Once upon a time young people finished high school or college, got a job, and worked at the same company for an entire career, retiring 25, 30, and even 40 or more years. Today most people work for a new employer every few years and some change careers almost as often. Graduate study has become an important tool for professionals who wish to change gears and get the education and experience needed for a second, third, or even fourth career.
Should You Earn a Graduate Degree?
Some people decide to attend graduate school because their employers require advanced degrees in order to earn promotions and raises. Others wish to change careers and need additional education to accomplish their goals. Some people simply took a long time figuring out what they want to do with their lives. Still, other people return to graduate school to satisfy their own curiosity - to learn for the sake of learning. All of these are good reasons to choose graduate study.
While there are many reasons to attend graduate school it's important to determine your own reasons and whether those reasons merit several years of challenge and sacrifice that accompany graduate study. As you consider whether to apply to graduate school, review these issues as they are important to most adults who are making the decision of whether to return to school.
Can You Afford Graduate Study?
Some students find that their jobs do not interfere with graduate study. Most master's programs permit part-time students. However, most doctoral programs admit only full time students. Doctoral programs often limit or even prohibit students from outside employment. Graduate school itself is expensive. It is much more expensive when you consider the loss of income from leaving a career and its associated benefits such as health insurance, for example. Will you have access to health insurance while you are a student? This issue may be particularly important if you are a single parent.
Graduate programs that prohibit students from working usually offer opportunities to earn tuition remission and a stipend. For example, many grad students work on campus and in their departments as research and teaching assistants, but these positions offer only a small stipend - yet also offer some tuition remission. Most students rely on several sources of financial aid, such as loans and scholarships. Add all of these sources of income together and most students will still experience "grad student poverty." The question is, after having an adult income, can you go back to living on student wages? Can you imagine yourself (and/or your family) eating Ramen Noodles for a few years?
Do You Have the Emotional Resources and Support for Grad Study?
Lots of adults return to graduate school and are shocked by the workload. Graduate study is way different from college. Every graduate student, regardless of age, is taken aback by the workload and the nature of the work. This is especially true at the doctoral level. Students who breezed through college often begin a graduate program thinking that it's more of the same. Surprise!
Graduate school requires a certain amount of emotional fortitude. As a grad student you may find yourself juggling a multitude of tasks each week: a few hundred pages of reading, making progress on several class papers, working on a faculty member's research, working as a research or teaching assistant, and so on. As an adult with a home, bills, and family, you likely will find that the school stress is compounded by home stress. Spending time with your children, helping them with homework, managing their colds, and meeting their basic needs - these are all basic, essential, and meaningful tasks that are a part of every parent's day. Where do you squeeze in class work? Most graduate students who are parents do their schoolwork while their children sleep. But when do they sleep?
If you are lucky enough to have a spouse, his or her support can make a tremendous difference. Family and friends can offer physical support such as picking up a child from school, helping them with homework, or cleaning up and running errands can help you eke out a little bit of time here and here. Emotional support is even more important. As an adult graduate student you'll have more going on than other students. Cultivate an emotional base - family and friends (grad student and non-students).
Graduate school is challenging for everyone, but in different ways and for different reasons. Do not be dissuaded. Mature graduate student are often excellent students because they know why they are attending, they know what the real work is like and have made a conscious choice to attend grad school. Nontraditional students tend to have more demands on their time than other students and their priorities tend to differ from those of traditional age students. Despite the extra demands, mature students tend to stress less over school - and that adaptability is a major strength.