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Is graduate school the right choice for you?

These days it’s difficult to ride the Metro or walk around town without seeing an ad for continuing education. Some promise career advancement or promotion into leadership roles, whereas others appeal to ideals of self-actualization. The D.C. region is full of smart, accomplished professionals, many of whom relocated to the area to pursue higher education and remained here because of employment opportunities. However, some can experience feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration at work, as many professionals do at some point, and the idea of re-inventing yourself through additional education seems especially tempting on those days your career feels stalemated. I was once one of those people.

Ten years ago, I made the decision to leave a full-time job in higher education, which included health benefits and a retirement plan, to pursue my doctorate at the University of Maryland, College Park. There were two main factors that contributed to this decision: I had been teaching an evening course on the very subject matter that would turn into my dissertation, and I wanted a more formal platform for my research. I also genuinely loved (and still love) teaching college students of all ages. The other was that after three years, I felt that I couldn’t advance at my former job, and this led to personal and creative dissatisfaction. Seeking change, I enrolled in a Kaplan course to improve my GRE scores, revised my writing samples, and cold contacted potential faculty advisors at my selected programs to see if they’d work with me.

After two years of applying, I was offered a fully-funded graduate teaching assistantship which included a small nine-month stipend and health benefits. But there was a catch: the initial funding offer was for four years, and it took doctoral students in my program an average of eight to nine years to finish. During the eight years it took to finish my PhD, I worked two consecutive graduate assistantships, one in teaching and one in academic advising, taught yoga classes on campus, and finally returned to full-time work at the university to complete my degree. I juggled work with my personal life, writing, researching, conferencing, grading, tracking my advisors’ availability, and ultimately defending my dissertation. During that time, my industry changed significantly, leaving many in the position to adapt to new or unexpected professions, some rewarding, some less desirable.

Three months ago, I turned to Mission Collaborative to help me clarify what I have to offer outside of academia. I began my private consulting practice in response to the many people in DC, especially professional women, who approached me with questions about pursuing another degree. Many often ask me about my experiences, and it occurred to me that the’re trying to gauge if it’s the right path for them. If that sounds like you, here are some factors to consider:

Identify your motive. Why do you want the degree? Some people genuinely love learning and are satisfied by the process. Perhaps continuing their education has been a personal goal to enhance their knowledge and skill set. Others have a specific research project they want to pursue, and a graduate degree would afford them potential funding opportunities while building professional credibility in their industry. Some career paths absolutely require additional education, especially if you want to practice law, psychology, or medicine. Other degrees, such an MBA, can potentially help you define a specific path in your field while expanding your professional network. However, attaining another degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee higher pay, a promotion, or professional respect, and it’s important to do some research.

Do your homework. If you are considering grad school because you want to reroute or advance your career, be intentional about finding alumni or current students in the programs you’re considering. Try reaching out to the department administrator to see if a grad student, especially someone further along in the program, is willing to speak with you. Or you can identify alumni on LinkedIn and ask if they’d be willing to meet for coffee. Plan your questions in advance, focusing on how your interviewee made the decision to continue their studies and how it impacted their career. For example, if you are considering the MBA program they graduated from, you could ask, “What opportunities for professional development did you have at University X?” If they are still a student, you may want to ask, “What support are you receiving for your project, and how did you attain it?”

Time investment. Graduate programs are time consuming, and time to degree can be beyond one’s control. Even if your desired program offers tuition remission, that usually comes with restrictions. Remember that you are still human and life has a way of disrupting timelines. Be honest about your time commitment and finances: will you go full-time or part-time? If you are seriously considering grad school, ask your interviewees how long it took them to complete the degree and try to withhold judgment when they respond. If you plan to go part-time, it’s worth scheduling a meeting with your manager about potential time off to complete projects. Do you have your manager’s support? If you are in a committed partnership, do you have plans for starting a family, which may delay your degree? Also be honest: are you disciplined enough or willing to commit your otherwise free time to school?

Financial investment. I’ll be blunt here: while I believe that higher education has become a personal investment, I strongly caution students, from high schoolers to adult learners, against incurring unrealistic debt. You may lose income or savings, and you’ll want to work with a financial professional to calculate your risk. Factor any undergraduate debt into your plans, and don’t make a decision based on the salary you hope to earn in the future. If you are applying for a program, it’s important to ask how many funding opportunities (if any) are available to admitted students. If you plan to stay in your industry, would you be compensated differently? Is the program or certificate recognized by employers? Also, if a program seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you do move forward, make sure the school or program is accredited.

Returning to school is a deeply personal choice that will undoubtedly vary depending on individual circumstances and professional goals, but seriously reflecting on the above factors can help you make an informed decision.

Dr. Kara Morillo is an educational consultant who empowers individuals to make informed decisions about grad school, while offering strategic guidance on the planning and writing process. You can learn more about Kara at Kara Morillo Consulting

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