By Susan Ott
If you think that you may need to go to graduate school to get the job you want, it’s a good idea to research your options while you’re still working on your undergraduate degree. Developing a plan now will help you reach your ultimate goals more quickly and effectively.
Do You Need Graduate School?
Graduate school obviously adds time and cost to your study plans, so it’s best if you determine whether or not it’s an absolute necessity before doing a great deal of work on your undergrad major. Should you focus on getting some real work experience instead of the most education you can afford? In some careers, having a bachelor’s degree and some on-the-job experience will be seen as more desirable than a master’s degree. For example, careers which rely heavily on interactive people skills such as business management, certain types of social work and even teaching require the skills that can only be learned on the job. A master’s in these fields is sometimes useful down the road, but won’t help as much as experience will as you begin your career. Don’t simply assume that graduate school automatically makes you a better job candidate; do your research first to determine what’s needed for the career path you want.
On the other hand, many careers in law, healthcare, technology and other specialties clearly do require a graduate degree. If you plan to look for a job of this type, start mapping out a plan now that will get you all the way through your bachelor’s and master’s studies to the final degree you need. Again, try to determine if you need work experience in addition to your degree. You may want to focus on doing internships while in school or taking time off at some point to work in your chosen field.
Choose Your Career First
It’s helpful to picture your ultimate goal and then work backwards from it when deciding whether or not a graduate degree is in your future. Try to settle on a specific job position you would like and research whether or not a graduate degree is necessary for it. It’s a great idea to talk to professionals in that field to get very specific feedback. In some career categories, you’ll find that there’s actually a mix of individuals in senior positions with and without graduate degrees.
If you know what field you’d like to work in, but haven’t narrowed down a particular job, looks at several different options within that field. Find out how many of them, if any, require graduate degrees. Also research what other credentials the majority of professionals in that field possess. In some areas, a graduate certificate or some type of professional licensure may be more important than a master’s degree.
Here and Now
Once you’ve settled on a clear career goal, you’ll have a better if idea of whether or not you’re pursuing the right bachelor’s degree right now. If graduate school is definitely needed for your “dream job,” it’s time to start thinking about which degree and even from which school you’ll want to earn it. Keep in mind that you may need to take a break between your bachelor’s and master’s degrees to get some on-the-job-experience.
Map Out a Timeline
If a master’s is definitely in your plan, map out a timeline. Whether you are in a bachelor’s degree program now or in the process of going back to college, start by doing all you can to streamline your undergraduate degree. Determine if you have previous college credits you can transfer in and if you can really handle going to school full-time or must do it on a part-time schedule. Find out whether or not you’ll be truly ready to step into your target job when you finish your master’s, or if you will also need any type of state or national certification.
All this will give you a complete timetable, and a fairly good idea of what your total education will cost. Beyond the credit transfer and accelerated programs many students use to earn bachelor’s degrees faster, there are also some ways to streamline a master’s program. Studying online is an obvious way to get a master’s without stopping work, while a less-known shortcut is available: a degree program which combines your bachelor’s and master’s studies, being offered by some schools. These accelerated degree programs (sometime called “bridge” programs) allow students to work on some master’s degree credits while completing their undergraduate degrees, thus shortening the time it takes to obtain both degrees (nursing is an area where the combined bachelor’s and master’s degree approach is particularly popular. So called “RN to MSN” programs can, in some cases, be completed in three years, as opposed to the five or even six years it would take to do a BS and then an MS in nursing).
When you finish looking at the options, add up the total time it will take to reach your goals. Then, make a plan for how you can stick to your timeline while you continue to work, take care of a family, or attend to other life obligations. Having a specific end goal in mind can help you stay focused, especially when obstacles arise. It can also help you reevaluate your immediate plans, should a life change take place during your education process.
Get a Financial Checkup
Once you’ve determined how much education you’ll need to reach your career goals, you’ll have to figure out how to pay for it all. Generally, undergraduate students can obtain more scholarships and grants (such as popular government Pell Grants), while graduate students tend to rely more on loans.
If you work while you earn your graduate degree, you may be in a good position to get tuition help from your employer. This approach can give you a great combination of on-the-job experience, tuition assistance and a resume boost. Some employers will even tell you exactly what job you’ll have when you finish your master’s and may even be willing to guarantee a raise.
The flip side is that when you start working on your graduate degree, you may already have accumulated significant education loan debt. Also, recent changes have made some loan options for grad students more expensive. As of 2009, private loans through Sallie Mae accumulate interest from the beginning of school, instead of from the time your graduate, making your total payments higher. There are, however, still options in Stafford, Perkins and Federal PLUS loans that can keep borrowing costs down for graduate students. While it may seem time-consuming, researching your financial options before you decide on a program may save you thousands of dollars down the road.
Planning Pays Off
Taking the time to make a plan for graduate school before you even finish your bachelor’s degree can make your education go much more smoothly. Having concrete goals will not only help you keep your focus, it will help you use your time and money more effectively. If you decide that you definitely need a graduate degree, you’ll have a clear picture of its costs and benefits.
John O’Brien has been a writer, editor and consultant in higher education for over 14 years. His background includes writing for insidehighered.com and The Chronicle of Higher Education. As editor of College Degree Complete, he has advised hundreds of adult students on how to transfer colleges without wasting the credits they’ve already accumulated, to finish their degree programs in the fastest and most affordable way.