Cultivating Balance in Online Courses

Kira Sims treating a strawberry field with herbicides

This article was written by Elizabeth Porter and published by Lily Fandel. 


You wouldn’t expect to learn how to juggle in NC State’s Ph.D. of Horticultural Science program, but for Kira Sims, that was the case.

“If someone asked me if I can juggle, I could say ‘yes!’ –– if juggling the work-life balance counts,” she says.

As she works toward earning her doctoral degree, Sims appreciates the flexibility of online courses and the ways they have allowed her to expand her skills. Sims is in the third year of her doctoral program, and she completes her studies both in-person and online.

Considering her interest in horticultural science, Sims decided to accept an assistantship with Associate Professor Katie Jennings in the Vegetable and Small Fruit Weed Science program. Sims lives off-campus to participate in this assistantship, and she takes online courses for more flexibility in her studies.

“I decided to come back to school full time to pursue my Ph.D. with the intent to teach. I chose NC State because I was able to start the program as a distance education student while still working full time for Cooperative Extension, and Dr. Jennings’ program would give me experience I did not previously have,” she says.

Sims speaks positively about Jennings and her experience in the program.

“[Jennings] guides her students in their projects, but also allows them to direct their own studies,” she says. “I have been able to explore classes outside of weed science that I knew would be beneficial to my future career, and Dr. Jennings was very supportive. She strives to give her students the best experience that will be most beneficial to them, and that has been my case.”

During her time in the program, Sims has preferred a balance between in-person and online learning. She enjoys the flexibility of online learning, but she also values the collaboration that in-person learning provides.

Adapting to an online learning environment can be a learning experience in itself, and Sims has developed skills to be successful in her online courses.

“Online learning was great when I was still working with Extension because I could participate in classes at my own pace, both synchronous and asynchronous ones.  Important strategies for online learning are time management and discipline –– being able to set that time aside to get the coursework done, then actually using that time you’ve set aside,” she says.

One of the most valuable skills she gained in her learning experience was the ability to balance school, work and personal responsibilities. In addition to her work as a student, Sims is a graduate student representative on the Department of Horticultural Science Academic Programs Advisory Committee and co-leader of the Producer Education workgroup within the Alabama Food Systems Collaborative.

“I started learning how to juggle work-life balance in my first job with Extension. I realized work will still be there tomorrow and I needed time for life. Starting my Ph.D. knowing how to do that allowed me to better balance life, school and research.”

Considering what she has learned, Sims hopes to share her advice about online learning with other students and potential online learners. 

“I would encourage someone interested in online learning to start with one class, especially if you are working full time like when I started. Get a feel for the discipline it takes,” she says.

When it comes to balancing work and school, Sims suggests scheduling your time wisely.

“Set boundaries to put school to the side. For me that is weekends. I work hard Monday through Friday so I can enjoy my weekends. For someone who hasn’t worked full time yet, learning to do this during graduate school will help you continue that into a career,” she says.

Sims has high hopes for online learning in the future, and she wants to inspire others to participate in online courses.

“I would encourage people to continue their education, even if it is not toward a degree. Learning is beneficial,” she says. “Online programs are excellent for people that don’t work or live close to campus, and I hope they can continue to offer a lot of the courses that moved online due to COVID-19 as distance education down the road.”

Are you interested in studying horticultural science online? Explore NC State’s Horticultural Science graduate programs, including the online Master of Horticultural Science.

This post was originally published in Online and Distance Education News.