Balancing a Master's with a full-time job: Ask Pansy Lee!

This September, join us for The Side Hustle: A Panel & Meetup! Stay tuned to grab tickets this week! In the meantime, here's a sneak preview interview with Pansy Lee, Director of Product at RL Solutions. We chat about managing work on her Master's degree with a full-time job, and ruthlessly prioritizing to get stuff done.  

Describe your full-time job.

I’m head of the product team at RL Solutions. Our role is to really make sure that we’re meeting the needs of our customers today, but also anticipating what their future needs are and making sure that we’re innovating to meet those needs. Mostly my job kind of consists of two major things, one is to make my team has [everything they need]. You spend all this time hiring all the right people, all these really smart people, and I feel like part of my job is to provide a little bit of guidance on what’s the direction we’re all going in and making sure that they have the tools and the methods and processes to make sure they do amazing work. The second part is working with the other departments in the company to make sure that we’re breaking down silos.

Describe your side project at OCAD. What is your thesis?

I’m doing my Master's of Design, and the program is called Strategic Foresight and Innovation. It’s a program [based] around design thinking and really being human-centered, so it’s a different approach to problem solving. My thesis is looking at women in tech but I’m kind of looking at it from a different perspective. I’m trying to look at it from a men’s point of view because right now in the industry, and well, the world really, there’s just so much going on around women empowerment and gender equality. You’ve got organizations like Young Women in Business, and Ladies Learning Code... There’s all these things happening around supporting women, so I was kind of interested in looking at it from the men’s point of view because I really believe that it takes both groups to agree that gender equality is important. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. It’s not enough to be like women say it’s important and men thinking that it’s not. So I’m more interested in what kind of barriers they’re facing right now in trying to support women in business. My hypothesis is that if we can reduce those barriers or those challenges that they have then maybe more of them will get involved.

How do you find time to work on your Masters with a full-time job?

When I was doing my classes my company was very supportive. They supported me by giving me Fridays off to go do my Masters, but now that the classes are over and in the thesis portion of my Masters, I now have to find time in my personal time to work on my thesis. So I have a support group, like me and a couple of other classmates who are all trying to finish their theses together. We meet Mondays and Thursdays after work to work on our projects.

[RL Solutions] has been so great about my Master's and just passion projects in general.  They’re always giving me that freedom to carve out time for the things that I really care about.

What do you love most about each of those things and what do you find is the biggest challenge in trying to balance the two?

These are two things that I think are really important. Trying to make healthcare safer is so important but making a difference in the tech industry and gender equality is also so important. Not to say that I’m going to solve all of the world’s problems, but even just chipping away at those major problems are things that give me purpose in life. That’s why I love doing them so much.

The biggest challenge is when you love two things so much, how do you decide which one is more important. You know you have to make the decision which is more pressing and which do I need to spend more time on. It’s always that negotiation of which one you’re going to work on. There’s just not enough hours in the day. I find everything fascinating and I want to learn everything and I want to do everything, so sometimes the biggest challenge is just having to say no to things that are outside of what you really want to do. I’m really prioritizing finishing my Master's now so I can really stop saying no to all these other things I also want to do.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone who also works full-time and wants to pursue a passion project?

That’s a hard question. For me, I just end up taking on too much. There was a talk that I went to and an article that I read that have both kind of stuck with me. They were both around this idea of ruthlessly prioritizing. There are a million things that you can do but sometimes you have to ruthlessly prioritize which one is more important and which one do you really feel passionate about and go after it. The article was about saying no to one opportunity every week or something like that, because there will always be opportunity and you will want to say yes to everything but when the quantity of the things you get involved with goes up, you know you only have so many hours, so the quality is going to start to go down. If it’s a passion project for you, you’re going to carve out the time for it but the only way to carve out the time for it is if you say no to certain things and that’s really hard.

Looking back to when you first entered the workplace, what would be one piece of advice you would give to that person?

For me, work ethic is the number one thing I look for in people. I think having a good work ethic is one of the most important things. The two things that I think are really important for me and that have worked out really well in my career is good work ethic and wanting to learn everything. Having that insatiable desire to learn.