Comment & Analysis
Nov 15, 2019

The Perks – and Many Perils – of Working as a Student

Balancing jobs that often verge on full-time with college courses is a struggle for an increasing number of students. It's time we talked about it, writes Ella Connolly.

Ella Connolly Assistant News Editor
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

Sitting in a 9am tutorial, fighting to keep my eyes open, having worked an eight-hour shift on top of my full college schedule the day before, is a common occurrence for me – and many other college students.

I attend college full-time (it may be an arts degree, but it still counts) and work about 30 hours, across roughly four days a week, as a waitress in a seafood restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, I really like my job. The staff is great and I make good money for relatively stress-free labour.

However, the 15-hour days – which begin with my lectures at 9am, continue until 5pm, at which point I clock straight into work until midnight – can really take their toll. Alas, all the Tesco Blue Sparks in the world can’t succeed in making you feel less drained and exhausted.


Sometimes it can be really hard to balance work and college effectively, let alone even think about other things like doing my readings, assignments, studying, sleeping properly, eating healthily, exercising regularly and socialising with friends and family. If I can make it to my compulsory tutorials, even if I have nothing to say in them, I’m normally happy.

Everyone knows what it’s like to have not done the reading or work for a tutorial, unless you’re a dweeb. It can be humiliating and embarrassing to be called out and it can leave you feeling stupid and inadequate, wishing you could fill the awkward, lengthy silences that inevitably happen frequently in at least one of your tutorials. The words and questions being posed all sound vaguely familiar, but your engagement with the material ends there.

Instead of reading The Taming of the Shrew, I’m explaining the difference between a Galway and a Sligo oyster to a group of irritatingly enthusiastic Americans

Instead of reading Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, I’m explaining the difference in texture between a Galway and a Sligo oyster to a group of irritatingly enthusiastic Americans, or translating the entire menu into Japanese for an elderly couple who eventually realise they don’t actually like seafood.

Last year, I had the unbelievable privilege, which I fully took for granted, of not working throughout the college year, apart from my six weeks of temporary Christmas work in Boots (a period of time that I can only describe as hell on Earth).

I wasn’t spending that much money, as my lunch consisted of left-overs – or if I was feeling fancy, a Tesco meal deal – and I still snuck naggins into pubs. My friends call me cheap: I prefer economically strategic.

Having limited money and no job, though sad, can be slightly freeing.

“Come to this €70 rave in Meath.”

“Are you joking? I’m UNEMPLOYED.”

Plus, you have time to paint your nails and read for pleasure. The ridiculously unattainable expectations of partying constantly when you’re in college – while also prospering academically, sleeping well, being healthy and spending quality time with your family and friends – become slightly less impossible and ludicrous without the added pressure of a job.

Having to politely listen to an old man berate you about seafood chowder prices after you’ve just gotten a low third on an essay isn’t always easy

However, I now must endure the agony of having no free time, while also continuing to live frugally despite my oodles of cash. I’m working to save money to go on Erasmus next year.

So I currently suffer through the toils of minimum wage labour but reap none of the desired rewards. It all goes straight to my savings account, which I do my best to keep under lock and key. Thus far, I’ve only taken more than my fixed weekly allowance when I absolutely had to purchase tickets to see The 1975, but I think everyone would agree that that counts as a necessity. I survive on a daily basis on my tips, which are generally pretty good.

Keeping the two worlds of college and work separate also poses its own difficult challenge. Sitting in lectures, paranoid that my hair and clothing smell like fish, and therefore not really concentrating on Marx’s economic theory as I’m texting my friends asking if anyone has perfume with them, isn’t exactly the broadening of my horizons I’d envisioned for myself. Similarly, having to politely stand and listen to an old man berate you about seafood chowder prices (which he simply must know that I, a waitress, have absolutely no control over), after you’ve just gotten a low third on an essay you worked really hard on, isn’t always easy.

Working and going to college also kills your motivation. On my rare days off from both, I don’t want to go to the gym or read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I want to sleep until 2pm and then binge-watch some Netflix trash, have a bath, bake some cookies and go back to bed. Therefore I often limit my knowledge of English literature to 10-minute YouTube videos and Shmoop summaries, which also make you feel worse about yourself.

However, despite all of my grievances about entering the world of work while still in college, some aspects are pretty great. I belong to the superior club of those who work and look down on (read: are subconsciously extremely jealous of) those who don’t need to.

“Want to take up dance on Wednesdays and Fridays?”

“I can’t, SOME of us have to work for a living.”

I am semi-financially independent from my parents, which is a nice experience for both of us. I can afford to do some things if I really want to. I’ve made great friends in work with people I normally wouldn’t meet in my usual daily life. I share a kindred experience with all those who’ve worked in customer service and dealt with the absolute horror show which is the general public. My character has been sufficiently built. I can now afford sushi. The list of perks goes on.

Work, unless you’re ridiculously lucky, is an inevitable part of life, but one not always associated with the college experience. It is, however, the reality for many college students.

Balancing work and college in an efficient and manageable way is a large part of my life, and something I often struggle with. However, I do feel a heightened sense of achievement and pride when I manage to read a book or submit a good essay, in the knowledge that I also work.

And every time I get up at 7:30am and go to that awful 9am tutorial, while work looms in the distance, I do feel like I’ve got my shit together.

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