Grad school for working professionals

Should You Go To Grad School?

5 Questions for Working Professionals

Unemployment is at a record low in the United States, and companies are hiring nationwide.  As employers clamor to fill positions at all levels, some requiring highly specialized skills, many professionals looking to stand out are wondering if “now is the time to up-skill.”  While focusing on short-form credentials and skills-building certifications is a great way to broaden technical ability or switch fields, graduate school remains a popular option for working learners.  Not only can a graduate degree help a professional “stand out” in their workplace or on the job market, many grad degrees are an entry point to advanced careers in various fields.

Especially during uncertain economic times throughout the last 50 years, graduate schools have seen an increase in applications from qualified candidates looking to expand their knowledge and marketability.  As more and more in the workforce decide to go back to school, learners are balancing work (and life) with their academic pursuits.  Driven by dreams of a higher salary or a fancier title, some of these well-meaning professionals make terrible sacrifices along the road to a graduate degree — sacrifices that need to bring a return on their investment of blood, sweat and (in some cases, real) tears.  Sadly, some of these sacrifices can even be avoided!

Here are 5 questions working professionals should ask before going back to graduate school in order to make well-informed choices about their futures.  This is not an all-inclusive list, nor is the list exclusively relevant to working professionals — it is reflective of some general best practices for any individual to take from what they will, drawn from my experience as a graduate admissions director.

1. How long does grad school take?

A graduate degree can take anywhere from a year to a decade, depending on the investment by the learner. Time can mean a lot of things when it comes to grad school and there are many ways to elongate or truncate the length of time it takes to do most degrees (yes, even terminal degrees like a PhD or an MFA). Asking “how long does the average student take?” is not the best question, as it does a disservice to you and to other adult learners (the average time it takes a working adult learner to complete a graduate degree is murky, at best).

Length of program: Why are some graduate degrees 30 academic credits and others in excess of 90?  What is a “student credit hour,” anyway?  A question for another article…but, suffice to say, it’s complicated.  There is very little standard regularity among U.S. universities in the number of credit hours a university can prescribe for a master’s or doctorate — compare total credit hours to get a sense of how long (and how much) a degree could take to complete.  Consider that most programs charge by the credit hour, too…

Availability and accessibility of required classes: Do you need to travel to a campus for classes?  Are they offered on times and days that you can be there?  Will you need to meet with classmates outside of class hours, virtually or in-person?  There are a lot of aspects to this which can add time to your commitment (or subtract, in the case of online learning).  Make sure required classes are regularly available.  How often do you register for new classes?  This is where semesters/quarters can make a huge difference in your timing.

2. How much does grad school cost?

The cost of a master’s degree in the U.S. starts at a few thousand dollars and goes well beyond $100K for some elite MBA’s. While many U.S. citizens have access to public loans for grad school, and anyone may apply for private student loans, the costs of graduate school are a significant investment.  Ensuring that you can afford the costs, and receive a return on your investment, requires understanding comparative tuition pricing, durability and ways to lower your bills.

Sponsorship: Does your company offer any kind of tuition assistance or reimbursement?  Leading companies, including universities, offer employees who meet certain eligibility requirements the opportunity to receive up to a certain amount in employer-funded tuition for graduate school.  Because the U.S. government limits the amount of tax-free employer sponsored tuition you can receive to $5,250 per year, that is where many employers will stop.  That being said, every contribution to your education from sponsors, like employers and community organizations, can lower the overall cost to you of going to grad school.

The real costs of a graduate degree: The “hidden” costs in grad school can go from the mundane to the major.  Some textbooks can be expensive, and may come with technology, software and lab fees.  Forward-thinking graduate schools are looking for ways to reduce the burden of “additional learning costs,” particularly for working adults, but much work remains in this area (more progress has been made for undergraduate degree completion programs).  Ultimately, however, the real cost of a grad degree comes from measuring length… remember “credit hours?”  Universities charge different rates per credit hour based on their own assessment of their costs and value, meaning a 30 credit degree at university A will not cost the same at university B.  Compare pricing across grad degrees to save on costs.

Scholarships: Yes, graduate schools give out scholarships to their applicants, even elite Ivy league programs give out scholarships to some of their admitted students.  Carefully selecting the right programs that may include scholarship aid (and negotiating for that aid) can drastically reduce the costs for a learner.  You never know unless you ask, so never be afraid to ask a representative if graduate programs offer merit-based scholarship aid, fellowships, or other financial aid (by application or other process).

