Arizona State University graduation

Beyond the “Terminal Degree:”​ 4 Reasons to Go Back to Graduate School (& Why I Did)

The Class of 2021 overcame incredible obstacles to arrive at their recent graduation (congratulations!).  Already under considerable mental, financial and academic stresses before the global pandemic, these graduates demonstrated what could be characterized as the definition of resilience.  The Class of 2021 persevered, mostly online, in completely unanticipated ways under extraordinary circumstances, guided by little precedent. And now, many of the graduates of ’21 have entered one of the most unusual environments for interviewing, networking and job searches that any of us have ever experienced in the U.S.

I can personally attest to the resilience of Class of 2021 grads because I am one of them.  Just before the lock down in the U.S. in early 2020, I had applied to (and been admitted by) the online Master’s in Digital Audience Strategy program at Arizona State University.  I had decided to enroll in an online master’s degree program despite already holding two graduate degrees, including my Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

This is the part of my story where most folks will ask “why?”  Why get another degree?  How could that be worth it?  And no, the answer is not “because of the pandemic!”  Even being stuck at home during the global pandemic may not seem like enough of a rationale for some individuals to return to graduate school.  The significant time, energy and requirements to pursue an online graduate degree, especially after my “terminal” doctorate, were clear to me at the outset given my prior experiences.  Armed with this knowledge, I had decided to apply for this program before lock down began and commit myself to finishing another master’s in my “spare time.”

But why?  Well, the question was never really “why?” for me…it was “why not?”

I love to learn, and I like school. While I recognize that and am not necessarily representative of every learner’s experience, below are my personal reflections on the four key reasons that I went back to graduate school for a third time. In terms of the broader implications, I believe my thinking is representative of a growing trend, a convergence in society and in our jobs that is making additional education a priority for employees and companies.  Accelerated by the last two years of work-from-home, online education is evolving faster and better ways to accomplish this convergence and is a powerful tool for workplace transformation.  “Lifelong learning” is ubiquitous in the 21st century, and as such I wanted to continue my education even with a PhD — this rationale for attending ASU was not so unusual.  There were other compelling reasons for me, however, even while working full-time, to pursue an online master’s at this point in my life.  These points represent some of the trends I alluded to that will impact higher education, workforce development and how we learn in the coming decades.

