by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Advice for when it's time to consider a graduate program to help advance your career.
So, your career is going along swimmingly -- and all of a sudden you hit a wall. You can't seem to advance. Or you discover your field is just not firing your passion anymore, and it's time for a change. Or technology is rendering your skills obsolete compared to all those young whippersnappers the company is hiring. Or getting a graduate degree is just something you've always dreamed of doing.
Maybe it's time to consider a graduate program. Recognizing that an advanced degree can be the key to promotions, higher salaries, better job opportunities, the chance to update skills, and the possibility of "following their bliss," many working professionals are returning to the classroom for a graduate degree.
The strategic value of a grad degree -- in terms of salary advantage and even signing bonuses in some fields -- is borne out by virtually every statistical report. But many positive aspects of grad school are of the more intangible sort. As Miriam Horn writes in U.S. News and World Report, "Most older graduate students find that their return to the classroom opens up new, even unexpected possibilities. Like generations before them, they are taking advantage of a distinctive feature of this nation: the opportunity to make a fresh start."
If you're thinking about graduate school, here's some advice from those who've "been there:"
Know your goals. Go into grad school with a plan. "Some returning students develop a mission statement to guide them back into academia," notes Randall Hansen, former professor of marketing at Stetson University, DeLand, FL. (and Webmaster of this site). What do you want to accomplish? Devise a plan, but be prepared to be flexible if your studies take your thinking in a different direction.
Research graduate programs carefully. "I would advise students to do very thorough research because all programs are different," says Hilde Hoogenboom, assistant professor of foreign languages at Stetson. "Go to the school, talk with professors and students about requirements, options, job placement, and time it takes to earn a degree," advises Hoogenboom, who also suggests taking location into account, which can be very important in certain careers. "The right location also means that you meet the right people, in and out of your program -- people who will be colleagues and form your network." The school's or program's size is important, too, notes Hansen. "At a small school, for example, you'll get a lot of personalized attention from your teachers," says Hansen, who teaches classes in Stetson's MBA program.
Start planning early. Given that undergraduates are advised to begin the process of researching, taking standardized tests, applying, and seeking financial aid about a year ahead, the working professional should begin at least that earlier, if not sooner, since his or her time may be limited by other responsibilities. Hansen recommends a portion of his Quintessential Careers Web site for comprehensive information on grad schools.
Be aware that grad school is not cheap. Research financial aid and assistantships early. "Cost is a serious issue when the end career is not especially lucrative," Hoogenboom notes. Also determine the extent to which you'll be able to work while in school, and budget accordingly.
Find out if your company will pay for your education. "Today's work force should understand that many companies have education and tuition-reimbursement programs that pay for part or all of a graduate program," Hansen points out. "Especially in today's job market, employers have a real need to keep competent employees, so, if you can juggle a career, a personal life, and going back for a graduate degree, I would encourage people to do that." Also see if your company will give you release time to attend classes, which could relieve some of your time pressures.
Consider attending grad-school part-time. "You cannot go to graduate school full-time and work full-time to keep yourself afloat," says Elizabeth Dershimer, associate professor of teacher education at Stetson. But many students successfully attend grad school part-time while working full-time. "I took one course during the first year after I graduated, and gradually increased my courses during the next few years," recalls Dershimer, who notes that graduate school is especially suited for teachers already working in the classroom. "I am confident that I benefited from this approach, and I feel my students now do as well. I was past the 'survival' stage that all new teachers experience, and I was able to apply what I was learning directly in my classroom."
Consider distance education. Universities are increasingly offering graduate programs using a distance-learning model, often a boon to working professionals who need flexibility. Students use the Web, watch televised lectures, and communicate via e-mail with professors and classmates. Here's a good Web resource that lists Distance Learning Graduate Programs.
Have a strong support system in place. Stetson Professor of Religious Studies Donald Musser, who, at the age of 32, moved far from home with a wife, 4-year old daughter, and a Bassett hound to attend grad school, advises: "Get a spouse like mine who gave up the lucrative life of being the wife of a chemical engineer so I could fulfill my dream."
Be prepared for culture shock. Many working professionals accustomed to the cushy perks of corporate life have found that when they become graduate students, they are suddenly pretty low in the food chain. But the opportunity to hobnob and share ideas with other returning professionals in a stimulating intellectual atmosphere can make up for the shifted status.
Don't worry -- too much -- about rusty study skills. "I think there is a feeling among people that if they take a break between their undergraduate degree and their graduate degree that they will forget how to study -- and most people, that's just a myth," Hansen says. Many working professionals find that their experience and maturity actually makes them better students. And, as Hansen notes, "those with different personal responsibilities have had to learn to be really good at time management." Not every discipline, however, is hospitable to those with family responsibilities, points out Stetson's Tom Lick, professor of physics. The hard sciences are intensive, "with students expected to spend evenings and weekends on study and research," he says.
Above all, don't be intimidated by the youthful portion of the grad-school population. Instead, revel in the value that your work background adds to your grad-school experience. "Once you've worked full-time for a number of years, you have a better understanding of all aspects of business -- from better functional expertise in areas such as marketing and accounting to better organizational expertise in how things get done and how to navigate organizational politics," observes Hansen. "Working before going to grad school was the best thing I could have done," says Hoogenboom, who worked, traveled and studied in Russia for five years before entering a graduate program. "Taking time [between undergraduate and graduate studies] made me a much more motivated and conscientious grad student because I valued the chance to study and learn again, something that college students often take for granted."
"Every graduate program welcomes seasoning gained from the world outside academia," observes Grady Ballenger, dean of Stetson's College of Arts and Sciences. Like many working professionals who go to grad school, Ballenger was more focused when he went. He credits the time he spent as a VISTA volunteer before going to grad school with enriching the bodies of knowledge he gained as an undergraduate and providing him with new understanding of what he wanted to study in graduate school.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
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