If you’ve been thinking about going back to school to advance your career or enter a new field, you’re not alone. Women earned nearly 60 percent of master’s degrees and 52 percent of doctorates in 2013, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. But whether or not to enroll is a major decision influenced by many factors that include your career goals, finances, work, family, and lifestyle.
“Graduate school is a significant investment both in time and money,” said Suzanne Depeder, associate vice president of graduate and undergraduate recruitment and admissions at DePaul University. “Students want to know their degree matters.”
To help you consider if an advanced degree is in your future, FW: Chicago sought advice and answers from admissions, financial aid, and career counselors from Chicago-area schools. Here’s what they said.
How do I find the right program?
“I have three words for people who are looking at graduate programs: talk, surf, and visit,” Depeder said.
Admissions and career counselors agree that speaking to a variety of people is a great way to identify which degree, program, and institution will help you achieve your professional goals. A critical early step in your research should include learning more about your industry’s values, typical career trajectories, and preferred skills and training. Tap into your personal and professional networks to set up informational interviews with people who work at different places of interest so you can get a variety of perspectives on which degree to pursue—or if you even need one at all.
“In many cases, you simply plateau in a career without an advanced degree,” said Christie Andersen Asif, executive director of the Portfolio Center at Columbia College Chicago. “But before jumping in, make sure you know your industry and its values. In some areas, it makes no difference. But in many areas, a graduate degree lends a new credibility and signifies that you have a more specialized skill set. Particularly in a new field, it shows that you have a baseline level of skill and also proves that you are serious about making a career change.”
At schools, connect with admissions counselors, students, faculty, staff, and alumni to help you determine if a specific program or degree matches your job interests. Admissions counselors can tell you what the program has to offer while current students can share if their expectations are being met. Faculty can answer questions about the curriculum and the industry. The career services office can provide general employment information and how they will assist with your job search. Alumni can tell you if the degree helped them advance professionally.
Going online is another way to research if an advanced degree—and which one—is right for you. Visit the web sites of institutions that you are interested in attending to find comprehensive information about programs, faculty, application procedures, tuition costs, financial aid, and alumni outcomes. Determine whether you have gaps in your knowledge, skills, or experiences by reading degree descriptions as well as online job postings from companies or organizations in your industry.
But ultimately, a visit to campus to observe classes and meet with admissions counselors, faculty, and students, may be the best way to help you evaluate whether a program and an institution is truly a good fit. “You can ask many questions,” Depeder said. “Can I see myself here? Do I connect with the admissions counselor? Are they able to tell me the differences between programs? Are the faculty and staff approachable, and will they be interested in helping me reach my goals? Do other students in the program seem to have the same energy and passion that I do?”
Can I balance school with work, family, and life?
“There are so many students at the graduate level who are trying to figure out, can I manage work, family, and still have a life? That can be the intimidating part of going back to school,” Depeder said.
Graduate school presents a major lifestyle change that will impact both your finances and time for family, work, and leisure, so you’ll want to have clear communication with your family and your employer, if you continue to work, from the start.
“Weighing the cost from a time and financial standpoint with your family is the most important thing,” said Jared Christensen, dean of enrollment at North Park University. “Be clear with your employers that you’re in school. Having them be a part of the process is helpful so they’re not surprised later. What’s tricky is if you’re planning to change careers. You’ll want to be as up front as you can without jeopardizing your current position.”
Many schools offer flexible options to help you complete your degree on your own schedule. Once you have identified the degree you want to earn, you’ll need to decide whether to become a full-time or part-time student. A full-time program will allow you to focus entirely on your coursework and complete the degree in a timely way, but you may need to sacrifice your employment to meet all the requirements. If you are changing careers, you can take advantage of summers off to build your resume through an internship, research project, or another opportunity. If you want to stay and advance in your industry or need to continue working to help finance your education, a part-time program can be the answer.
Many colleges and universities offer evening and weekend programs, executive and accelerated programs, and other options that accommodate graduate students who continue to work or have other personal obligations. In addition to traditional in-person classes, many schools have courses—and entire programs—online or in a combined format so you can take classes without coming to campus.
Consider, too, whether the culture of the program you would enter into emphasizes involvement in student groups or participation in social activities with other classmates and faculty, which can take time away from your personal life but help foster relationships with people who will work in your field.
Find out what, if any, services the schools offer to support graduate students, such as workout facilities and comfortable places to study or wait before a class starts. Some institutions also provide programming for and counseling services to graduate students around life balance issues, such as how to cope with stress and incorporate good time management practices.