  1. Employer-sponsored learning is growing in popularity, scope and approach. Some lucky people have tuition assistance from their employer (many don’t even realize). That is to say, their employer is willing to pay for them to go to school…either to finish a degree, or to start an entirely new one. These benefits are especially common for folks working at colleges and universities.  Unfortunately, many employees don’t make use of their tuition benefits from their employers and even some employers don’t know how to make good use of their programs.  Although it’s an opportunity for funded education, many employees ask “why bother?  Lots of effort, late nights…for what?” Plus, the dreaded additional personal income tax on any tuition paid for by your employer that goes over the Federal tax-free limit (a mere $5,250 per year).  Is it really worth the money and the time?  These are not just questions someone with an advanced degree would ask.  Adults with access to tuition assistance programs that would be able to pay for their bachelor’s degree could ask the same thing…  I am fortunate that I work for InStride, a company that creates programs like this for corporations and their employees and generously shares our technology and programs with our own team.  I am extremely grateful to have had my degree at Arizona State University paid for 100% through InStride’s Employee Education program.  Employees are eligible from day 1 to explore programs at several top-tier universities including Arizona State University.  Programs that support employer-funded education, through both universities and other credentials, are growing in popularity and adoption.  Leading organizations like InStride are developing learner experiences and tools that are a critical component of new, innovative models for partnerships between corporations and universities.
  2. The pandemic made online education more “normal” and available. I know, I promised “not the pandemic,” but …the pandemic served to accelerate an already existing trend in global higher education for online.  Yes, I was at home during the lock down with a bit more time on my hands than I had anticipated, outside of work and family, and that contributed to my completion of my degree.  Free time certainly made it easier to devote the work and energy to assignments, projects and to watch learning modules, as I had greater flexibility in my schedule.  However, online interaction gained special additional importance over the past year, particularly in settings where personal interaction is not possible and a substitute is required.  In 2021, like many of us, I regularly chat with relatives on Zoom that one year ago were convinced that such video communications were impossible for them to master.  I recall one older relative, who now uses Zoom regularly for their work, lamenting to me how Netflix and Zoom were beyond them in 2019 (she also now an avid fan of “Shtisel” on on Netflix). We have all ventured outside our respective comfort zones.  In his book “The Design of Everyday Things,” design guru Donald Norman explains how humans create “learned helplessness” as a confirmation bias.   In other words, humans perceive difficulty in one task (“I can’t use Zoom”) and make generalizations about a category of tasks (using Netflix, streaming, online communications, etc.).  The pandemic caused many individuals of all ages to re-evaluate their assumptions about their own ability to use technology to communicate with others, which includes learning online.
  3. Workforce upskilling means everyone needs more education right now. Thought leaders in workforce development, government agencies and think tanks continue to sound the alarm regarding a lack of skilled professionals in critical fields, such as cyber security.  However, recent college graduates, replete with the freshest skills, seem to still have trouble finding jobs.  How can both be true?  There was a time that simply holding a bachelor’s degree was considered pretty darn fancy.  More recently, there was a time when if you just earned a PhD you may be considered the top expert in your field because of your specialty.  In some cases, the sum total of disciplinary knowledge for a topic was knowable by a single individual, and contained within a certain set of printed books, restricted to a certain geography.  Today, that is seldom the case and the growing complexity of our world demands upskilling at all levels.  Global imperatives are challenging universities to keep up; when I earned my Master’s in public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2003, Twitter and LinkedIn did not exist.  Earning a Master’s in digital audience strategy from in 2021 means getting a background in social media marketing technology that wasn’t even available when I first went to graduate school.  The skills economy is accelerating beyond the confines of traditional degree programs — some boldly innovative, adult-focused universities have begun to award academic credit for industry certifications.
  4. The academic concept of a “terminal” degree is outdated. Let me pause here and first say I greatly respect universities and the U.S. higher education system in particular. I have devoted most of my professional career to working with universities and their students, and have seen the way a college education transforms people’s lives. Universities are resilient entities that can exist for hundreds of years without major changes from external factors.  In this respect, they are like diamonds, or non-biodegradable packaging waste, depending on your point of view. The so-called “alternative academic” (or alt-ac) job market is booming as industries hire more “knowledge workers” and researchers away from the Ivory tower…simultaneously, seemly every few weeks, we hear about challenges to the traditional academy (bad faculty job market, university governance, universities’ financial failure, etc.).  The popularity and purpose of tenure in the professoriate is being called into question by leaders, and universities are pivoting resources towards in-demand fields that arm students with the skills to become employed.  If we all expect to be life-long learners…what is a “terminal degree,” exactly?  Education is a continuum.  Yes, there is something to be said for natural curiosity, tech savvy, and a desire to improve one’s knowledge and usefulness. Please understand that I do not mean to belittle anyone who has achieved the significant life accomplishment of a terminal degree (or multiple terminal degrees) or conducted research. This is still a very significant accomplishment worthy of great recognition and respect.  Rather, my point is that the concept of a “terminus” of learning is antiquated in 2021 and that the idea of a “terminal” educational experience may be, too.  A doctorate, a master’s, an undergraduate degree…all can be the beginning or the ending of a journey, depending on the learner.  Spending so much attention on this imaginary “terminus” causes universities to become distracted away from a much more important part of their public service mission: the 36+ million Americans with some college but no degree to show for it.  In my opinion, focusing on the beginning of academic journey, rather than privileging what happens at the end, needs to become the collective imperative of academe, as much as the creation of new knowledge is today.

Over the course of my second Master’s I learned that ASU has taken an innovative approach to online education and is moving along similar lines to the points above.  My program at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication was superb, and I found I really connected with some of my professors and fellow students, despite the online format.  Since finishing my Master’s in Digital Audience Strategy, I have applied my new skills in analytics, marketing and technology to both my job and my personal life.

While I have considered pursuing additional education in the future, for now I am content to enjoy the benefits of this recent experience.  Hanging another framed degree on the wall feels great, for sure, but a degree should never be considered an ending.  Lifelong learning means we will all go “back to school,” sooner or later — whether that’s a degree, a certificate, or learning through new experiences.