The prospect of attending grad school may seem daunting, especially if you’re returning to school after some time away. You may be having doubts, asking yourself:
- Is grad school worth the time and financial investment?
- What will I get personally and professionally out of the experience?
- Am I ready for this work?
Vanessa Bush, Northeastern’s senior assistant director of enrollment services, shares her advice on answering these questions and making this big decision.
What are the benefits of earning a graduate degree?
“Many students seek a graduate degree to advance professionally, as an advanced degree can open the door to so many new career paths and promotions,” says Bush. “Earning a graduate degree can also help strengthen your personal and professional network, which is always advantageous for expanding your career opportunities. Aside from these career advantages, students also benefit from building on their knowledge in a field they’re passionate about. Beyond what you learn in class, being part of a graduate program allows you to gain perspectives from fellow students across a broad range of backgrounds.”
What are some common barriers to attending graduate school? How can students overcome these obstacles?
Students have many questions about returning to school as an adult. For example, you may be asking yourself:
“Can I afford grad school?”
Cost is a major factor. There’s a common misconception that you have to pay your own way in graduate school. “Some employers will offer financial assistance, but even if they don’t advertise this as a benefit, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your HR department to let them know you’re interested in advancing professionally,” says Bush. “Discussing how you think a grad program will help you and the organization can often open the door to tuition assistance.”
There are also scholarship and fellowship opportunities. Do your research on the program to see what’s out there for financial assistance. Start by talking with the financial aid office, suggests Bush. They may be able to connect you with specific scholarship or fellowship opportunities. They may also be able to help you expand your network with program alumni, who can share how they funded their graduate school education.
“Am I ready for grad school? Do I deserve to get a graduate degree?”
If you have similar concerns, it can be empowering to talk with others who have gone before you and hear not only how their degree helped them but how they prepare for the rigors of returning to school.
“How will I fit classes into my busy schedule?”
Most adult learners have to balance many responsibilities. “I returned to school while I was working full-time, planning my wedding, and buying our first home,” says Bush. “I felt I owed it to myself to learn more, to help me do my job better and expand my skill sets. For me, I set specific goals and prioritized my school commitments in my calendar. I wrote down all my assignments and worked backward to make sure I set aside enough time to get my work done. This helped keep me accountable and ensured I dedicated enough hours for specific work.”
“How will my family feel about me going back to school?”
“It can be helpful to level set with everyone in your family as you take the next step in your education,’ says Bush. “There may be times when you won’t be able to attend family events or hold commitments, but that’s okay! Most people want to support you and will be proud when you finish.”
“How will I manage childcare?”
“Many of my classmates either had young children at home or teenagers, but that didn’t hold them back from pursuing their degree,” notes Bush. “Some asked a friend or family member to step in one day a week to take the kids on an outing or keep them busy so they could attend to schoolwork. Although it could be tough to ask others for help, it’s also a great feeling for the people close to you to support your dreams. Some mentioned that completing this degree was important in setting an example to their children that anything is possible with hard work and determination.”
How do I know what time commitment is needed?
Talk to others who have been through the program to get a sense of what to expect. Speaking with professors in the program can also be beneficial. Also, as an adult learner, you likely have a good sense of yourself and how you best operate. If you’re a student who needs to be held accountable by others, talk with a professor or a classmate who might serve as your accountability buddy. This way, you’re setting yourself up for success from the start. If you’re a visual person who needs deadline cues, set up a calendar with important dates to keep you on track.
Do you recommend attending grad school online?
“My grad program was 100% online, yet I never felt more connected to my fellow students,” says Bush. “Because we weren’t able to connect in-person, I think it prompted us to really rely on each other for support, feedback, and encouragement and therefore built a strong rapport. We even formed a Facebook group to share best practices and feedback.
Often when you attend an online program you’ll also be introduced to more international students or students from other regions of the country. I met a wide array of students of different ages, backgrounds, and experience levels, and each had something to offer. You absorb so much by hearing each other’s perspectives and reading each other’s work.”
(Check out these tips for networking in an online degree program)
In Bush’s opinion, online programs are a good choice, depending on the student. The flexibility of an online program is very attractive, particularly if you’re traveling for work or have other obligations that make commuting to class just too much. Some students, however, do need the in-person experience to learn and hold themselves accountable, so it really depends on how you learn best.
What are some of the less obvious benefits of earning your graduate degree?
“It was heartening when I had the chance to talk with fellow classmates at graduation when we attended in person,” says Bush. “Everyone felt that they gained so much more than just knowledge and new connections. Many students that I spoke to during our graduation ceremony talked about how earning their graduate degree gave them more self-confidence.
Knowing they could achieve this goal gave them a renewed sense of purpose and greater assurance as they took on more career responsibilities. One student immediately got a raise as soon as she earned her degree. Her employer felt that her new skills and industry knowledge were relevant to her job and would help her, and the institution where she worked, succeed and grow.
Also, meeting students from different cultures can really open your eyes and help you gain new perspectives, both personally and professionally. Knowing that everyone is “in the same boat” also helps you get over the nervousness of taking the next step in your education.
As graduate students, we learn so much that is applicable not only to our roles and careers but in everyday life and across industries. And for students who aren’t 100 percent sure of the next step in their career, this can be a great way to explore different career paths within your field of interest.”
What if I’m not sure exactly what field I want to pursue?
“You don’t always need to know exactly where your grad degree will take you, but if you have an area you’re keenly interested in, that’s worth exploring! If you’re really struggling to pick one field that really interests you, it may be best to start out with a certificate program or bootcamp. That can provide some more knowledge to help you figure out the right track for you.”
Does Northeastern offer any resources to help adult learners who are considering returning to school?
“Absolutely, yes. Visit our grad school blog to find advice on issues like how to write a strong statement of purpose with your application and looking at the cost/benefit analysis of grad school. Alternatively, you can get in touch with our enrollment coaches who can offer personalized advice.”