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How to Know If You Should Earn a Graduate Degree

Posted on Friday August 2, 2013 by Michael Keathley

If you’re thinking about pursuing online education, chances are good you are considering a graduate degree. In fact, more than one-third of online college students earn master’s degrees and more than 10% pursue other graduate level opportunities. Of these, over 80% are already working and raising families ( “Online Student Demographics Infographic.” Classes and Careers. 2013).

The above statistics also indicate the typical dilemma faced by someone contemplating a graduate degree online. If you have already earned a degree, and you are succeeding in your career and personal goals, why continue with school? Why take on one more stressful task?

The decision of whether or not you should continue your education worthy of careful thought. Here are four main considerations to help guide your decision.

1: Need
job hunting
Times are tough, and professional positions—those requiring college degrees—are highly competitive. As a hiring manager in education, for example, I have seen job postings opened and closed within only a few days because there were already too many qualified applicants to leave the posting open. Note these are qualified applicants who meet the requirements of the position as described. Depending on your field, a master’s degree or additional postsecondary graduate work (e.g., certifications) may help give you the competitive edge you need to stand out within a large pool of applicants.

Also, there are some jobs that require at least a master’s degree in order to even be considered. College level teaching is one example, but there are others. Career planning expert, Dawn Rosenberg McCay, provided list of ten of the “fastest growing” occupations that require a master’s degree:

    • Marriage and Family Therapists

    • Physical Therapists

    • Audiologists

    • Medical Scientists (except epidemiologists)

    • Medical Health Counselors

    • Veterinarians

    • Industrial-Organizational Psychologists

    • Healthcare Social Worker

    • Occupational Therapists

    • Optometrists (2013)

If one of these growing careers is of interest, you will need a graduate degree, but there are others as well. If your choice is not on the list, you should also take a look at career information and trend sites, such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook to see if your chosen procession requires a graduate degree or additional graduate level certifications. Note that the OOH allows viewers to search by the level of education needed. While on these sites, look for other possible advantages if you were to complete a graduate degree. For instance, there may be additional career opportunities that could lead to greater job stability, increased income, or new edventures.

A third resource is to talk to your current employer, supervisor, and colleagues within your field and look at job postings. Do your constituents think a graduate degree is needed or helpful? Do postings for promotions or other jobs within your field that interest you require a graduate degree? These all may indicate need, too.

Even if a need to go on isn’t discovered, you may desire to go on for other reasons.

2: Want
graduate degree and career options
Even if your job does not require a graduate degree and you do not see any immediate benefit to do so, you still may want to go on. At least two considerations come into play here

    1. Depth of knowledge and talent. Most professions have been around for centuries or more, and they have extensive research, subfields, specializations, etc. that you might enjoy digging more deeply into as part of your current position. Just as your 300 and 400-level courses focused more on your specific field for your undergraduate degree, a master’s degree or another type of graduate certification will focus more intently on your field of interest. You may enjoy this deeper, more intensive learning opportunity, and it may make you more informed and better at your current position.

    2. Unforeseen options. Careers in the Digital Age are rapidly advancing, growing, and changing in directions that can’t necessarily be foreseen in the present. There may be some upcoming branch of your field, a new technical advancement, or something else that you will want to be a part of. That graduate work you completed may better prepare you for such opportunities than an ordinary bachelor’s degree. It may also demonstrate to employers that you are willing and able to learn more, that you can help bring value and innovation to the organization.

Dr. Don Martin, former college administrator and education expert, in a recent post for U.S. News & World Report: Education, included “personal growth,” “a sense of accomplishment,” and “greater recognition and credibility” as key reasons to go on to graduate school even if your job does not require you to do so (“6 Reasons Why Graduate School Pays Off,” 29 June 2012).

If you frequently think about going back to school after having completed your undergraduate degree, chances are good you have the need and/or want to go on. After all, a college degree isn’t just about the money. It’s about you, growing and improving yourself and your life.

3: Cost vs. Benefits
college cost or college debt
The next main consideration is cost versus benefits. I like to think of this as looking at the big picture, the sum total of all that is needed for you to complete your graduate degree and all the ways doing so may benefit you. If the good outweighs the bad, then pursuing online graduate education may be a good idea for you. There are three areas to think about here.

    1. Cost: Start by using the tuition calculator that should be available on your school of choice’s website (e.g., Michigan State University’s tuition calculator). Make sure you add in other expenses, such as books and technology. Subtract from this any employer tuition reimbursements, forms of financial aid, or other forms of payment that you may be entitled to. Take the final total expense and make sure you can afford to go to school financially. If the initial total is too high, look at other options. You may be able to attend part-time or sit out one term per calendar year to help make school more affordable.

    2. Time: Plain and simple, there are only so many hours in a day. If you’re finances permit you to attend graduate school, but your schedule does not, even with part-time pursuit, it probably is not a good idea to enroll in a graduate program. Here, do an analysis of your time as you did with finances. For a three-credit graduate course over a ten-week term, you can plan on averaging about ten hours of study and homework time each week. Keep in mind that this may vary depending on what is due that week and what the subject is. You should try to work ahead as much as possible to reduce the time needed and to allow for any schedule conflicts. Dr. Justin Marquis offers some additional ways to use technology as a timesaving device in his post, “Using Technology to Balance Your Education and Life,” (1 August 2013).

    3. Other sacrifices: Although the above cost and timesaving tips will help, do be aware that there may be other sacrifices to be made. These also tend to have their trade-offs as with money and time. For example, you may have less time with your children for a couple of years; however, you will be setting a good example for them by pursuing advanced education, career advancement, and new opportunities that will most likely benefit them as well. You may feel extremely tired at times, but at other times, pursuing something of interest and value to you may energize you.

All of these things are worth considering if you‘re thinking about pursuing a graduate degree. If you realize that you are shifting your life in a new, positive direction(s), that may help you see how all of the above represents a huge safety net that may make advanced study truly worth it.

4: Grit
student with grit and social support
Recently, some of the often unconsidered areas of student success have started receiving attention, and you should consider them as well. Collectively labeled ‘grit,’ these form the personal context within which students pursue their education. According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), these include:

    • “Commitment — commitment to, drive toward and perceived importance of academic success

    Self-Management — ability to anticipate and respond to pressure and stress related to college life

    Social Support — availability of resources to support academic success” (2013)

Before embarking on a graduate program, realize that here, too, you need to be proactive in addressing your grit and strengthening it. For example, you can build up your own social support system by following the suggestions in my post, “Recognize and Benefit from Your E-Learning Pit Crew” (17 December 2012). Also, take advantage of the eight university resources that all students should be using, but also look into specialized resources for graduate students in each. Some schools, such as UCLA offer Graduate Student Resource Centers to help address the unique needs of advanced college students.

All of the above can certainly feel overwhelming, so take your time with these four main considerations. Keep in mind that there are partial or complete solutions, ways to reduce the burden of each one or possibly to even eliminate them and that long-term benefits for you and your family should also be taken into account. The fact that nearly one-half of graduates from online programs are at the graduate level is positive proof that completing an advanced degree is possible for you, too. Anything worth pursuing takes courage, and this is true for your graduate school edventure as well.

Do you have any additional tips for those considering online graduate school? Feel free to post them in the “comments” box below or share them with me via Twitter.

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