My grandmother once told me that going back to school is never a bad decision, and I believe she’s right. There is a marked difference between the average lifetime earnings of those with just a bachelor’s degree compared to those with a post-graduate education. According to research published by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, those holding bachelor’s degrees earn about $2.27 million over their lifetime, while those with master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees earn $2.67 million, $3.25 million, and $3.65 million, respectively. Given the general monetary advantage of attaining more than a bachelor’s degree, I think a better question to ask is: “When is it a good time to go back to school?”
Certain careers we plan to have, such as a lawyer, pharmacist, or tenured professor, require further education. Generally, people who intend on getting into occupations requiring more instruction should enter their needed program shortly after they receive their first degree. Without the advanced degree they can be stuck in limbo.
Yet most occupations are easier to advance in with a post-grad degree, but certainly aren’t off limits without one. For these positions, it may be wiser to work a couple of years before becoming a student again. This way you will have acquired some professional experience, which will make you even more marketable once you receive a post-graduate degree. You may also be able to save money to pay for life’s necessities if you aren’t able to work full time while attending school.
You should be picky about where you receive your post-graduate degree because all schools aren’t equal. You will be investing at least two years of your life getting a master’s degree and as many as seven years for a doctorate. Finding a school that will meet the majority of your needs during this time period is crucial. Nowadays you can find online doctoral programs to help you balance work, life and school during this time.
What to look for:
- A school with a great, accredited program: Find the school with the best program you are interested in that you can afford to attend. Remember, just because the university up the street from you offers a graduate degree like the one you’re looking for, doesn’t mean that is where you need to go. Find out if the program has been rated one of the best of its kind, or at least is considered a good program to go through by professionals in your field. Before applying, also research the university online or contact the department’s academic counselor to find out the following:
- Whether late afternoon/evening classes are offered (in case you will also be working)
- The program’s retention rate and the number of students who graduate each year
- If any of the faculty are particularly well known in the field
- How the program differs from other similar ones
- How closely faculty members work with students
- The job placement rate of the program and examples of places recent graduates are now working
- Any recent awards/recognitions the program has received
When you visit the school, ask to speak privately to at least two students in the program to find out their likes and dislikes. Also ask for the contact information of two recent alumni to get their opinion about the program.
- A school in a good location: It’s probable that you will have to move to receive your post-graduate degree. While you could attend the same school you received your bachelor’s degree from, I wouldn’t recommend it. The change of atmosphere will help you better adapt to other environments and you’re more likely to meet new and different people. The location of the school you choose should:
- Be some place you will like to live. Even if the program is great, you’re not going to spend all of your time in class. Choose a university in a city that you will feel comfortable living in for a couple of years.
- Have many companies that you can work or intern for. Some cities are known for certain industries, like Los Angeles, which is known for its entertainment industry, and Washington, DC, which is home to many public policy organizations. You want to be able to gain experience in your field while you’re going to school, which is easier when the city has a lot of companies you’d be interested in working for.
- A school that offers you some kind of fellowship or assistantship: Increasing your knowledge will likely mean increasing your debt. However, you shouldn’t have to pay for all of your post-graduate degree with student loans. Choose a university that offers to pay all or part of your tuition or housing because of your academic background or in exchange for working at the school.
- A school where you feel welcome and comfortable: Take into account your preferences in regard to the size of the school and its racial and gender makeup. Also ask about the culture of the program. Are students and faculty super competitive or do they make a point of helping each other and have a high level of camaraderie?
- A school that has adequate resources and facilities: Make sure the program is adequately funded so you are likely to get continued financial assistance and other types of support. Check out the library and computer and gym facilities to see if they will meet your needs.
Also, keep in mind that you can go back to school for something other than a degree, and save a lot of time and money. Getting a certificate in a course of study could be a fast and easy way to increase your knowledge. There are also any number of adult education classes that you can take. These could be classes directly related to your field or ones that just seem interesting, such as photography or screenwriting. The point is that just as your bachelor’s degree has opened doors for you, any schooling beyond that can too.
What about an online degree?
The number of adults pursuing an online degree continues to grow, including among full-time workers who often find online classes easier to balance and complete. However, an online degree may not be as beneficial as one gained in the classroom. Employers may question how rigorous the coursework was when compared to a brick-and-mortar school, and how much you really learned.
In a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, almost half of HR professionals surveyed said applicants with online degrees were viewed less favorably than those with traditional degrees. Also, only 15 percent indicated that an online degree is acceptable for a job applicant seeking an executive-level position.
However, despite findings like these, because the number of people earning degrees online is skyrocketing, the overall perception about them is changing as a result. If you do choose an online program, opt for an accredited one that is tied to a university that has name recognition. Also, just as you would do with a regular degree program, contact recent graduates to learn what their likes and dislikes were.