Graduate school was the g-word while I was getting my undergrad. I spent most of my undergraduate time fired up about how horrible I thought higher education has become. Once I did my time (I guess most people call it graduating), there was no way in hell I was ever going to go back. I was 100% certain. But then, slowly, the idea of going back lost its bitter taste. Maybe I just forgot what school was like. Maybe I was bored and needed something to push me to keep learning. Either way, I’m now just a semester and a half away from graduating with a master’s degree.
As I transitioned from my deep, overly dramatic hate for more school to actually pulling the trigger on a program, I learned a lot about the process and the pros and cons involved. And so I offer to you four things I think every post-grad should consider before going back to school to get a master’s degree.
1. How much time can I commit?
This is a crucial question because most likely you have a full-time job taking up your time. Whether that’s your case or not, there are all kinds of programs built to work around your work schedule. Some offer night classes, some offer weekend classes, and some offer the freedom of no class time at all. There really are a ton of options.
However, keep in mind that even though schools will boast that you can get your degree in as little as 18 months or two years, that’s not always going to be the case. Since most graduate students are working full time and many are married and starting families, there are a thousand and one different things that could throw off your progress. For many grad students it’s just not feasible to take on a full credit load each semester. It’s not uncommon for some people to take an extra year or two to finish out because of personal or financial issues. Keep that in mind as you determine how much time you will realistically be able to devote to a program.
2. How will I pay for everything?
Undoubtedly, you can find the funding you need somehow. It may end up being through school loans, but depending on how quickly you want to graduate, you may be able to find scholarships or even a job that will reimburse some or all of your tuition. Tuition reimbursement is more common in larger companies, and it may be worth it to bite the bullet and work at a job you’re not all the way passionate about if it means graduating with less or no debt.
If you’re not lucky enough to fall under either of those circumstances, you may very well have to take out some loans. One thing to remember with loans is that once you graduate, you may not find your dream job right away. Your loans will start to come due and if you’re holding out for specific, higher-paying jobs, you may get into some trouble. Just because you’re qualified, doesn’t mean you will find the job you’ve been dreaming about right away. You might find that you have to stick it out at your current job or accept a job that isn’t your first choice. Otherwise you won’t be able to pay back your loans as they come due. That’s not always going to happen, but it is a possibility so it’s important to consider that going in.
And if you’re working full time to pay it off as you go, be prepared. I always had a job during my undergrad years, but that seems like a side salad compared to the steak dinner I have on my plate now. The demands are higher and the time commitment is more intense. But it is possible, so don’t let that discourage you if you really want to go for it.
3. Am I emotionally ready?
This is a big one you don’t often hear about, and one I didn’t fully understand until I was mustache deep into my program. I can tell you from personal experience that there will be a lot of days where you’ll wish you had never started. You will always have friends and family who seem to have an endless supply of time and resources to go out and have fun. You’ll feel pretty stupid when you have to turn down a road trip because a paper is due or spend time working on campus on a group project instead of at home with your family. Those missed opportunities will slowly eat away at you and can potentially diminish your motivation to finish.
Not to mention that since you’re in a higher level of coursework, your professors are going to demand more of you. Your work is going to be held to a higher standard than when you were an undergraduate, and you’ll have to deal with some harsh criticisms. You can’t let that get you down either. There is no progress without pain.
4. What are my motivations?
Why do you even want to go to graduate school? Maybe you’re just looking for higher-earning potential. You can definitely get that. However, there may be other options. Consider the cost and benefit of your degree vs. what you could learn on your own spending the same or less money on yourself instead of to a university. For example, there are certifications and specializations offered at tech schools and other specialized institutions that may be a better bet. As an example, in a WSJ article highlighting the pros of skipping an MBA, they mention a programming bootcamp that costs $12,000 with 88% of its graduates getting job offers starting at $79,000. So there are plenty of options.
Maybe you want to go to grad school because you’re afraid of actually getting out into the real world. Some people use school as a crutch because they think it’s easier to keep following the structure of a school program as opposed to forging their own path in the real world. Something to think about.
Or maybe you love education and want to continue on to get a PhD. If that’s the case, I applaud you. That’s some serious dedication.
These are just a few of the things I found to be helpful as I made my decision to continue my education. If you’re really thinking about going back to school, I highly suggest you do a little LinkedIn stalking for people who have graduated with the degrees you are considering. Reach out to them and get their perspective. They have no reason to sugar coat things and lie to you about their experiences. I found a couple graduates who really helped me weigh the specific pros and cons of the programs I was considering. After weighing all the pros and cons, those conversations eventually helped me solidify my decision. So far my experience has been exactly as they described it would be.
Best of luck to you in your journeys!