By Amy Willard, Assistant Director of Career Education & Coaching and Professional Development at Wake Forest University
Perhaps you left undergrad with the idea of returning to school after taking a gap year or working for a few years. Maybe you are at a crossroads in your career, want a change, or you’re undecided about it all. Whatever the inspiration, graduate school is an investment of your time and money and both are not renewable resources. Additionally, it can have a tremendous impact on you and the people in your life. Thus, it is important to reflect upon its effect on you personally and professionally. It is a process that requires careful consideration and reflection. How will this experience positively compound and give you a competitive advantage? Or not? Depending upon where you are in your career and reasons for returning to school will determine whether it is worth the investment.
Regardless of where you are in the process, ask yourself and reflect upon these four questions before making the decision to return to school.
1. What are my reasons for returning to school?
If you are considering graduate school because you hate your job, stop here. This may neither be a compelling nor a good reason. Graduate school is not an escape to solve your employment woes, however, it may be beneficial when transitioning into a new career and/or developing new skill sets. Perhaps it might provide a pay raise, but investigating the ROI on tuition versus salary increase (not guaranteed) may prove otherwise. So, be clear on your reasons for returning to school. An additional question might be, what is your goal(s) for obtaining a graduate degree? This will help you to remain focused and intentional with your reason(s). More specifically, what are your long-term goals? Does earning another degree align with the action steps toward fulfilling these goals?
2. Do I need the degree to do what I want to do?
Conduct research on whether a graduate degree is necessary for a change in position or a career you desire. Explore LinkedIn for individuals in similar positions and chosen career paths. Note their educational background. Speak with individuals (i.e., Wake Forest alumni) in the industry to gain insight into the relevance of an advanced degree. Use O*NET to discover educational levels and salaries pertaining to desired job titles. This will help determine potential earnings and ROI after graduation.
Consider how you can develop skills outside of a graduate program. For example, you might be able to complete a certification or take a few courses in relevant subject areas. Better yet, consider moving into a new position to gain new skills. In this way, you get paid to get more experience! Be strategic in job selection. If you move yourself just an inch closer to your ultimate career vision with each new job or promotion, you get there over time! You might just find the growth needed for a change in company, department, division, group, team, etc.
3. How will my decision impact the individuals in my life?
Involve significant others in the decision-making process. Returning to school will have an impact on the people in your life which provides a whole new, albeit complex, dimension to influencing your decision. There will be challenges and sacrifices while you are in school. Are you prepared to meet those challenges and make those sacrifices? In what areas do you think you will need help to succeed? How will you (and your significant others) adjust to meet the demands of graduate school? This will prove vital when you balance school, work, and personal obligations. Life happens regardless of whether you are in school or not, so how you plan and involve others in the process will determine the ease and success of the experience.
4. How am I going to pay for school?
First, consider whether you will attend a private or public institution as a full-time or part-time student as this will greatly affect the cost. Second, determine if you can you leave work to pursue graduate school, or if you need (or want) to balance both. If you leave work for a few years, how will this impact your positioning, earning power, and connections? Full-time status allows you to complete the program quicker, while part-time status permits you to work and attend school. Is part-time a viable option? Will it interfere with work? Is your workplace supportive? Accordingly, you may be asked to use personal/paid time off (PTO) hours to supplement time away from the office. In addition, working part-time (without PTO) will decrease your pay check, potentially effecting your cost of living budget and benefits status.
Financing options are available through loans (public or private), merit-based scholarships, and assistantships (full-time students) which are dependent upon your student and financial status. However, you need to determine if your ROI will be enough to help pay for student loans. Does your company offer a tuition benefit? Some companies will pay for school, though this is becoming increasingly rare. Sometimes you will need to sign a contract to stay at the organization for a designated time if receiving tuition assistance (e.g., five years).
Before you quit your job and return to school, reflect upon and answer these questions. Talk to a mentor or friend who will think through these questions with you, deliver the tough questions not yet asked, and provide honest feedback. Be strategically intentional with how you invest your time and money – commodities that are not easily earned, but quickly spent – whether it’s staying in your current role, company, or career, or making a change and/or returning to school.