3. Can I get into grad school?

Most applicants underestimate their chances of admission to a selective graduate program, but may also underestimate the effort it takes to apply.  The key to understanding selective graduate admissions is to understand the total applicant pool; while many individual applicants may be outstanding, when viewed as a candidate pool only a select few will stand out as truly the right “fit.”  Sometimes “getting in” is the hardest part of graduate school, because everyone who is applying is qualified.

Getting in is a process: You may need to contact your undergraduate institution and pay to have an “official transcript” mailed (!!!) with your application.  Are you ready to explain that “F” in calculus from 2 decades ago?  You may also need to take a standardized test that seems unrelated or frivolous.  You may need to submit to an evaluation or interview…take it ALL seriously and work to ensure that you follow the directions carefully.  The number one reason that aspiring students don’t get into graduate school is that they never complete their application with all the required materials by the required published deadlines.

Be realistic: Just because it’s graduate school doesn’t mean you get to go wherever you want.  If only 1% of the applicants to a program are admitted because that program offers full funding to their incoming class, consider applying to other schools in addition to that highly-competitive institution.  Just like applying to college, it’s a good idea to come up with a list of three or four programs/institutions to apply to, of varying selectivity — that way, if you are are successful with multiple institutions, at least you may have comparative financial aid offers you can bargain with (yes, you can tell schools what you received from their competitors).

Consider getting help: There are lots of admissions consultants out there to help you navigate the application process and put together a compelling narrative for your candidacy.  A well-polished application can be important, but equally important is having an expert you can call when you are in a panic about admissions decisions and need moral support.  Take a look at some of the large and small organizations out there, including individual practitioners, who have often built their career over years through relationships in higher education.  The Academic Excellence Group’s team of coaches are one option to help guide you on your way.

4. Can I finish my grad degree?

Degree completion is a concern for students and universities alike. While it’s true that “getting in” can be the hardest part for some graduate programs, successfully completing graduate school can be equally challenging for others.  While grades do matter, some graduate programs require more than assignments to escape with a degree in-hand (and with your mind intact).

Read the directions: Do you know how long it will take you to do the requirements of your program?  Some graduate programs require a thesis or dissertation to be researched, written and presented formally to a panel of faculty — this process alone can take years of additional work on the part of a student. Consider carefully the full requirements of a graduate program beyond the coursework that is familiar from an undergraduate degree.  Do you need to complete a thesis, or are there alternative programs that would present a different route?  Is there a maximum amount of time you have to complete your degree?

Look to your left, look to your right: Some academics are notoriously boastful, even today, of low graduation rates and attrition of learners through the difficulty of the subject matter.  The truth is, unfortunately, that many learners never complete the degrees they start for a host of genuine, unavoidable problems.  All programs have student retention problems, and exploring some of the common reasons for students’ inability to graduate can help learners make an informed choice about a program of study.  Consider making friends with a few current and former students to get the “real deal.”

At what cost? Some folks are hell-bent on finishing a graduate program from a specific place, or in a specific discipline, or in a certain amount of time.  For example… “an MBA from an Ivy league school,” or “a doctorate from an elite state university,” or to be the “fastest student ever to finish their MFA.”  While these are bold aspirations, the mental cost of completing a graduate degree in terms of stress and anxiety is real and worth considering in the overall “toll” a graduate degree can take on a person’s well being.  While you may be able to physically complete a degree program, making sacrifices and pushing yourself along the way, the costs to you and those you care about may be greater than originally anticipated.  Even for a graduate student that has had relatively minimal challenges completing their degree, a few months of post-graduation cognitive therapy can be a good idea.

5. Is grad school worth it for me?

Is a particular investment worth it for the investor? In the end, a graduate degree is only worth it if you can make use of what you have learned.  The acquisition of knowledge is a key investment in your professional and personal success but should not generally be viewed as an end unto itself.  The investment of time, talent and treasure in a graduate program can help propel individuals to great success and introduce them to new careers and ways of thinking.  Some graduate programs don’t end that way, though, and learners are left regretting choices they made based on often unrealistic expectations (for themselves and for their universities) or abandoned career plans.

While more employers are questioning the value of a college degree every day, and companies like Google and Facebook are developing credentials to train future employees in the most in-demand skills, graduate degree demand remains strong (especially among working adults).  For some, graduate school is about achievement of academic excellence and broadening of knowledge.  For others, graduate school can be a convenient place to recharge between roles or to make a career change through the acquisition of new contacts, skills and a new outlook.

While not everyone should go to graduate school, these considerations can help you to make the best informed decision for your future!  If you are interested in learning more or want to talk about applying to graduate school, please contact Academic Excellence Group for an introductory consultation.