Graduate school alumni emphasize the importance of good time management in balancing multiple obligations. Kjersti Drott earned a law degree from Loyola University Chicago while working full time, nurturing a new relationship, getting married, becoming pregnant, seeing friends, and scheduling time for herself. “Timing is important,” she said. “If you don’t plan a way to make your homework happen, it won’t. There’s always going to be something that will pull you away.”
But if you’ve been juggling work, family, and a life for a long time already, you might be better prepared than you think to add school into the mix. “Maturity goes a long way in work-life balance,” said Allison Bevan, director of admissions for the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “For students who have worked for awhile or for students with a partner or children, it changes their approach. They view school as a job, so when they go to classes and meet in their teams, they’re focused and they’re there to get things done.”
Is the degree worth the cost?
“Graduate school presents an opportunity cost in time and money,” Bevan said. “There is cost to you upfront, whether you are full time and taking a break from your career, or part time and balancing work, school, and a life. But ideally you’re doing it because there’s a reward there that may not come with that first job after graduation but it may come two, three, or four jobs down the line.”
Statistics show that your employment prospects are better with an advanced degree, but that it could come at a higher cost to you. While individuals with graduate degrees are more likely to have a job—the unemployment rate is 3 percent for those with a master’s degree compared to 5.3 percent for the general population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—they are also more likely to carry debt, and at a high amount. Although costs vary widely by degree and institution, a 2014 study from the New America Foundation found the median debt for the typical borrower was $57,600.
Graduate school is, no doubt, an expensive proposition. Unlike at the undergraduate level, graduate students are responsible for paying for their degree (with the exception of doctoral candidates, who traditionally receive full funding). “Apply at a point when you know financially, this is something you can take on,” Bevin recommended. “Assume you have to pay for all of it and then, from there, say, ‘What strategies are available to me to secure outside sources of funding?”
There are different ways to finance graduate school in addition to your own pocket. Some employers will provide tuition assistance, especially if you continue to work and bring new and valued skills back to your workplace. Policies vary, so check with your company to see if they have partnerships with certain schools or limits on how much money they’ll give you.
Many institutions offer merit-based aid in the form of scholarships, grants, research or teaching assistantships, fellowships, work-study opportunities, and more, however options vary by school so find out what’s available to you and how to apply. Research outside or “third party” organizations, foundations, local businesses, and civic groups, particularly if they are connected to your field, for scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial assistance.
If you still need to borrow money through public or private student loans, be sure to consider the time it will take to repay, the interest rate, your lifestyle, and your future income. Your debt payments should not exceed 15 percent of your expected earnings after receiving your degree. While no one can predict the future, you can research your earning potential by reviewing national statistics for compensation and employment trends for your industry. Find out what careers recent alumni are in from the schools you plan to apply to or through LinkedIn. Look up salary ranges provided within job listings at companies you are interested in working for and take into account the cost of living for where want to live.
“Find a balance between saving, paying along the way, and financing your degree,” Christensen said. “Find out as an individual and with your family, ‘What is the line?’ Is going to school now worth it if it means taking out an extra year of loan money, or should you delay for a year and save up to pay for some of it up front?”
But also balance tuition costs with other benefits of earning a graduate degree, from personal development and skills expansion to access to a career services office and a strong alumni network. What you learn in the program should help you advance to another level in your organization, earn a raise, or change to a more fulfilling career.
Career services offices often provide job postings, career counseling, interview preparation, and resume review, not only while you are attending school but throughout your entire career. They will help you make your degree a selling point, said Asif, who believes the graduate degrees that are most beneficial are those that are anchored in strong work experience and woven into an overall career narrative. “You need to be able to talk about why your graduate degree is an asset to companies,” she said. “Creating a compelling career narrative comes down to finding themes, making connections, and ultimately describing how you got from A to B and what that journey says about you.”
A degree from a Chicago-area school could also give you more visibility, connections, and opportunities in the local job market. Schools with large alumni networks around the country or world could help you if you decide to pursue employment somewhere else. “A lot of people focus on the short-term question of, ‘Can I get in?’” Bevan said. “Sometimes it’s harder to step back and ask, ‘What is the larger goal? How does this degree fit into the much bigger picture of career and life down the line?’”
With the many choices available and decisions to make about graduate school, keep in mind there is no prescribed way to earn an advanced degree, Christensen said. Have a general plan but stay flexible if a sudden change occurs in your work or personal life. “There are many types of programs and ways to finance your education,” he said. “Ultimately it’s what’s best for you and your family.”