Seeking one or more graduate degrees is a major commitment of time and money. The work and research is intense, requiring a great deal of motivation and the ability to work independently, making your undergraduate years seem like a stroll in the park. So why do people do it?
“One of the most obvious and oft-cited reasons is to increase one’s earnings,” explains Dean Puto, dean of the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. “Studies show that graduate business degree alumni, for example, can expect to earn 35 percent more than non-degree holders.”
According to a 2006 study released by the U.S. Census Bureau, adults with advanced degrees earned four times more than those with less than a high school diploma. The tables showed that adults 18 and older with a master’s, professional or doctoral degree earned an average of $79,946, adults with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $54,689, those with a high school diploma earned $29,448, and those with less than a high school diploma earned about $19,915.
The real value of a graduate degree, however, goes beyond dollars and cents. The potential for increased earnings can be extremely appealing, but the effect an advanced degree can have on a person’s overall job satisfaction and quality of life is immeasurable, Puto says.
“The best programs provide students with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to profoundly impact their industries, personal lives, and the community,” he comments. “Moreover, an exceptional program creates an environment that encourages its students to craft mutually beneficial, durable relationships with faculty, staff, and fellow students, providing a vital combination of education, experience, leadership development, and lifelong connections.”
A Sign of the Times?
Cindy Olson, graduate recruitment counselor at The College of St. Scholastica – St. Paul campus, says the sagging economy has caused people to look at how they can become more marketable should something happen to their present situation or current job.
“The solution almost always involves increasing their education and researching the most recent trends and techniques in their prospective fields,” she comments.
Many laid-off workers are waiting out the recession by going back to school. For these students, the timing is right. They no longer have to forgo their current earnings to acquire a degree. Others who find themselves suddenly unemployed figure they might as well hone their skills while patiently waiting for better times to come. For many students, financial aid such as federal and private student loans, grants, fellowships/assistantships, and scholarships make graduate school possible.
Types of degrees
There are two traditional categories of graduate degrees—master’s and doctoral—and a number of hybrid combined-degree and certificate programs at colleges and universities.
A master’s degree is typically the next educational step beyond the bachelor’s degree, says Puto of the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. A master’s degree can be either professional—designed for employment or advancement—or academic, designed for intellectual growth or as a prerequisite for a doctoral within a certain field.
“In most cases, master’s degree students bore deeper into their chosen field of advanced study. For example, a Master of Science in Accountancy presumes an undergraduate degree in accounting and then builds to a deeper level of understanding through advanced accounting courses.”
The one exception, he says, is the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, which does not presume that students have an undergraduate business degree. MBA programs begin by providing all students with a broad exposure to all business disciplines, and then build on that foundation to provide a deeper understanding in one or two disciplines of greatest interest to that student. The foundation courses are called the business ‘core’ and the deeper courses in specific disciplines are the electives. The MBA prepares graduates to become leaders in the fields of their specific interest.
A doctoral degree, the highest possible earned academic degree, can also be professional or academic, like a master’s degree. Professional doctoral degrees, such as the Juris Doctor (JD) or Medical Doctor (MD) stress the application of knowledge and skills, while the Philosophy Doctor (PhD) focuses on advancing knowledge through original research.
“PhD programs involve two or more years of very advanced courses that delve deeply into the theoretical foundations of a specific discipline,” Puto comments. “This is typically followed by two or more years preparing a dissertation, which is original intellectual work that advances the understanding of the theory being studied. PhD graduates almost universally become college and university professors, and those who don’t go into academic fields usually take positions involving extensive scientific research in various industrial or medical settings.”
Go right away or wait?
The best time to consider getting a graduate degree depends on the type of graduate school you’re considering. If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or dentist, it makes little sense to break the momentum of schooling. If you’re in business or nursing, it could be beneficial to gain work experience before going to graduate school.
According to Argosy University’s Twin Cities campus, where professional degrees are offered in psychology, marriage and family therapy, organizational leadership, education, health sciences, and business, the advantages of going to grad school right after obtaining your bachelor’s degree include being comfortable in an academic environment (you’re used to taking classes and writing term papers), you often have fewer obligations than working professionals, and you’re clear and focused about your professional goals.
The advantages of returning to school after a few years of working in the ‘real world’ include knowing your career goals (what you do want as well as where you don’t want to go in your career), you’re usually in a better financial position, and you have a broader world view.
“MBA programs typically offer greater benefits to students who have at least a few years of practical business experience,” Puto says. Some companies place a premium on hiring MBA grads who have prior work experience vs. those who go straight from a bachelor’s to a master’s degree without any time in-between.
“The important point is to recognize the trade-offs to each approach and then make the decision that seems best to the individual,” he says.
For 32-year-old marketing manager Sara, attending grad school was a decision she made after four years of work/life experience. She got married, found a job in her field, and then decided to return to school.
“I wanted to grow as a professional, enhance my sales and marketing knowledge, and challenge myself outside of the workplace,” she explains. “Going to graduate school seemed like a logical choice.”
Sara received her undergraduate degree in journalism: public relations from the University of St. Thomas in 1999, and in 2003 applied to her alma mater for a master’s degree in business communication. She chose St. Thomas, she says, because it was one of a few local colleges to offer the degree she was seeking, she valued the education she received while obtaining her bachelor’s degree, and she felt comfortable with the campus and smaller class sizes.
She graduated in 2007 after successfully juggling a full-time job, two small children, and a full schedule of classes. She’s honest when people ask how she fit it all in.
“No matter where you’re at in life, you’re always going to have to find a balance between your job and your free time, and school just added another dimension to that,” she says. “I was mentally prepared to not have a whole lot of free time between work, family obligations, and school. It was a pretty intense time.”
According to Timothy Burke, a professor in the Department of History at Philadelphia’s Swarthmore College, only consider graduate school if you have some glimmering of what you are about to do with yourself. And be ready for a challenge, he says. “No one is going to pat you on the head and tell you how wonderfully smart you are for sassing them anymore. That time of your life is over. It won’t matter that you do all the work and do it well. You’ll be treated like a colleague in as much as you will be subject to the bruising ideological, intellectual, and social conflicts that characterize academic life.”
But if you know what you’re in for—and you’re ready for a challenge—the rewards can be tremendous, Sara says.
What you learn in graduate school can be the foundation for a life-long learning experience and a successful career.
TIPS FOR SURVIVING GRAD SCHOOL
• Get to know your mentor
A mentor facilitates growth and development, becoming a trusted ally who will guide you through the graduate and postdoctoral years. Many students rely on their mentors for information and support long after grad school is over (especially when it’s time to enter the working world).
• Start a research journal
Jot down interesting questions in your journal, problems, possible solutions, references to read, and notes on articles and papers. When you read an interesting article, record it in your journal. What was the topic? How was it studied? What did they find? What stood out to you about the article?
You may eventually notice recurring themes as you continue writing in your journal. If you begin your journal early in your graduate school career, it may help you discover potential dissertation ideas.
• Polish your writing skills
Whether taking online courses or face-to-face classes, communication is essential. Good written communication skills come in handy whether emailing comments for online discussions or completing a ten-page philosophy paper.
• Embrace your life experiences
Experience is often the best teacher. Use it to your advantage.
• Never lose sight of your goals
When the going gets tough, remind yourself why you decided to go to grad school. Post a message on the fridge for inspiration. Think of how proud you’ll feel when you have that degree in your hand, and how much your life will change—for the better—in the future.
Argosy University – Twin Cities campus
The College of St. Scholastica
University of St. Thomas