, you are going to need to make sure you have a properly kitted out space to do it in.

Being physically comfortable when you are sitting and studying full time in one place is essential. A bad seating set-up can cause all kinds of postural defects, leading to pain in your neck, back, and shoulders. You also risk things like carpal tunnel syndrome, eyestrain, and other health problems if you don’t have the workspace set up in a way that supports your body properly. While it is certainly fine to take your laptop out and study at a coffee shop or outside from time to time for a change of scenery, the bulk of your studying should be done in a proper office chair, which is fully adjustable and has five wheels. This type of chair is a health and safety requirement in offices, and for good reason.

You may also need a stand for your laptop or monitor to position it at the right height, wrist wrests in front of your mouse and keyboard, and a footrest under your desk, depending on your height and whether you experience any wrist pain when using a computer for long periods.

As well as having the right furniture, your working space needs to be somewhere you can be free of distractions. If you have room in your home to dedicate a spare room to be your home office while you’re a student, then this is by far the best solution, but if not, you’ll need to talk to the people you live with about converting a space into your study area. When you do this, it is also going to be important to make sure they understand that when you are in that spot, you need to be left alone! This can be something that can be difficult to put across to young kids, but hopefully, they will soon get into the habit of understanding that when mom or dad is in their study corner, they aren’t available to talk or play.

Hardware and Technology

As well as furnishing the place where you’ll be studying to make it pleasant and comfortable to work in, you’ll also need to make sure you have a good internet connection (so you don’t drop out during live lectures or online meetings with your professors – or worse, during online exams), and all of the hardware you need to follow your course without problems. If you are thinking about upgrading your laptop or PC, now may be a good time, but you should also make sure you have a good phone, so you can make use of online studying when you are out and have some dead time. Time spent on planes or waiting for friends to show up at a restaurant is all time you can use to sneak in a bit of extra study on your phone.

A decent webcam will also be needed, and you may also want a good set of headphones if it isn’t always possible to listen to lectures through your speakers due to other people being at home. You’ll need to be able to hear very clearly and wear them for potentially hours at a time, so you might want to choose some comfortable, noise-canceling headphones rather than just using the in-ear type that came with your phone. Noise-canceling headphones will also make it possible to re-listen to lectures if you want to while taking a walk, going for a run, or at the gym.

You may also want to invest in a multifunction printer with scanning capabilities, in case you need to scan in notes you made on paper, or you want to print things out to read them on paper for a break from your screen. This isn’t likely to be essential, but if you have some money to spend on setting yourself up for the most comfortable experience moving into being an online student, it can be a good purchase. Another non-essential but beneficial hardware purchase could be a second monitor. This can allow you to use one screen to watch your lectures, and the other to reference relevant materials and take notes as you follow along. A tablet can also be useful for this – it really depends on how much space you have and how you prefer to work.

Now you have everything you need to work comfortably, it’s time to think about how you are going to structure your days as you study.

Setting a Schedule

When you attend college the conventional way, your schedule is set for you. With an online degree, you have a lot more flexibility, as other than appointments with the teaching staff, you can watch lectures, read materials, and do your coursework whenever you want. You will still have deadlines and exam dates, but other than that, it is down to you to manage your own time.

While online study is very convenient once you get used to it, it is one of the hardest things to adjust to as you begin life studying from home. Some people are too ambitious about what they believe they can get through in a day and end up stressed out. Others find themselves leaving things to the last minute and working all night far too often. Some don’t even really know where to begin when it comes to planning out what they are going to tackle from their course and when.

Your study schedule will need to fit around your life, so while some people who are studying full-time aim to get all of their studying done during normal working hours, Monday to Friday, other people do most of their more intensive studying in the evening after their kids are in bed or fit it around their partner’s working pattern. The first step in making a schedule that will work for you is to consider when you are going to be free to study without distractions during a normal week.

If you don’t have any family commitments to worry about, and it’s down to you when you want to study, think about what is going to be the most sustainable lifestyle for you. If you are not a morning person, then it may feel virtuous to say you’ll get up at 5am to get all your studying for the day done by the early afternoon, so the rest of the day is your own, but you either won’t stick to it long-term, or you’ll hate it. Be honest with yourself about when you are most productive and most motivated to sit down and study. You are looking for a routine you’ll be able to use successfully for quite a long time, so it is best to go easy on yourself.

Once you know when your allotted studying time is going to be, it’s time to start breaking down what you need to do into small chunks and setting goals for your study sessions. For the first few weeks, you are really just figuring out what works for you and adjusting to online study, so don’t push too hard during this time. Try things out, and stay conscious of whether you are feeling overwhelmed, or taking in the things you are learning comfortably. If something isn’t working, try something else, like taking more breaks, or switching between activities like reading and writing more frequently. If you are getting through everything you wanted to do in a day with hours to spare, you can make your goals more ambitious, or increase the amount of time you spend reviewing previous days’ study. Finding the right routine will be a process of trial and error, so make sure you are monitoring what you’ve done and how you feel during the first few weeks as you settle in.


Once you have a good routine for studying, it is also important to make sure you keep up with other areas of your life, like exercise and your social life. At first, the novelty and excitement of embarking on your master’s degree can be enough to keep you happy and motivated, but as you get deeper into your course, you’ll need your life to be fulfilling in other ways as well to keep your energy levels up and your motivation high. Make sure your routine allows for a good balance between studying and the other things you like to do, including planning for vacation periods where you won’t study at all (for instance, perhaps for a few days around major holidays like Christmas). This will help keep your study schedule sustainable and stop you from feeling burnt out.

Most people have no problems adjusting to online study after the first few weeks, but it definitely does help to have everything you need ready in advance, and to work on setting up a good study schedule you can stick to. Good luck with your online master’s degree!

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